Category Archives: Personal Essay

Non-fictional writing of a personal nature.

Why Do We Dream?

Would a life of only agreeable experiences be as rich and profound as a life of at least some struggle and suffering?

✎  Wayne K. Spear | February 1, 2018 • Personal Essay


HY DO WE DREAM? Why the dreams of stress and misery, of being lost, of wandering, missing the train and having no phone nor money, sometimes not even clothing. The dreams are always of failure and disappointment, always of appointments about to be missed. A wrong bus taken, a wrong turn on a highway that allows no going back. And there I find myself, alone, in a wilderness, sometimes at a border I must but cannot cross. There is a sense of urgency, a deadline, a nameless necessary place I cannot reach. There is no one to call, nowhere to go. What is to be done?

I pick up the boxes or the bags, or whatever burden I am compelled to carry. A wagon, or a set of luggage. Something awkward and useless, but indispensable, on a path of deep mud. A cold wind, water, rough stones underfoot. It is dark, and the rain is heavy. My vision is obscured, by snow or by fog. I am miles from anywhere, from everywhere, arms filled with something that does not help me on the voyage but which I must carry, for reasons unknown. I don’t know who has given me these possessions, if that’s what they are, or where I will take them. There is always one thing I have managed to drop or otherwise misplace—the one, critical thing. A passport or a receipt, a map, instructions, a phone number. It is gone, and though I search for it again and again, I find nothing. I cannot go home or reach my destination. I am suspended in a story with no arc and no momentum. I may well remain here forever.

The landscape changes in an instant. I am on a bus, but now I am in a boat. We reach the shore, and I step out, but the dry land is suddenly an ocean and the boat is slipping away too fast for me to swim. I call out but no one hears, and I watch the boat get smaller and then vanish. The ocean becomes desert. I drag my belongings through deep sand. Nothing makes sense. Why am I in a desert? I know only that there is an appointment which must be kept. To miss it is to suffer an unbearable blow. I must find a phone. I must let them know that I have been delayed, that I am doing my best to arrive, only give me more time. I am trying as best I can, I will tell them, and I will be there. Just give me more time.

I have this dream almost every night. A dream of terror from which I wake in a panic, my heart pounding. My mind torments me in my sleep for reasons I cannot understand. I am lost without recourse and the world I have known slips away, but there is nothing I can do. A dream that means nothing, that warns me of nothing, that solves nothing. Why do I dream?

A night arrives when I lie down for sleep and I tell my mind the dream I want to have when I am gone. Where I have got this idea, I can’t say. It is an experiment, an act of desperation. I describe the dream in as much detail as I can manage. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. So I describe what I am doing in the dream, perhaps floating in water (but not drowning!) or flying in air (but not pursued!) and I choose a place, also, such as the tropics or a Mediterranean port town, Venice, or a house from my childhood. And the people I want to see there, I specify this too. What will we talk about? The happy times, things that draw laughter, beauty. All that is impossible in life, I describe. The departed will be there. I will breathe underwater. I will have dinner with the dead and a journey into space. I know that my mind has an agenda, to introduce monsters, so I interpolate the fantastic on my own terms. There will be palaces and ocean creatures and other-worldly beings, not of the menacing variety but come to reunite with their sundered kin.

They come not bearing unresolved guilt, but joy. Everything that has been buried remains buried, including the mind, submerged and inscrutable, burdened by its inheritance and longing to be set free. And so I am clear about my desire. I would prefer not to see the half-rotted faces, the ghosts, the brutal finality of cul-de-sacs. I don’t wish to be trapped or lost or set on a fool’s errand. I want to feel love, and not terror or sadness. I tell this to my mind as I prepare for sleep. I know that life is loss and pain, but if one can confect a dream, then why not a dream of happiness?

