And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…”

— The Book of Revelation

It is my usual policy not to tell people my dreams. I have told people my dreams in the past only to realize how boring and silly my most hallowed-feeling dream must sound to the hearer, even to my wife who knows me best and truly wants to know the dark fictions that swirl in my head when I sleep (or, she might add, any time).

For me, the impulse to describe a dream comes from a desire to share the intense emotional experience running through it, which is ultimately impossible. We inhabit our dreams as a unique spectator and specter, at once the co-creator and the recipient of the experience. The emotional current we wish to share with others only runs through the dream like a wind blowing through a ghost town, so that what ends up happening is we go to great lengths describing what takes place in the dream, and what the dream looks like, and all the odd impossibilities…

…it was my first grade teacher, but the teacher was also the can of peaches at the same time — somehow in the dream I just knew that and it made sense — and the label on the can was her speaking…”

…but the feeling of the dream is almost impossible to convey.


The old neighborhood early in the new millennium, courtesy of Bing. In this photo the house I grew up in still stands near center with a bright rim of white gutters. Mark's house is the boxy one near the bottom at center.

But there are dreams that seem to speak more clearly and their “scripts” are more easily transcribed with their emotional content intact. I usually wake up right after such dreams. I’ve had a number of them lately and the one I had last night woke me up and compelled me to write it down because upon waking I realized it was a grief dream about my father who died two weeks ago.

The eye of my dream was flying low over my childhood neighborhood, and in this moment the eye of my dream and the “I” of my dream were the same. It was me hovering there, and I saw that almost all the houses I knew, whose rooms and yards I had played in, were gone, leveled to the ground. All the trees and shrubs and gardens and lawns had been bulldozed and the neighborhood was a vast tract of upturned earth, bright and clean in the morning sun. Though my own side of the street was just out of my view, I could see that my friend Mark’s house was gone, my friend Chris’ house was gone, and the Fessers’ and Castners’ houses were gone. My friend Ribby’s house still stood but it had been moved backward on the large lot to become a wing of some monstrous new house that was to be built there. The neighborhood was being rebuilt new, nearly from scratch. (For all I know all this may be happening in actual fact, since I have not visited the street since my parents moved away, but it is true that my own childhood house was razed shortly thereafter and replaced by a new larger one.)

A place I knew well. It's hard to tell in this picture, but the escarpment visible at the bottom is actually the far side of a wide ditch that would fill with stormwater during heavy rains.

Outlined in the dirt were some of the concrete foundations of some of the old houses. These were buildings that my father and my friends’ fathers and the other men of my neighborhood had worked on and added to over the years, reshaping them to their purposes in that confident way of the men who had returned from the midcentury’s bloody wars. In a sense, they created this neighborhood by starting families in it, populating it with us children who crawled over it like ants and knew every corner, every bush and berry, every climbable tree, every accessible crawl space and attic and unlocked shed. A four-dimensional map of a complex universe became distributed among the minds of the children I grew up with, and it was a universe largely created by the hands of our dads.

But here it lay upturned like a furrowed field, bare and ready for a new crop. I found my friend Mark where, in olden times beyond the dream, we had often played — outside near the place where my yard sloped down and met the street, near where the mailboxes had been, a part of my yard we called “the ditch”. He was still a teenager. We commiserated for a minute about the changes taking place in our neighborhood, this apocalypse, and then Mr. Hall drove up the street. The “actor” playing Mr. Hall was not physically the Mr. Hall who lived at the near end of our street in my childhood (and whose house in this dream was still his residence and still intact); he was taller, thinner and had longer hair but in the dream I didn’t realize that. He had not aged at all, and as he pulled up and got out of his car we could see there were tears in his eyes. It was suddenly no longer bright yellow morning, but blue dusk, the end of time.

A slice of Wonder bread, a loyal mutt, and thou my dad. What more? Where Vicky's tail is wagging will be the corner of the workshop my dad built. It will be there thirty years and then it will vanish without a trace.

Mr. Hall came over and scooped me up into his arms — he was normal man-sized and I was still myself at my current age but somehow I had become physically smaller — and he carried me back and forth in front of where my house would have been. He carried me the way you carry someone when they are unconscious or sleeping or dead, and I let my head fall back and I relaxed into the feeling of being carried that way and it felt wonderful and right and comforting and very ancient, and I cried for all the loss and the gone-ness of things I loved, and with my eyes closed I murmured “Thank you” to him.

