Waking Nightmare

Last night I had the strangest dream. Its soundtrack was the ticking of a kitchen timer. Suddenly, the timer sounded, which was my signal to take a large pot out of the oven. The roast of beef was finished cooking. But before I could remove the cut of meat, a live, foot-long fish leaped out of the pot instead, flopping to the floor.

I jumped back, startled and afraid. The fish was a glowing, translucent green. Indeed, only at the sight of that exquisite color did I become aware that everything else in the dream was in black and white. By comparison, the fish was stunningly beautiful, but it was in trouble. As I watched the creature thrashing on the floor, I realized that, out of water, gills without oxygen, it was suffocating.

Perplexed as I was about how the fish had come to be in the pot and how, for that matter, it had survived the roasting, I felt an urgent need to rescue the pitiable but beautiful thing. The feeling was -- color had come into the world, but was about to be extinguished, unless I found a way to save it.

I didn't know I was dreaming. Despite my squeamishness, I picked the fish up and ran outside, where I was relieved to find a pool of water. I threw the fish in, but it bounced. The water was only an inch deep. I watched in horror as the fish desperately attempted to swim, splashing across the glistening but finally useless sheet of gray liquid. I myself began to choke, as if I too were oxygen deprived.

What to make of such a dream? Freud told us that in dreaming we discharge the anguish born of life's conflicts. We can bring into dreams the sensations that disturb us while we sleep, so perhaps my sudden association to a fish and water was only a way of accommodating the sound of summer rain that began to fall outside my window.

Sometimes, the dream world has sharper meaning than the world of waking, but the problem is how to use it in actual life. I only knew, as I lay there blinking, with the shadows of bedroom furniture still mysterious, that something important had happened to me. The feeling would pass, but for a moment I thought I'd been offered a clue to nothing less than the significance of my life.

We thought we had a cooked piece of meat, but we had a living and beautiful creature, entirely dependent on us for its survival. When has that been the story?

Speaking of Freud, my mind is cut loose for free association. The timer's ticking tells me the subject is time -- my time. I was born during World War II, and if ever we mistook one thing for another, it was then.

The year of my birth, 1943, was the year Allied leaders first began using the word "victory" with confidence, and it was the year the word "genocide" was coined. The urgent defeat of the genocidal Nazis, as it turned out, came with a price, for we, too, found ourselves embarked on mass killing. If a rare and beautiful creature leaped out of the pot of that war, wasn't it the just peace for which we were fighting? But then, we watched in horror as the dreamed-of new arrangements of international order died quickly. No oxygen for peace. The poison gas of permanent war settled in our lungs.

Yet, I came of age at a time of glorious expectation. A freshman at Georgetown University in the autumn of 1960, I stood on the N Street sidewalk, across from President-elect John F. Kennedy's house, already glimpsing a dream of the future. But so sooner had the door of that house opened than Kennedy was murdered -- and what emerged instead was the endless nightmare from which, one sees only now, this nation never did wake up. Tragic reversal became the main note of political culture in America, and of the private preoccupations of Americans. Hence these free associations of one citizen's unconscious.

The oldest story is that warnings come in dreams. I take the affliction of last night's sleep as an apt metaphor for my own half a century, and my people's. Too little oxygen. Last chance for color. Just as I realized that I was, myself, the fish -- in a world that no longer had what I needed to survive -- I woke up.

Whoa! Another dream about Iraq!

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