To my surprise I find that this works, even if imperfectly. The departed return to sit for tea. There is no grief, no dragging of luggage through a useless desert. I discover that the imagination invents pleasure as easily as it invents pain. Would a life of only agreeable experiences be as rich and profound as a life of at least some struggle and suffering? Perhaps, but this is invention, not life. In life, no one chooses the losses, the pain, the tragedy. In life, one is chosen.

The suffering return from their journey bearing wisdom. We whisper in their presence, awkwardly, our faces grown longer. Wherever they go, those who suffer find streets of dark water, and when we stumble upon them we phrase our greeting with care. They did not ask for the journey, and we don’t want to know too much about it, but they return holding a marvellous gem that they alone can explain. A gem from a dream of the departed who haunt them. A dream not of the day but of the relentless, interminable day. A fascinating gem that I do not want to ever hold.

Life, edited

Would I even notice the absence of cream in my coffee, once my mind had let go the idea of it?

✎  Wayne K. Spear | January 18, 2018 • Essay


N THE MORNING I make my coffee, sometimes I walk to the nearby cafe. When the barista sees me coming, she, or he, begins to make my drink: a large Americano. It is a routine whose origins I am unable to summon. There was a first time that I ordered an Americano at this shop, a first time I drank coffee. I don’t remember these firsts, I only know that they are so. Just as there are lasts.

My earliest memories of coffee are of the church basement where we gathered after service. An enormous stone building, with stained glass windows and many rows of pews, benches for the choir, a pipe organ, a vaulted ceiling. And below, a gymnasium, a Sunday school room, a large kitchen. For years we attended church on Sundays. There must have been weddings and funerals also, but I have no recollection of them. I have seen sun-bleached photos, of aunts and uncles, the happy brides and grooms whose future self will divorce and remarry, or perhaps not, retaining across the decades some small semblance of this person frozen in time, covered in wedding confetti, surrounded by those I remember as once living among us.

We went to church, as most others did. Afterward we gathered in the basement to drink coffee made in enormous steel percolators, or tea from mismatched cups and saucers, donated by kind ladies with blue hair. The same ladies who made the trays of triangle sandwiches. In one palm, the adults balancing a cup and saucer, in the other hand a wedge of sandwich nested in a paper napkin. The women in polyester dresses of harvest gold, the men in rayon jackets and chocolate brown slacks, shirts with enormous collars, the indistinct voices of grown-ups punctuated by the laughter of children. The kind ladies with blue hair appear from the kitchen, take note of the trays, and retreat. One imagines them forever baking, forever replenishing the silver trays with triangle sandwiches, even now.

One day we stopped going to church. Why, I don’t know, any more than I know why we started. Nothing was said about it, to me at least. We went, and then we didn’t. As the last of many other things arrives, must arrive, the end comes but without fanfare. “Goodbye,” you say, and “see you later,” to someone you will never say hello to again.

How does a ritual become a ritual? I used to drink my coffee with cream. I would often find myself without, sometimes on cold mornings, the coffee already made, me in my pyjamas not wanting to go outside. I couldn’t bear coffee without cream, back then. I found it too bitter, undrinkable, nasty even. And against this, the going out into the cold, to get cream from the nearby convenience store. First I would have to dress. Or at the least put on a coat and boots. I would hope to find enough change in the laundry dish. If the dish was emptied of laundry money I would have to use the bank machine. It was a scenario I grew tired of repeating.

I read that a person can learn to like something they find unpleasant, like black coffee. The article said it takes, on average, fifteen attempts. I think of the first time I drank Guinness, in a Kingston pub, on a cold December night. I found it disgusting, and yet the next week I was back, drinking another. And another after that. I became curious to know what black coffee would taste like to my re-calibrated brain. Would I even notice the absence of cream, once my mind had let go the idea of it, as it had let go so many other things? Habits, lovers, misguided notions, the many sordid details.

