Dreams and Themes

Last week I had a series of interconnected dreams over three nights. I was first introduced to the idea of interconnected dreams by the book A Little Course in Dreams: A Basic Handbook of Jungian Dreamwork by Robert Bosnak. The book is pocket-sized which makes the title a self-referential joke. But the book has had an outsized influence on me. I don’t always agree with its interpretations — dream interpretation is a subjective crapshoot — but it helped.

I am blessed with the ability to easily remember and interpret many of my dreams. The revelatory insight from the book was the idea that dreams can come in clusters over many nights. I began noticing themes and symbols evolving over time. I frequently see this across spans of three or four nights. And some symbols have recurred over my entire life and continue working themselves out. As Bosnak writes, “Dreams often group themselves around specific themes that begin to unfold over time. Images go through a continual process of change, and such a process can sometimes be followed in a series of images that have presented themselves to someone as dreams. The insight that emerges when we study a series of dreams is that dream figures are in a constant state of development. Like any living organism, they come into being and decay.”

Hopefully my examples below may help interested parties in their own dream interpretations. I have great luck with my interpretation method which is basically free association. The first meaning I think of is normally the correct one, which is to say, it uncovers the most fruitful connections. Like Kerouac said of his writing method, “First thought is best thought.” Trust your subconscious. It may be opaque, but it is not lying.

Dream #1: The Men from Tenet

Men from the recent Christopher Nolan movie Tenet were chasing me with guns. You don’t have to have seen Tenet to understand this. Let’s just say it’s an amazing action film with a science-fiction twist; perhaps the first truly unique take on time-travel tropes. All I knew in the dream was that I was being chased by these dudes and they were trying to kill me, which for me is a standard anxiety dream. The fact that they were from Tenet adds the possibility that they may have been from the future or the past. So one might say the dream was reflective of my worries about the future, or, that I am trying to outrun my regrets. Or both.

Delving into more detail, the chase began on board a moving train, and in action-movie fashion, I leaped off of it to escape. (My dreams frequently contain cinematic elements for which I feel fortunate.) My pursuers continued aiming at me from the train, and as the cars filed past me, I considered doing that movie thing of rolling between the wheels; I wanted to get under the train and then roll out the other side so they couldn’t shoot me. I considered the perfect timing needed to avoid getting cut in half, and decided against it. So, I just took off running through the woods.

Telling this dream to a co-worker the next morning, she interpreted it as sex-related and I didn’t blame her. Both trains and guns are phallic symbols, and so the men chasing me in this context meant to her that I was running from the gay gay gay. I told her, “I don’t know, I think it’s more about general anxiety,” and she said, “Sure, but sex dreams are more fun.”

Later that morning, I remembered the dream’s second act which shed new light. Because, as I took off running through the woods, the forest had the form of a labyrinth. The path I was on was walled in by tall trees of thick foliage, and it kept branching off. My pursuers were now on foot, and they were gaining, but they didn’t have eyes on me yet. I spied a possible escape: one of the forking paths of this maze was overgrown, almost impassable and barely even visible.

Scrambling, I belly-crawled and pulled my way through it using exposed roots as hand holds. Once on the other side I could run again. I encountered my daughter and brought her with me. Another Tenet character was there too as a guardian angel — Robert Pattison’s character, toting a gun (cough cough gay cough cough). That was the end — I’d gotten away and saved my daughter.

Having remembered this second act, I returned to my co-worker and told her about it, saying, “I think you’re right that the sexual symbols are prominent. Not just the phallic symbols of the train and the men with guns, but, squeezing through this hedge head-first clearly represents a passage through the birth canal.”


Having at first thought it was merely a stress dream, once the full range of sexual symbology became apparent I realized it shed light on a big decision I’ve made lately. Love and sex have caused me such unimaginable problems that I’ve decided to be celibate as a monk. I’m serious! I will elaborate in an upcoming juicy essay. My point is, the dream symbols only made perfect sense as soon as I made that connection to my real life. The threatening men with guns on a train represented the destructive, destabilizing energies of my own sex drive — from my past and projected into my future, hence the Tenet connection. Leaping from the train represented my decision to abandon pursuing women (newsflash: I’m a cis het male), which is very much like jumping off a frantic, speeding train.

In contrast, the labyrinth from the dream’s second act is an ancient symbol with primarily feminine associations. Consider that the dream labyrinth facilitated my escape from the pursuing symbols of my maniac male libido. My head-first squeeze through the tight space is obviously a rebirth.

The etymology is not universally accepted, but I operate under the belief that the word “labyrinth” shares a root with the word “labia,” meaning “wall,” specifically double-walled structures and narrow pathways. Labyrinths were developed in ancient Crete, and had religious significance in that matriarchal culture. Built underground, they were associated with caverns which are inherently feminine. Labyrinths were guarded by a goddess who wielded a double-headed axe called a “labrys.” The labrys, not associated with male gods, was used to sacrifice bulls to the goddess, which led to the minotaur myth. The minotaur is arguably a symbol of male aggression, enclosed and pacified within the labyrinth’s female walls. Together they represent something like the yang within the yin. In the dream, I escaped them both.

Encountering my daughter in this dream means, perhaps, that I can now focus my energies on the security of stable family relationships. She is also a symbol of how my sexuality has served its procreative purpose, the literal unity of male and female forces. She indicates the resolution of their tension.

The presence of Robert Pattinson with a gun? Well come on, he’s beautiful. If you’re going to gay for someone, it might as well be him. But as for the dream, his role represented the masculine threat inverted into the aspirational role of protector. He was literally leading the way.

Dream #2: Breathing Underwater

The next night I had the following dream. Entirely different on the surface, it is yet an extension of the first. It elaborates the same themes in a developing arc.

