Live Through This

Only in My Dreams

All of my experiences are as much imagined as they are lived.

Illustration by Leanna

I.

I have heard people talk of near-death experiences—that moment when they understand how precious their lives really are, and realize they aren’t ready to die—and how that moment, like all other heart-pounding, life-changing experiences, eventually deteriorates, fades into a distant memory, and loses its total claim on you as it morphs into just a thrilling story told in group settings.

I have never feared for my life. I have never been attacked by someone. I have never had a serious disease. I have never fought for my safety. I ask myself all the time if the amount of misery I have had in my life is unfairly small, and if I deserve more. And then I worry that something unthinkable will one day happen to me, that I will eventually be punished for having too much when other people have so little, for being lucky enough to say things like “I’m going to die if I have another slice of pizza.”

The closest I have come to knowing that I’m about to die is in my dreams, and saying that makes me feel even more guilty. But that’s how it’s always been. I access fear in this place where I cannot control my surroundings, where I cannot rely on my privilege, where I cannot plead my life back into existence. My dreams, which never announce themselves as dreams, have given me memories that have often felt more real than anything I have experienced in my so-called real life.

II.

My father came to America with a broken broomstick in his suitcase, because my grandparents believed there were no broomsticks in America. “Tape it back together,” they said, “and then you can sweep with it.” My mother was president of her class in middle school, and she organized a penny drive for poor children in America. Then she went home and waited for my grandmother to return with whatever measly ration of rice they were allowed for the month. During the Cultural Revolution, all food was rationed, so even if you had the money to buy it, you could not get more than was allotted to each family. My mother told me that most children back then had visible ribs. When I told her I envied her perfectly hairless legs and arms, she explained that she, like millions of other children who lived through the Cultural Revolution, couldn’t grow hair on their legs and arms because they were badly malnourished growing up.

“It’s unreal to think about,” my parents would often say.

Everyone who lived through that time knew someone who turned in one of their own family members to be rounded up, tortured, and, in many cases, killed. Everyone knew someone in their building who had committed suicide during the revolution, or shortly after it ended. Everyone knew someone who had been committed to a mental institution for the rest of their lives.

“Can you imagine that?” my parents asked me. “Children turning in their parents and then watching their mother or father begging for their life before being shot in public.”

I couldn’t. But in my wildest dreams, sometimes I could.

There were days when my parents started to tell me another harrowing story from their childhood, and I said, “I really need to study for my math test.” And they apologized for talking too much about the old times, for talking too much about this extraordinary experience they lived through. But I have had dreams where I have held a sobbing parent in my arms and said, “I’m sorry you suffered so much. I’m sorry I can never understand what it’s like to have suffered like you suffered.”

III.

I went to Paris for the first time when I was 18. I made friends with some girls in my language program, and then ditched them two weeks later because they didn’t understand me. (I was 18!) They didn’t grow up listening to punk rock and wanting to revolt against everything. I wanted to sleep on bridges, but I was afraid of the cold. I wanted to move out of the dormitory I was living in and move into Shakespeare and Company, but I was afraid of the bedbugs.

The next summer, I went back to Paris and sublet a studio on a tiny street near Rue de la Roquette. Strange men followed me down the street wherever I went, day or night. They touched me without asking my permission. They asked me if I was from China or Japan. They told me to smile. They told me that I looked lonely. They asked me if I had a boyfriend, or a husband, or a lover.

At night I had dreams that strange men were crawling into my bedroom from my open window to rape and murder me, and no matter how fast I ran, no matter how cleverly I dodged them, they were always lurking around the next corner I cleared. I’d wake up in my bed shaking, but comforted to know that it was only a dream, and then I’d fall asleep without shutting my window and wake up in the middle of the night to find that the strange men had entered my bedroom again and that my dream had come true. I would have to spend my entire life running. Panic would set in, and then I’d wake up and realize that I had been dreaming within a dream. Must close my window, I’d think, but, drowsy from a fitful night of dreaming, I would fall asleep again only to realize I’d had a dream inside a dream inside a dream, and the whole thing would repeat until it didn’t seem possible that I could tunnel any further, and then suddenly, without warning, it was over.

IV.

When I went to grad school for fiction writing, I fell in love with a poet I’ll call Owen. The first night we met, he told me he wanted to read me Tristan Tzara under a tree. He wrote pornographic poems in the library. He dropped acid to induce visions. He once told me he wanted to “destroy” himself so that he could be born anew, which sent me into a spiraling panic. I loved him so much that I dreaded sleeping at night, because it meant a period of time when I could not be awake and consciously thinking and touching and experiencing him. How could I go on if he destroyed himself? What would be left for me, who was so pathetic and needy and dependent that I couldn’t go one single day without needing him to lift me up so that I did not have to lift myself?

