And then she woke up. Because Kleinman had been not in a charming cafe, but in a coronavirus-inspired dream. Lots of people seem to be having them now. It’s apparently not enough to panic about the virus in our waking hours; the dread has now come for our sleep.
The real-world ingredients for Kleinman’s nocturnal dessert: Like many of us, she’s been doing a lot of baking. She’s out of maple syrup, but buying it would require a trip to Trader Joe’s, which — Satan, get (six feet) behind me — we’re now only doing if absolutely necessary. Most of all, charming cafes, along with every other public space, have gone from feeling like the setting of a Nancy Meyers movie to a Jordan Peele creation, and everything mundane is now malevolent.
“I dreamed that we couldn’t record [my podcast],” says Alex Scheer, an Ohio music student and the co-host of “College Sports Connection.” “Because covid-19 spread over the airwaves, and if we recorded, we would be risking each other’s lives.”
“I dreamed that I planned a duck boat tour for a conference,” says Christi Showman Farrar, a Massachusetts librarian. “And we were going to meet at the Prudential Center, which is a shopping mall, but we got there and it was eerily quiet and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I realized there were a few people around, but they were all dressed like Santa or elves, and all the stores had been covered in wrapping paper like they were holiday gifts.”
Did the wrapping paper signify that the concept of public shopping now seems like an underappreciated treat? Did the elves signify that things won’t be back to normal until Christmas? Does anything in a covid-19 dream signify anything more than the pitiful bleating of our collective subconscious, creating a different ludicrous reality than the ludicrous reality we’re already inhabiting?
“Okay, so I’m not typically a vivid dreamer,” says Hillary Haldane, a professor in Connecticut. Nevertheless, a few nights ago, she found herself face to face with the French singer Edith Piaf.
Except it wasn’t the “real” Edith Piaf, exactly — more like the stylized painting-version of Piaf, from the cover of an album Haldane has been playing for living-room dance parties during the quarantine. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Dream Piaf produced an entire cheesecake. Then she sneezed on it. Then she handed it to Haldane
“Obviously, what made it so vivid was the fear of sneezing and coughing,” Haldane says. “Plus, all of this anxiety around food: Do we have enough of it? Is it safe to go get it? The virus was infecting the one safe activity I still have. Dance parties with my kids.”
Again, Haldane reiterates: her dreams are usually quite boring and literal. “A psychoanalyst would never take me on.”
A psychoanalyst! Yes, let’s get one of those on the phone.
“Sleep and dreaming is where we’re able to process all of the latent content, probably anxiety-based, that we can’t process during the day,” says Lisa Schievelbein, a Washington-based clinical psychologist.
She compares anxiety dreams to a jukebox in a diner — the greatest hits of our inner turmoil, neatly labeled, and then shuffled and replayed as we sleep. “A2 might be, ‘I have to give a presentation and I’m naked,’ B7 might be, ‘My whole family is angry at me and I don’t know why,’” Schievelbein says.
Now, of course, our collective jukebox is A2 + covid-19; or B7 + covid-19. Regular anxiety + covid-19; it’s every song you ever hated, plus more cowbell.
Schievelbein’s own personal anxiety dream — her C3, if you will — is that she’s behind on a project and all of her colleagues are depending on her. But recently, each night that C3 kicks into gear, it’s overridden by anxiety of a more cosmic nature: “I’ll find myself thinking, but this is the time of coronavirus, so why am I even worried about this project? We should all just try to do our best.”
Schievelbein wonders whether this new sense of perspective might have a permanent impact on her regular anxiety dreams. Maybe in the future, it won’t take the fear of a global pandemic for her subconscious to give her a break.
The thing about dreams is, they’re so silly and so poignant. We have them alone in our beds and then we wake up — still safe in our beds, only now we’re thinking about what safety really means, and what we would do if a witch came around licking all of our windows (actual dream from a journalist who covers the military), or if the covid-19 vaccine only worked when taken with milk and we’re lactose intolerant (actual dream from a Bostonian who works in tech sales), or if we had a bar of soap that wouldn’t lather (actual dream from an Alberta-based artist), no matter how many times we sang “Happy Birthday,” and all we could do is scrub and scrub and feel the solid thing dissolve in our hands.
“I’m in this house that’s not my real house, but it’s my house in my dream,” says Angela Williams, a visual effects artist in British Columbia. “And suddenly, in my kids’ room, there are two people I don’t recognize. But as soon as I see them, they transform into bugs. So I’m trying to trap them, grabbing whatever I can — like, you know how kids have those stacking toys? — but they keep escaping. I can’t trap them. And the whole time I’m thinking, my family is supposed to be quarantining together, but now I have to deal with these strangers.”
Williams’s waking quarantine life would look familiar to many: two adults and two kids in a two-bedroom townhouse, juggling work and home schooling, and crawling through each day only to reach another day as long as uncertain as the one before.
“When you’re awake, you’re just busy,” Williams says. “You can just not think about how crazy things are. How ‘normal’ is gone. How we’re never getting normal back. You can just . . . not deal with it.
“But then nighttime comes. And your brain goes, ‘Now you’re going to deal.’ ”