At first it was unpleasant. But I was surprised at how quickly I was able to edit the cream from my morning ritual and not miss it. I oughtn’t have been. After all, one day I disliked Guinness. And another day I sat in the Wellington, my back to the stage where Gerry O’Kane played his guitar and sang, drinking my Guinness at the windowfront table with my friends, walking home later in the clear December air, holding the hand of a woman to whom I was not romantically inclined when we arrived at the pub hours before. Life before and after, coffee with and without cream, love and loss, weddings and funerals. Sunday arrives. I drink my coffee black, my routine simplified, no need of cream or of choirs, of expired passions, of the rows of creaking pews, the moulding hymnals, or of kind old women with blue hair, gone but not to heaven.

Social Media, Conversation, and Connection

People can smell bad and have unpleasant loud voices but we can’t do without them

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 26, 2017 ◈ Essays


HE ODDS ARE you’re not old enough to remember what it was like to be bored and lonely before the days of Facebook, so let me set the scene. In those days I watched Friends and reruns of The Rockford Files on cable television and I drank and I smoked cigarettes in my living room, or I walked the streets of my city for hours in search of diversions. One night, in my 20s, I drove to a singles party on the edge of town, circled the building twice, and went home, unable to summon the nerve to go inside. I was in a PhD program at the time and I spent my days in libraries or in front of a computer that was not connected to the world of distractions that we call the Internet. It was a good life when it was good, and when it wasn’t good it was an empty howling wilderness that I filled with words that no one else would ever read.

Many of us were already experts on isolation when Robert Putnam wrote his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. A book like that wouldn’t have been written or read otherwise. In my 30s I had a family, well after my contemporaries had done the same, and I became fully absorbed in my work and responsibilities. But your world can shrink as a parent, especially if your extended family is far away. My partner and I didn’t go out for a movie or a restaurant meal for years, and even if we had tried to arrange a social outing it would have been an ordeal. To this day a drink in the neighbourhood with a friend can require weeks of negotiation. A get-together with someone from another city (and most of my friends live in another city) requires months, and often there are cancellations and deferments. The reality of post-college life for most of us is that we’ll rarely meet face-to-face with the few friends we have. The reality is that you’ll spend a good deal of time alone. Maybe that’s why Friends was such a big hit. We all want that life, and few of us have it.

I almost didn’t write this essay because I decided instead to spend my scheduled writing time at a Meetup for writers in my neighbourhood. Five minutes was all I could stomach. I sat at the table with a dozen strangers and one of them immediately took control of the group, setting down what she believed should be the terms and conditions of the meeting. I felt as if I was at an inaugural Bolshevik congress, when all I wanted was an intelligent conversation. We should have a closed Facebook group, the woman said. We should submit our writing for critique as an attachment and not in a post, she said. And on and on, we should do this and that and not these and those. I’m allergic to the word should, so I went outside, lit a cigar, walked home, and wrote this.

People have smells and loud irritating voices and ways of laughing that get under your skin like a nasty insect bite. But people can’t quite do entirely without people. When I was young I dreamed of writing for the magazines and newspapers. I fantasized about the smart dinner parties and the witty conversations that would be the collateral of my life of letters. My many writer friends would be creative and interesting and bold, and my nights would be filled with the feast of reason and the flow of soul. A bohemian life. The reality is another thing entirely, as everyone soon enough knows. The labour of writing is tedious and isolating, and for most of us it doesn’t lead to glamorous diners or even friendships. Instead, there are inboxes with messages like this:

Your a horrible writer, you dont even know what your talking about. Give your head a shake. This is the stupidest thing I have ever read. You should go back to working as a carnival barker.

Life is the same for people of all professions. Few of us bowl or join clubs or social organizations anymore, if we ever did. Less of us go to church or spend our weekends at the Legion than our parents’ generation did. We don’t drive to the singles’ dance, we look for love on Tindr. We have Meetups and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. We go to the Internet for conversation and camaraderie and connection. There, we smell the virtual smells of other people, and it isn’t always pleasant or pretty. But it’s human, and we’re lying to ourselves if we think we can do without human connection.