Owen and I broke up the summer before I was supposed to move to the south of France.

“Is it beautiful over there?” my friends asked me after my first month in Avignon. “Do you feel like you are living a dream?”

“Kind of,” I wrote back. I went out to cafes with my American roommate. We drank coffee and smoked constantly and had meals that neither of us could afford. My life in France didn’t feel real. How quickly I had gotten over my heartbreak did not feel real. Talking to someone in French did not feel real. But my dreams felt real. In my dreams, I cried so hard that I woke up with tears on my face. In my dreams, I laughed so much I woke myself up laughing.

But when I went on holiday to Morocco with a few friends, I started to have nightmares about watching Owen get beaten to death while I stood by helplessly, hysterically sobbing. I began to dread falling asleep at night.

“If you are alive just hit ‘reply,’” I wrote in an email to Owen. “You don’t even need to write anything in the subject line or anything in the body of the email. Just send me an empty email. I just need to know you aren’t dead.”

He never wrote back.

A few weeks ago I had a dream I met his current girlfriend. She was beautiful and wearing flowers, and I was wearing an ugly brown sack that smelled like raw sewage, but I didn’t care. “I’m just so happy to finally know you,” I said.

V.

Once, when I was 10, my mother dropped an old thermometer she had brought from Shanghai, and it shattered on the ground, scattering little silver orbs across our linoleum floor. When I bent down to examine them, my father shouted at me, “Don’t touch it! These thermometers are filled with mercury.”

The element mercury? I wondered. The planet Mercury?

“Why?” I asked my father.

“It’s extremely dangerous. If you eat it or touch it, you can die of poisoning. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said. “I won’t touch mercury.” And as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I knew I had to touch mercury. For days, I lingered near the medicine cabinet and asked my mom incessantly, “Wait, those thermometers have mercury in them, right?”

One afternoon when I was alone in the house, I decided to take the thermometer out of the cabinet and made a whole show of pretending to measure my temperature. “I’m so sick,” I wailed to the walls. “I cannot live unless I measure my body temperature!”

I took the thermometer out of my mouth, smashed it on the ground, and watched the mercury spill out, slow and hypnotic, just as I had remembered it. I knelt down, pressed my belly to the ground, and crawled across my living room floor like a serpent, inching toward the mercury, daring myself to lick it.

“That’s adorable,” past boyfriends have said when I told them about trying to eat mercury. “Are you sure you didn’t dream this?”

“I did dream it,” I said. “But it also really happened.”

VI.

In all of my dreams, the one thing I have never experienced is death.

“What does it feel like to die?” I asked my father one night when I was a child and I couldn’t fall asleep.

“No one knows,” he said. And in a moment of surprising candor, he told me not to worry. “You won’t remember being dead. It’s like when you’re asleep. You don’t remember what it’s like to be asleep. You just remember falling asleep and waking up. The only difference is that when you die, you don’t ever wake up.”

I want to be the first baby to remember what it was like to be born, I wrote in my middle school diary. But it’s already too late.

I guess something else I have never experienced in my dreams is being born.

VII.

Do I have to be accountable to my memory? Do I have to prove what I remember really happened? What would happen if we treated the things we did in our dreams as real memories? What would it be like if we understood memories in our dreams, if we could enter each new dream with memories of what we’ve already dreamed? Nightmares are nightmares because you never get wise to them.

What makes my dream life any less real than my waking life? What makes my waking life any less dreamy than my dream life? What if my real life is just a series of dreams waiting to bloom into another dream that unfolds into another dream and so on and so on? There is no way to prove I am not dreaming now.

Picasso said, “Everything you can imagine is real.”

Lorca wrote, “Nobody is asleep on earth.”

So I will be careful. I will not attempt to distinguish between what was real and what was dreamed. I know, in many ways, all of my experiences are as much imagined as they are lived, and knowing that has never made any of it less real. ♦

47 Comments

  • emine November 23rd, 2012 3:11 PM

    Oh my god, Jenny, you’re an angel. I just don’t know what to say except thank you so much for existing, you’re an amazing writer and an amazing person. I wish I could know you personally!

    • Jenny November 24th, 2012 3:30 PM

      Maybe we’ll meet one day!

