Dreaming on a Midnight Clear
Welcome back to ForeverLDS. I'm late. I'm several days late with this week's podcast. I admit, I spent several days working on another topic for this week. A bit more controversial topic. One that apparently is going to require a little more time and preparation. Well, I didn't want there to be no podcast so I decided to reflect on a different subject. An expanded version of something I first explored several years ago. And that subject is revelation. Specifically, I wanted to talk about a certain kind of revelation.
The visions that we have while we're fast asleep. Most often just before we awaken. I mean, we're told that we enter REM sleep and dream numerous times in a given night, but the one we remember most is usually the one we have just before we wake up.
To start with, let me just confess, I have some of the wildest and weirdest dreams. Maybe that's less of a statement and more of a confession. Maybe it's a confession that one might naturally expect from a storyteller. But no, I think a lot of people can relate. Occasionally I've conversed with someone who says, "I suppose I have dreams, but I never seem to remember them after I wake up." We all have nights like that, but I'm pretty sure for a person to claim every night is like that is an exception. At some time in virtually everyone's life I think they have experienced dreams that they remembered vividly, possibly for the rest of their lives. Many people, including prophets , have kept detailed records of their dreams, even dreams that at the time had no particular meaning.
I must admit, some of my own dreams are the most bizarre, fantastical, and imaginative spectacles that my brain has ever produced. The construction of the plot, the dialogue of the characters, sometimes has seemed entirely beyond my own talent to create. So where did these dreams come from? Were they really mine? Or did these visions originate somewhere else?
First, let me tell you about a dream I had a few years ago, while my son was serving a mission in a foreign country. The first time I wrote about this dream was the very day after it occurred. Even now, years later, I can't tell you if it has any particular meaning for my life. However, I was able to adapt certain ideas from the dream into the details of the "Tennis Shoes" novel I was writing at that time. The story was about two missionaries in a foriegn country behind the (former) Iron Curtain. Might have been Romania or Belarus. Let's just say Ukraine. I've never been to any of those places. My son was serving in the Ukraine, but the dream wasn't really specific about the location. I don't even recall if my son was in the dream. It was just about a pair of missionaries.
One of these missionaries witnesses a murder. The murder was connected with some very powerful elements of organized crime. The mobster was arrested, but any kind of conviction of this organized crime figure hinged on the testimony of this single Elder. His companion, for whatever reason, did not get as clear of a look at the event or the perpetrator. Trouble is, the murderer has shady connections that tie him to very popular and powerful leaders in the government. Also, the presence of the Church in this country is tenuous at best. There are ongoing debates in its parliament as to whether missionaries from the peculiar Church should even be allowed to stay. Well, as it turns out this single LDS missionary has the power to expose something utterly rotten—something that threatens to destroy this nation and its fragile political system, which is a democracy, but a corrupt democracy. As a consequence, this Elder's decision whether to testify or not testify may influence the powers that be inside the government to outlaw the Church and get the missionaries booted from the country, thus destroying the work of the Lord in that part of the world. The plot, of course, involves scenes of nail-biting action, chase scenes, and near brushes with death for the two missionaries. It also entails plot twists involving recently-baptized members whose faith and dedication to the Church is tried in the midst of the political turmoil, as well as betrayal and intrigue, mass corruption and crime that may, in the end, nullify any criminal conviction or positive outcome even if this Elder gives his testimony to the authorities. So the Elder is faced with a searing question: Why risk his life or risk hindering the Gospel in that nation by doing the right thing?
Cool idea, eh? And yes, that was the very idea that came to me in a dream. It felt sure this dream lasted all night long. I've often felt like my dreams lasted that long. Yeah, I know what they say about REM sleep and how dreams are intermittent and limited to a specific number of minutes during our sleeping hours. But I've actually had the experience of waking up, maybe even walking around and getting a drink. Then as soon as I go fall back asleep, the dream seems to pick up right where it left off. And in this case, the dream seemed to go on and on and on. What a roller coaster ride! It was great! I was on the edge of my seat--I mean, my mattress--the entire night.
You might wonder, if the idea was so great that you wrote down all of those details, why are you blabbering about it here on a public podcast. Your idea might be heard by hundreds or even thousands of people? Well, partly because I have no idea when I might get around to writing it. Frankly, it's terrible timing for me to be getting new story ideas. I'm so deeply immersed in my next Tennis Shoes novel that I can't think about much else. And even after this novel is finished, I have other ideas I'd probably rather pursue. Sometimes it seems like the next twenty years of my creative life are already booked. So why would I be given such a story idea now? I honestly couldn't say. That's why I decided to blabber. If nothing else, it can inspire me create an interesting podcast about dreams.
I really ought to know better than to spout off my story ideas. See, I had a bad experience back in the 90s where I sat alongside another LDS author at an autograph party at a ZCMI in the Pine Ridge Mall in Pocatello, Idaho (back when there were ZCMIs). Must've been a rather slow autograph party, because while making small talk with this fellow author, I revealed vivid details of a story idea I had about a sequel to Mark Twain's masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn. I told him how Mark Twain actually started a sequel, but never finished it. I told him how I'd intertwine the Mormon migration west into the plot because, coincidentally, this was close to the same time period as the original novel. So I planned to immerse myself in Mark Twain's writings, adopt Huck's (and Twain's) narrative style, and spin a yarn about Huck and Tom and Jim going west with Brigham Young and the Saints.