The dream took place at a public indoor swimming pool. There were people all around, splashing about, relaxing by the side of the pool, and so on. (It was reminiscent of the pool at Washington Studios, the Duluth housing co-op where I lived when my daughter was young.) I was with a party which I remember being mostly women. What I really wanted to do was my freediving and practicing long breath-holds, so I left the conversation and swam to the bottom of the pool.

At that point it became a breathing-underwater dream, which as I have mentioned elsewhere, is one of the recurring dream-types I’ve had my whole life. So there I was, sitting on the bottom of the pool against the wall. I was there for several minutes and it was effortless. At a certain point I could feel that I was breathing, probably a bit of sense-data filtering in from my actual body lying asleep in bed. In typical dream fashion, I was confused about this. I wasn’t sure how I could be holding my breath and breathing at the same time. I was underwater, yet I felt myself taking breaths. But it was working. I remained sitting, my knees up against my chest, observing things.

The pool was in the shape of a cube perhaps 30 feet or more to a side. Looking up, I could see the surface world far away. It was like a large window up there, like the end of a tunnel seen through a wavy lens as light bent in the water. It was quiet.

A woman I didn’t know swam down and joined me, sitting also against the wall a few feet away. We had a conversation about freediving. The realization that I could speak underwater was a surprise. There is a similar scene in the Aquaman movie, which is my jam.

The woman asked what I was doing. I replied I was working on my breath-hold, and that it must have been around four minutes and counting. I mentioned it seemed effortless. I remarked on the special power of our conversation, saying, “It’s not everyone who can converse underwater.” The dream ended on a note of great calm.


I haven’t had one in a while, but as with all my breathing-underwater dreams, I interpret them as distorted uterine memories. Perhaps not rooted in actual memory, but maybe. Perhaps the rebirth scene of dream #1 is also a distorted memory. The writer Ray Bradbury always maintained he remembered his own birth. Regardless, here I’m accessing a symbol-system of uterine quiet and safety. The womb is where, paradoxically, one receives oxygen in a fluid environment. A breathing underwater dream is not a dream of perfect freedom like a flying dream, for one is bounded by the volume of water. The freedom is rather the sense of perfect protection. It is about development and personal growth; I was working on stuff. I had not been bothered by the conversations at the surface, but chose the quiet of the deep.

The woman who joined me at the bottom of the pool must in some sense be my anima, the feminine side of my personality which I am in dialog with. Although people in dreams may be symbols of things in the real world, they are also aspects of the self.

The symbols of the first dream had therefore reappeared transformed in the second. In the first, I squeezed through the walls of a labyrinth in a rebirth. The second contained uterine imagery. In each, male and female forces found balance.

One might wonder about the reversed-time sequence: birth on the first night, back to the womb on the second night. Am I regressing?

Ultimately, I think it’s all the same. Dreams are not literal and the logic is all sideways. The first night’s references to Tenet hold a clue. In Tenet, the directionality of time is reversed and the movie runs forward and backward at the same time. By dream logic and Tenet logic, “it’s all the same fucking day, man” (Janis Joplin).

Another aspect of the breathing underwater dream is the social distance of the COVID era. Whereas in one way I am gestating alone in my home, in another way I’m regressing. Without question, the isolation of the past year has taken a toll on my mental health, as it has for us all. I am seeing the world as if from the bottom of a swimming pool — far away, through a distorted lens, talking to myself.

Dream #3: The Ghost Ship

The next night, the same themes continued developing in a different guise.

This dream took place in Target. There was a sale of vintage toys uncovered in the warehouse from the 1960s and 70s. There were superhero toys of the kind I find irresistible. Many were slightly broken or missing pieces but still very tempting. My daughter and I share a love for this stuff and I saw some things I thought she might like, but ultimately those things were too damaged. But I saw two pristine toys I absolutely had to buy for myself.

One I remember vaguely — a plastic Cabinet of Curiosities that might do well in a Gothic Barbie dream home. It was a miniature set of shelves which contained macabre items like a skull, potions, and scientific devices that Dr. Frankenstein might use. I’d never seen anything like it so I snapped it up.

But the toy I remember the best was a model shipwreck made of whitish plastic that I suspected might glow in the dark. It was a galley — an ancient rowing ship — on a base like it was lying on the floor of the sea. If you pressed a button, the ship split open lengthwise along a hidden fissure as if cleaving under the pressures of the deep. When it opened, hidden interior spaces were revealed, including a crew of skeleton rowers seated below decks. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.


The theme of water carried over from dream #2, now in the form of the shipwreck. The way it opened to reveal a mysterious interior is a continuation of the uterine metaphors from the preceding dreams. But its contents now suggested death.

That is not really a contradiction. We know from the symbol system of the Tarot that the Death card doesn’t (necessarily) mean literal death, but the death of an obscure self-image. Likewise in dreams. Death and birth, as symbols, mean change. The little skeletons inside the belly of the ship could almost be seen as larval fetus-figures (as I was, at the bottom of the pool in dream #2), waiting for the ship to open.

The same symbolism was contained in the Cabinet of Curiosities toy: it was a vessel whose contents represented transformation. One of its features was a human skull — that space from which all symbols were born.

Lastly, we have my daughter, who I wanted to find the perfect gift for, but failed. Everything I wanted to get her turned out to be an imperfect hero — my insecurities as a father.

She was absent in this dream, but present in my mind as she is always present. About children we say: in them we live on. When I die as my father died before me, I will become an idea for her; a complex of “memories, dreams, reflections” as Jung put it. I will be one of the little skeletons inside the galley of her skull, helping to row it about.

Thus we see that “dream figures are in a constant state of development. Like any living organism, they come into being and decay.”


-All my essays here.

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