  • bananaloca November 23rd, 2012 3:33 PM

    i love this article so much.

  • Vedrana November 23rd, 2012 3:49 PM

    Wow, this is a wonderfully, wonderfully written text. You are incredibly talented!

  • Sorcha M November 23rd, 2012 3:50 PM

    I can only dream of being as articulate and such a beautiful writer as you. This was my favourite thing of yours you’ve written so far.

  • jedarq93 November 23rd, 2012 4:57 PM

    This is so precious, the expiriences you’ve had in this world and in your dreams are just a candy for the mind. I specially love the part of remembering what’s like to be born (what a beautiful though), how can we forget such an important fact?! i’m sometimes afraid of forgetting, whatever it was, it would be like it didn’t happened.

  • yumi November 23rd, 2012 5:08 PM

    Oh awesome! I remember a lot of dreams and nightmares I had when I was a kid, and sometimes I don’t know if my memories are real or dreamed, often I have to ask my mother if it really happened or not, it’s very confusing.

  • Jane Lane November 23rd, 2012 5:18 PM

    Jenny, you inspire me. You are such a beautiful writer and thank you so much for sharing this with us. <3

  • ladyjenna November 23rd, 2012 5:36 PM

    what the what!!!! mind = blown.

    along the borges vein that began last night….this reminded me of Funes el memorioso…here, guys, check it out (english, but its better in spanish i think)

    http://faculty.washington.edu/timea/art360/funes.pdf

  • Mikazuki42 November 23rd, 2012 6:19 PM

    This is an incredible article.

  • Indigoblue November 23rd, 2012 6:44 PM

    This is one of the best articles I have ever read in rookie so far. Completely amazing!! <3

  • Sophii November 23rd, 2012 6:48 PM

    Woah this is like inception. So many interesting and confusing questions. I love having amazing dreams and waking up smiling but being sad that it’s over. In a way your ‘dream’ life is just as influential as your real life because most people spend just a bit less time sleeping than they do awake. I rarely have nightmares but I always work myself up into a panic about scary films I’ve seen right before I’m about to fall asleep!

    http://thechicmuse000.blogspot.co.uk

  • Wickedforlife November 23rd, 2012 7:04 PM

    MOST BEAUTIFUL ONE YET!!!!!!!EEEK!

  • mayaautumn November 23rd, 2012 7:18 PM

    the mercury story – well everything really – but the mercury story, it is particularly beautiful <3

    http://mayathapapaya.tumblr.com

  • Lola Witch November 23rd, 2012 7:24 PM

    this is a fantastic article. i love the vein of magic realism running through it.

  • like lavender November 23rd, 2012 7:54 PM

    This is absolutely lovely, I’ve always tried explaining this same kind of idea to my friends. “you are you’re own reality.” whatever happens in your heads, in your thoughts, in your dreams or daydreams becomes your life.
    You should watch the movie, “the science of sleep.” I think you would enjoy it very much!

  • Josefina November 23rd, 2012 8:38 PM

    I’m in awe. I don’t know which of these fragments is most beautiful (though, surely, your fragment about your parents’ tragic childhood made me really sad). I enjoyed the fragment about the mercury in thermometers the most though. Did you really lick it, or did you just come close to it? Parents must think it’s annoying and obsessive, but one: as children we’re taught Mercury is a planet, and LATER we learn it’s also an element, and two: whoever trying to put an end to childhood curiosity can only give up. I imagine you tummy-down on the floor trying to lick the mercury as if you were portrayed in a surrealist painting, or a sort of post-modern one by some crazy artist in a modern arts museum. I hope a crazy artist reads this article. x

    (PS the last one made me feel as if you and I were the same person. The one about dreams within dreams was terrifying and confusing and fascinating.)

  • Lascelles November 23rd, 2012 9:34 PM

    What? dreams aren’t real?

  • Lorelei November 24th, 2012 12:01 AM

    I often get myself caught up in thought loops about what reality is and a major thing I get wound up in is how do we even know what’s dream world and what’s regular world? If perception is reality then aren’t your dreams real? Aren’t both worlds equally real? What if you’re off in some alternate reality and you have a second body that your consciousness switches to when this body is sleeping? Wow I probs sound insane, but this is the kind of wacky stuff that I think about while I stare out the window on long car rides or on nights when I can’t sleep.

  • sophiethewitch November 24th, 2012 2:56 AM

    Thank you for this. You put into words so much of what I think about. Everyone spends huge amounts of time dreaming and daydreaming, and I wonder why something that’s such a big part of our lives is any less important or real than the real world, or whether it matters what’s real and what isn’t.

