Dream House

There's a dream I've been having a lot lately that seems to be wanting to tell me something fairly specific, but I'm not sure yet what it is.

I'm at home, but it's not really our home, not, that is, the apartment where my family and I live now. Nor is it a place that I have actually lived in before. But I know that it is our home, except that it is not an apartment, but a house. In the dream, we've been living in the house for some time and it is full of our things. But when I start moving around in the house, I discover that it has more rooms--many, many more rooms--than I had previously realized. I am always surprised by these other rooms, but I also know in the dream that they have been there in the house all along. Sometimes they are empty, just carpet and bare walls; at other times they are full of furniture, often quite old-fashioned furniture. Typically the house feels like it was built sometime in the 1920s or thereabouts, with lots of built-ins. Last night in the dream, the rooms were bare, but the cupboards and closets were full of the kinds of things that you might see in an antiques showroom: flower vases and silverware and the like. I spend what felt like hours opening the cupboards and looking at all of the things inside, constantly surprised, but also somehow expecting what I found.

It's an interesting--and interestingly very convincing--dream. When I wake from it, it always takes me a few moments to realize that the house I've been dreaming is not in fact where I live. I know in the dream that this is our house. But somehow I do not know how big it is. Last night, I discovered that it had a whole second floor; sometimes I discover that it extends further back into itself than I had previously believed. Always there are more rooms, and always I dream-say to myself: "Oh, I had forgotten that we had this room. Look! We really have plenty of space." It is a little unsettling when I find the rooms full of furniture, as if the people who lived in the house before had not yet moved out. But it is even stranger when I find all the empty rooms. I ask myself: "How is it that we haven't been using these rooms? Why were we letting ourselves feel so cramped when in fact there was all this space? Really, we don't need to move; we have everything that we need right here." And then I'm relieved, if still a bit anxious. What should we use all of these rooms for? How is it that we seem not to have been aware of them all this time?

On the surface, the meaning of the dream would seem to be fairly clear: I and my family have space in our lives into which to expand that we have somehow been letting ourselves not see. But to do what? When I told my husband about the dream this morning, he said, "It sounds like a memory palace"--you know, the kind that the ancient rhetoricians would "build" in their minds to help them remember their speeches. This is how you would do it: imagine a building, ideally one with lots of rooms filled with little niches and alcoves; then place objects within the niches and alcoves to remind you of the different parts of your argument. Then, as you are giving your speech, "walk" through the building, noticing each of the tableaux in order. So perhaps the objects in the rooms that I move through in the dream are symbols or signs of things that I am trying to remember. Except that they are never things that I actually recognize; rather, they're just things, often quite detailed, but still just things. It's the rooms that usually catch my attention; above all, how many of them there are. The sensation I have walking through them is fairly consistently one of possibility and potential, not one of trying to recall something I've lost.

It could be just a normal anxiety dream: I am frustrated that I don't make a bigger salary than I do that would somehow allow my family and I actually to buy a house in our neighborhood, so in the dream I realize that we already have a house. But if it were simply an anxiety dream, wouldn't I then feel the walls closing in, not learn--over and over again--that the house is bigger than I had literally previously imagined? Moreover, I don't feel anxious in the dream; I feel relieved. "There is," the dream tells me, "nothing to worry about; you already have more rooms than you can live in. The reason you had forgotten about them was that the rooms that you have been living in are already enough. You don't even have enough furniture to furnish these empty rooms. What would you do with them?" Sometimes in the dream, as last night, I also look outside, typically to discover that we have a garden surrounding the house. I also have the sense that the house is in the country, near a city but a little bit outside. Which would seem to suggest that I want to move out of the city now, except for the fact that the message of the dream is always, "You don't have to move. You're home already."

I'm always, sad to say, a little sorry to wake up from the dream. It is, as I've said, extremely convincing. I know in the dream that this is our house (although it changes from night to night). I am so relieved to realize that there are so many more rooms than I had previously supposed. It is disheartening to wake up and remember that, indeed, all of the rooms in our apartment are already full and that there is no room to expand without getting rid of some of our stuff. I want back into the dream with all of its empty rooms. And yet, I know that the dream is trying to tell me that this is what our life is actually already like, it's just that I have somehow forgotten.


  1. I think this must be a genre we share, like test anxiety dreams (you know the kind--wandering around campus looking for the exam, or realizing you had intended to formally drop the class, but never had, and now you have to take the final without having studied the material.) I have "discovering rooms" dreams, too. Usually it involves opening a door in a real house (the one I live in now, or the one I grew up in) and finding a whole new corridor I did not know about. Mine are not usually populated in such details as yours, but I share the sense of wonder and delight.

    I wonder what other cultures share these dreams, and what their equivalents are that we do not have? Do Masai dream of finding a whole new herd of cattle? :)

  2. I have this dream too! Repeated, over a period of many years, in different houses and architectural styles. Only usually it's not my house, but someone else's, which somehow I have the privilege of exploring. Sometimes it's the house of someone I know, but usually it belongs to strangers. The anxiety about whether they will come home and find me exploring is outweighed by the joy of discovery.


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