This is about the same viewpoint I looked from in my dream, and everything in it was bare earth. As this recent Bing image shows, the dream was not so far off. Six of the 16 houses on the street have been replaced -- nos. 1, 6, 8, 9 (mine), 10 and 15. Happily, Mark's house (11) is still there, as are Ribby's (14), the Casteners' (13) and Chris' (16). The goliath at 15 replaced the Fessers' modest rambler.

And then he set me down and tried to carry Mark the same way, but the dream had changed into a comedy by then and Mark was no longer Mark but a very small wiggly child — about the smallness and wiggliness of my 14-month-old daughter Emilia — and Mr. Hall could not comfort him.

I woke after that, with the heaviness of change and time over me, and even though I had earlier posted about being unsure when it would ever be right to bring these things to my blog, my first thought was to write this down. For myself, for my daughters and for anyone who has experienced loss and the somber truthiness of dreams.


16 Responses to “Bygone”

  1. 1 aplscruf August 24, 2011 at 14:12

    Just wanted to say I’m sorry to hear of the loss of your father.
    And dreams can be powerful healing tools.
    I thought of the movie, “Big Fish” when you mentioned Mr. Hall carrying you in your dream. Sadness and joy sometimes go hand in hand.

  2. 3 Jeni August 24, 2011 at 15:44

    I hear ya, bro! i have never missed the old house since mom and dad moved. But in these last few weeks i keep seeing it through my eyes as i walked in that screen door with kids flapping on all sides, mom popping out of the kitchen to say, ‘i made a pie!! ‘ Dad’s in the shop. i miss the light, and the quiet of the garden. Change is hard even years later, isn’t it.?

    • 4 Matt August 24, 2011 at 15:52

      So well painted, sis. An eternal moment you’ve uttered. And a house is so often symbolic of a life. Yes, change is especially hard I think at a time like this, right after, when we all are grasping for pieces we can hold onto that we believe (rightly or no) will keep him in reach. Which reminds me, dibs on the red wooden toolbox.

  3. 5 Janet August 24, 2011 at 17:26

    Matt – I appreciate your posts so much. Thank you for this. I am struggling myself with trying to express some of my memories. Loss even 60 years on is hard to express. Dreams have not occurred though – or if they do I have to write them down immediately upon waking or they just evaporate.

    • 6 Matt August 25, 2011 at 08:27

      Thanks Janet. I hope the struggle to express your memories gets easier, because you’re putting together a real treasure of a legacy for your children and grandchildren.

  4. 7 Karla August 24, 2011 at 19:12

    Matt- I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope the pain begins to alleviate.
    Your dream is very touching. Though the houses of your childhood were razed, the foundations remained. Somewhat like the roots of a tree, your dream kept them as a legacy of what your father and other parents created. I’m glad you found some comfort in it.

    • 8 Matt August 25, 2011 at 08:34

      Thanks Karla. Seeing the foundations among the waves of dirt was disconcerting in the dream, but I like your positive take on that. I hope you and your little boy are adjusting to your new reality.

  5. 9 Mom August 25, 2011 at 14:03

    I don’t know how to reply. My heart is full. I share your loss exceot i am not able to put anything into writing as yet.

  6. 11 Louis August 29, 2011 at 07:36

    I found myself sighing heavily while reading this. Thank you for sharing this dream, Matt.

  7. 13 leatherhead109 September 1, 2011 at 22:39

    @the whole famdamly,

    I hear the screen door piston slide to open, the front door opens and a feeling of rain and damp comes into the room. I am hiding in the coat clostet, waiting for Dad to open the door and hang up his raincoat….As many times as I did that to him, he never scolded me. I can still smell the closet. And the light Jeni mentions, haunts me to this day. Thaks, brother. This is good.

    • 14 Matt September 4, 2011 at 19:50

      Thanks for chiming in, Youngblood. Sad as this time finds us, it has not been a time without certain hard-to-pin-down magics and joys, and it seems memories are often the surprisingly high-paying dividends of family relationships.

  8. 15 treeclimber4 September 4, 2011 at 20:13

    I’m so, so sorry to hear of the loss of you father last month.
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful word pictures with us.

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