The dream kept changing. One minute I was helping preschoolers board a bus for a field trip, then somehow I was transported to the coronation of a king. In the next scene, I was being offered a position as a newspaper copywriter. Before I knew it, I was standing in line to buy a subway ticket. I don’t know where I was going, but I needed to get on the subway to get there.
That’s when the dream turned into a nightmare.
I buy my ticket, and then step onto an escalator leading down into the station. It’s small and quite narrow, as if it’s designed for very small children. I’m too wide, so I turn myself sideways to accommodate the narrow opening. The escalator isn’t out in the open; instead it’s encased on both sides with close walls, and above me a very low ceiling prevents me from lifting my head. Because of this, I can’t see beyond my own feet. If I raise my head, my face is pressed against the ceiling. With my vision obscured, and my movements confined, I can’t tell how far it is to the bottom. It’s too cramped to turn around and look behind me. The escalator is packed full of people, both before me and behind me. It’s crawling along at the slowest of speeds.
Then it stops completely.
I try to stay calm, but I can feel panic rising up in me. Claustrophobia grips me. My chest is tight, and I can’t seem to breathe. I am one moment away from hysteria. Everyone else is just standing there, doing nothing. They could be mannequins — that’s how little they move.
No one tries to exit in either direction. We are all just standing there, waiting.
I can’t move forward – but I want to.
I can’t move back. (I don’t even want to move back, but I would choose it over staying put, that much is clear.)
I don’t fit.
My path is blocked.
I don’t know where I’m going, and I don’t know how long it will take to get there.
Then I wake up.
I’m in my comfortable bed, in real life, but I still feel as if I’m trapped in my dream. My pulse races and skips, my face feels hot and itchy, and the bed covers seem too confining. I sit bolt upright and swallow greedy gulps of air into my lungs.
It was only a dream, only a dream, only a dream…
I’ve had other disturbing dreams in the past, dreams that would probably seem scarier than a stopped escalator. Dreams filled with monsters reaching from the darkness, or bloody war raging around me, or strangers following me on a dark and lonely street. None of those bothered me all that much, at least not after I’d awakened and realized I was safe at home.
This time is different. This time I’m still afraid, even after I’m pulled from dream. I stay in bed, trying to fall back asleep, but all I can think of is the horrifying confinement of the stopped escalator. Then I start to think of other tight spaces.
Being locked in a dark closet.
Flying in a small airplane.
A closed MRI machine.
The panic is gripping me again. Why am I doing this to myself?
It’s early, not quite 5 a.m., but I get out of bed anyway. I can tell I’m not going to find sleep again.
Sitting comfortably in my living room, listening to the homey percolating of the coffee pot, I can think about my dream without fear ruling my thoughts. It occurs to me that one of the things that fed my panic while I stood, trapped, on my dream escalator, was my inability to see ahead. I couldn’t tell if I was one step away from exiting the escalator, or a thousand. Being denied that glimpse of my future drained my body of all hope, and sent my brain into a tail spin of anxiety.
I don’t know anything about interpreting dreams, but I’ve always ascribed to the theory that dreams must mean something. And so I wonder what I’m trying to work out in this one.
Fear of death?
Uncertainty of the future?
Am I feeling stagnant or powerless or trapped?
I certainly don’t feel any of those things right now, with a blanket on my lap and a hot mug of coffee at my elbow. Maybe it was just a dream, signifying nothing.
Or maybe not.
Either way, it’s time to move on. The sun is up, and the day is begun. I’m not on a stopped escalator — my life is moving forward. Already more than three hours have passed since my nightmare roused me from my slumber.
One thing is the same, though: I can’t see ahead of me. The future is hidden. The only way to find out what it holds is to walk through it.
With that in mind, I think I’ll stop obsessing over my dreams, and start experiencing my life, one step at a time.