Black bag

UPDATED Saturday morning to include an attempt at dream interpretation – see below.

I am cleaning out my pocketbook. This in itself doesn’t seem so unusual: in this dream, it appears that I have always carried around a large, black pocketbook just like my mother’s, though when I think about it later, I wonder if perhaps it wasn’t really an old-fashioned doctor’s bag.

What triggers disbelief in my watcher-mind – the part of my consciousness that is always observing things from a safe distance, whether I’m asleep or awake – is the vast quantity of stuff I pull out of it. In short order I remove roughly four times what the bag appears capable of holding, get frightened and stop. Most of the contents consist of food and drink items. There’s a fifth of whiskey in soft plastic, an unopened half-gallon container of orange juice, and a sizable stack of Tupperware containers full of lunch and dinner leftovers, none of which I remember stowing away. I hand the food and the orange juice to a hungry friend, who conveniently appears at my elbow. I keep the whiskey “for emergencies,” nestling it down among the keys and coins and tissues at the bottom of the pocketbook. “Look how much lighter it is now,” I say to myself, giving the black bag an exploratory swing.


I’m descending a steep, grassy hillside when an enormous bird of prey kites past. It catches sight of me and banks sharply, circling in for a closer look. I note the white head and tail feathers: bald eagle! And I immediately regret leaving my camera back in the storage locker. The eagle and I size each other up from about fifty feet away. The more I look at him, the more he resembles an old, old man with feathers all over his body. His face registers deep anger and disgust. He pivots in the brisk wind and sails back up the hillside, disappearing behind the far side of the ridge.


Those were the two dreams that stuck with me this morning after I awoke. As regular readers know, I spin dreams into blog posts often enough. But I had been inspired to take a renewed interest in my dreaming by the new blog talkingdream, which I just came across yesterday evening, following a link from Velveteen Rabbi. Talkingdream is dedicated to the notion that “Dreams have the power to reveal us to ourselves, and they are too important to ignore.” It’s the work of none other than Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus and Stalking Elijah – two of my favorite popular works on religion. I was very excited that a writer of his insight and ability would be taking dreams so seriously; he says he’s recorded over 800 pages in dream journals over the course of four years. Best of all, Kamenetz has posted a draft of the first chapter of his new book on dreams, and invites comments and suggestions. Do go look.


In a comment responding to the first version of this post, Brenda notes that the dreams I describe “seem to be ‘medicine man’ dreams, and I suspect you are drawn towards the shaman… are already on that path.” This is a bit more charitable than the interpretations I had come up with.

Much as I might protest against Freud, I’m a product of my culture: I have a hard time seeing dreams as anything more than reflections of my anxieties and neuroses. And since I tend to be fairly self-critical anyway, naturally, a reductionist interpretation is going to occur to me long before an expansive or prophetic one.

In the first dream, it’s not surprising that I conflate pocketbook with refrigerator, both things I associate with my mother and with abundance. The magical capacity of the bag to yield more than it contains may have been influenced by a magic show put on by my niece on the evening of New Year’s Day. That’s a much more likely direct source than, say, the New Testament story about the loaves and fishes. I don’t think I have a Christ complex!

The true subject of the dream, it seems to me, was my blogging, which is, after all, the activity that currently dominates my free time. Since my mother is also a writer (and since I am also a cook), it’s not surprising that I would associate inspiration with her pocketbook – a mystery wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside black vinyl, as a storyteller on NPR once described his own mother’s bag of tricks. My dream protagonist’s apprehension about the unlimited contents of the bag/subconscious mind probably echoes my anxiety about my tendency to say too much, to not know when to stop. His willingness to give everything away to a single friend seems to reflect my general contentment with the status quo, in which I feel fortunate in being able to share my output with just a few readers, many of whom have become friends.

What about the whiskey? In real life, I don’t drink whiskey more than once in a blue moon, and don’t generally enjoy anything stronger than a glass of wine. But if I’m correct in thinking that the pocketbook represents the source of my inspiration, then it’s natural that it would have enough room for something so symbolic of the high produced by immersion in writing or photography.

The second dream is an easier nut to crack, I think. The direct source for the eagle imagery was undoubtedly the blog Dharma Bums, which frequently features stunning photographs of bald eagles. I’m pretty sure my dream eagle symbolizes wild America, and the anger and disgust that it directed toward me undoubtedly arises from my feelings of guilt that I am not doing enough as an environmental activist.

Does that mean that the figure in my dream could not have been a messenger of some sort? No, I think it can easily work both ways. As I implied in my post on Creationism the other day, the only God that makes sense to me is one that works through natural phenomena, such as the operation of guilt upon the unconscious mind.

But I am suspicious of efforts to treat dreams as omens, personal or otherwise. There’s a kind of egotism about omen reading that’s very seductive: one gains an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance, just as in a paranoid fantasy. That’s why, even as I acknowledge the possibility that dreams are in some sense messages from Whatever, I generally prefer turning them into lyrical paragraphs or poems rather than trying to subject them to interpretation. As literary art, they remain alive and open to multiple readings. I guess it’s no secret that I have very mixed feelings about the value of literary criticism – the dream interpretation of our age. I always prefer watching butterflies on the wing to seeing them pinned and mounted under glass. And when it comes right down to it, as Zhuangzi long ago observed, who can say whether any of us are more than fleeting protagonists in a butterfly’s dream?

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