  • paige.xo November 24th, 2012 4:40 AM

    I love this so so much.

  • Yani November 24th, 2012 5:48 AM

    mandelbrots, is that what dreams represent? in the background my step father calls my mum a psycho. and I’ve heard these words elsewhere. is it true, really, that what we think isn’t only what we think but it is what is real. think good thoughts

  • marj0 November 24th, 2012 8:29 AM

    How can this have one 19 comments? Are there no dreamers on Rookie?

    • marj0 November 24th, 2012 8:30 AM

      whoops submitted too fast, I meant: how can this have ONLY 19 comments :)

      • Jenny November 24th, 2012 3:30 PM

        Aw! Well, look! Now there’s more because of you and because I wanted to reply to your comment :)

  • rhymeswithcat November 24th, 2012 1:53 PM

    I can’t express how well in articulating this dream-state portion of your life, you’ve communicated mine as well.

    I’ve tried for years to put it all into words as you have done so beautifully but, I was never satisfied with my results.

    You’ve inspired me to go back and try again! Such a great piece.

  • natalierose November 24th, 2012 7:30 PM

    I love you too.

  • Guinevere November 24th, 2012 8:06 PM

    This is….flawless.

    I’m speechless.

    I’ve thought about some of these things before, like about dreams and stuff (I sort of treat them like actual memories, too. Like Yumi, I get confused about if something has actually happened, or if I’ve just dreamed it.), but I’ve never imagined being able to articulate my thoughts so perfectly like you have here! Seriously. Wow. You’re a wonderful writer!

    Inception is one of my favorite movies ever, and I guess it really furthered my thoughts on dreaming. Like, how interesting (and cool) is it that, in the movie, people actually go to be put to sleep? “The dream has become their reality.”
    I think it’s just so amazing how complex dreams are, especially the way Inception shows them. I’m not sure if all of the stuff that was said in Inception was real (how the full power of the mind is used in dreams, etc.), but that movie was really…eye-opening or thought-provoking or something super awesome. (Plus the cinematography and effects. Um, WHOA.)

    Anyway, I’m just so amazed that you were able to explain these ideas in such a perfect way!!

  • fmajor November 25th, 2012 1:46 AM

    My parents grew up during the Great Leap Forward/Cultural Revolution.
    I used to wonder why both my brother and I had been cursed with so much body hair, and why both my parents had such sparse and unnoticeable hair. (I asked them and they never answered.)
    Thank you for giving me a new perspective on this.

  • Mary the freak November 25th, 2012 3:16 AM

    This.
    is.
    the.
    best.
    article.
    ever.
    EVER.

    Dreamers, unite :))

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • farawayfaerie November 25th, 2012 9:57 AM

    I really like the idea of your dreams being part of your memory. sometimes if i wake up from a nightmare, terrified and scared, i get annoyed because of wasted emotions, all that energy spent on being so frightened, because it was just a dream. but those emotions that you feel while dreaming are so real, and are really very valid.

  • landlockedblues November 25th, 2012 5:38 PM

    As much as I like all of the beautiful who write for Rookie, Jenny is probably one of my favorites. I especially like that, after reading so many of her pieces of writing, I feel like I know her, like I’m friends with her. Anyways, thank you, this was a very great piece.

    • Jenny November 25th, 2012 11:44 PM

      Wowow, I am so honored to read this and all of the comments! I feel like we’re all in the same girl gang, sharing secrets, big and small. I love Rookies so much.

  • cherrybomb97 November 26th, 2012 12:06 AM

    this post gave me chills

  • cancercowboy November 26th, 2012 2:47 PM

    this is awesome writing.

    • cancercowboy November 26th, 2012 2:56 PM

      P.S.: i wonder if you ever read any of Gaiman’s Sandman?

  • Faith November 26th, 2012 11:59 PM

    So amazing, Jenny. I know this is what everyone loves about Rookie, but it’s so raw and coherent to everyday life. Lovely.

    http://vintagereverie.blogspot.com

  • eliselbv November 27th, 2012 12:34 PM

    One reason I love Rookie so much is that I feel that the people who write those article are “real”. I mean they are just like all of us and that’s just great!
    I’ve been working at Shakespeare & Co this summer and when I read you wanted to go there I was like “Waou! Maybe I’ve met Rookie readers or writer this summer that’s unreal but in fact no, that’s SO real!”
    Anyway I really like Rookie!!

    http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • FlorenceEyre November 27th, 2012 3:13 PM

    As I was around 6 years old, I thought that my entire life was just a long dream, and I was expecting the moment when I am finally going to wake up. It (obviously) never came, but even 8 years after being obsessed with waking up into real life I am still wondering about what if my life really was just a dream and what if I finally woke up

  • Iris Rookiereader December 27th, 2012 2:19 PM

    When my parents talk about the cultural revolution (they were in elementary school when it began and was in the first class to attend college when the universities re-opened), they speak of the hardships, not ‘fondly’, but with no bitterness, and with a measure of pride of what they were able to achieve/survive. Both of my dad’s parents were locked up (my dad saw his dad being publicly humiliated and abused) and my mom’s dad was sent to labor camp, for political re-education etc, but they survived, and when i asked my parents if they weren’t they afraid, my dad was almost nonchalant, like ‘oh almost everyone’s parents were sent away, there were whole packs of kids running wild without parents’. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the way people took it in stride back then is what shocks me most of all. Despite all they suffered, they didn’t get depressed, and they don’t seem permanently traumatized by that era; it was just their adolescence/early adulthood. It’s strange how we (the younger generations) think of our adolescences as so scarring in innumerable small and personal ways, even without the national trauma, and our parents seemed so much healthier and stronger in the worst of times.

  • gracepeach January 10th, 2013 3:24 AM

    Jenny, you are such a lovely writer. I really like that your honesty is so wrapped up in the paradox of imagining our dreams as an important reality, and our memories shapings us; both the physical experiences and the dreaming ones matter.

    I can definitely relate to dreams seeming real, one that stands out as being incredibly freaky was when I had a fever and dreamt my brother had died. The strangest and most horrible part was my parents reaction; “don’t worry Grace you have still have Bede as a brother.” I remember waking up being so sad and also aghast for their logic. Due to the fever it took my mother 10 minutes on the phone (I was living away at college) to convince me that Sam was still alive and well.

  • Aspenrae January 16th, 2013 9:58 AM

    This was wonderful. I truely am so happy that this is the sort of thing being given to teenage girls to read. We all need to expand our minds.

    So my theory. Lucid dreaming, means waking up in your dream and realising it’s ‘just a dream’ and that we have complete control over our dreams and can do anything you want within the dream.

    So if life and dreams are the same…and equally real (who’s to say that the life we are living right now is any less real than the life I was living last night in my dreams?)

    Then maybe in life we can realise that it is just a dream and have complete control over our lives! We could do and be anything we want!

    Also Jenny, have you seen the film Waking Life? It’s a favorite of mine, and it feels as though you may have done, from reading this piece. If you haven’t…watch it!

  • Meara.L.Lovegood January 20th, 2013 1:56 AM

    Sometimes I feel like it would be much easier to be a practical person who just thinks of life as one place and time with one mind and one reality. But I don’t think it would be nearly as fun or interesting. Yay for Rookies. <3

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica February 3rd, 2013 12:58 PM

    I am speechless. This is amazing and inspiring and thought-provoking.

  • decemberflower April 11th, 2013 5:37 PM

    THIS:
    “At night I had dreams that strange men were crawling into my bedroom from my open window to rape and murder me, and no matter how fast I ran, no matter how cleverly I dodged them, they were always lurking around the next corner I cleared. I’d wake up in my bed shaking, but comforted to know that it was only a dream, and then I’d fall asleep without shutting my window and wake up in the middle of the night to find that the strange men had entered my bedroom again and that my dream had come true. I would have to spend my entire life running. Panic would set in, and then I’d wake up and realize that I had been dreaming within a dream. Must close my window, I’d think, but, drowsy from a fitful night of dreaming, I would fall asleep again only to realize I had a dream inside a dream inside a dream, and the whole thing would repeat until it didn’t seem possible that I could tunnel any further, and then suddenly, without warning, it was over.”

    AND THIS:
    “What makes my dream life any less real than my waking life? What makes my waking life any less dreamy than my dream life? What if my real life is just a series of dreams waiting to bloom into another dream that unfolds into another dream and so on and so on? There is no way to prove I am not dreaming now.”

    It is SO weird that I would stumble upon this today, because I had this exact experience an hour ago and these same thoughts. I was taking a nap and I woke up within dreams four times before actually waking up. Of course, that’s a lot less scary, but it makes you think about what it really means to dream and wake.

  • jordanofthejungle June 19th, 2013 4:15 PM

    Thanks for lending me your imagination, it was a little big but felt like it had been well broken in.