But, truth be told, I was too busy writing other books at the time. Again, I was writing Tennis Shoes books. Thus, I never got around to writing this book. Then, lo and behold! a couple years later this very same LDS author who I sat by in Pocatello, Idaho published a novel utilizing my exact same idea! Sheesh! What a guy, right? Well, I'm not gonna give you the author's name or any other details because, for all I know, the whole thing was innocent. This author may have literally forgotten where he first heard it. He may have honestly stashed it away in his subliminal memory and voila!, one day he thinks it must have been his to begin with. No biggie. (And if anybody out there happens to know this author's name or his book, don't bother revealing such in the "comments" area, because I won't publish it.) Fact is, if the Lord has blessed me with anything, it's story ideas. I've never lacked ideas. Now executing ideas...that's entirely different. Sometimes that's not so easy. But my supply of ideas to choose from has always seemed limitless.
Honestly, these days, most of my ideas come to me while staring at my computer screen. The source doesn't really seem all that miraculous--just the natural consequences (and blessings) of daily habit and discipline. But at least two of my books are based directly on dreams. The first I've already told you about. It was Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites. That concept came to me on my mission in Gainesville, Florida (of all places). The second "dream" novel is A Return to Christmas. One night I just dreamed about this, sort of, LDS version of The Prince and the Pauper (Twain again? But, truth be told, my Huck Finn thing was not from a dream. I don't remember where that one came from. Probably while driving down the interstate three freeways beyond the one I was supposed to take. Driving also seems to be a common place where ideas come to me, which is why some members of my family are terrified to get in the car when I'm behind the wheel. I can hardly blame them. I've had some pretty close calls and the button inside my brain that controls my imagination doesn't seem to be one that I can easily turn on and off.
I'm confident that other novels--or significant portions of those novels--have also come from dreams. To be perfectly blunt, I'd have to say that I owe a big part of my living as an artist to dreams.
Now let me clarify a few things. Really, I think the only aspect of the actual "dream" that inspired Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites was the core idea of two boys going back to the time period of the Book of Mormon. I know that Frost Cave--which is a real cave near my home town of Cody, Wyoming--was also part of the dream. The Rainbow Room--which is also a real legend, although it doesn't involve the Book of Mormon, was part of the dream as well. But beyond those few minor details, I had to flesh out the rest of the plot while I was very much awake. Same with A Return to Christmas. Most of the images from the dream itself were quickly forgotten--probably within hours. It was only the core concept that stayed in my head, and that's what I was left to work with.
It's the same with the dream I described about the missionaries in the Eastern Bloc. What I provided to you here was a only brief outline of the story. To be accurate, even some of that wasn't part of the dream. The dream was mostly action and dialogue and dark streets and seedy court rooms and lots of Russian accents. The whole political intrigue thing was not in the dream--expect maybe the organized crime part. I made up the rest while I was awake, probably within the first few minutes. (And some of it was fleshed out while I was actually jotting down the paragraph!) Also, in the dream, I happened to be playing the part of the missionary whose life was threatened, which doesn't really make sense since I'm already in my fifties and much pudgier that I was back then. (For some reason I always seem to see myself in dreams a lot younger and skinnier. Not sure why that is.) In addition, I don't think the Church or missionary work itself was ever threatened in the dream--another detail I added while I was awake. Then there were other odd parts that made no sense. I was firmly determined to mention those parts when I first decided to write down the dream, but...then. Those details slipped away. Weird, eh? Oh well.
The point is that, for me, going to bed at night is often and literally as entertaining as going to the movies. My dreams are frequently that cool. Now the big question: WHY??? Where do dreams come from? And why am I so "blessed"--and I put blessed in quotes because sometimes I'm not sure if that's how it would be interpreted. No, that's not true. I do think it's a blessing. So why is it that I seem to receive such fascinating dreams? Okay, maybe for some of my readers it doesn't seem all that surprising. Considering the stories you tell, it would be more surprising if you didn't have weird dreams. I'm not so sure that's explanation is particularly helpful. Maybe I became a storyteller because my dreams were so dull I had to find some way to compensate. But no, my dreams are often better than my books. Sometimes I only wish I could tell stories as creative and unpredictable and intellectually compelling as my dreams. Some might wonder, well that doesn't make any sense. Your dreams are coming from YOUR BRAIN, aren't' they? No, I'm telling you, it might seem like the two go together, but they don't. I can testify with absolute certainly that many of my dreams--maybe even MOST of my dreams--are not coming from the synaptic connections of my brain. They are coming from somewhere else. So when I ask the question, where do dreams come from, I'm quite serious. Everyone probably expects me to give the simple answer: they come from God. Well, sure. I mean, you can use that answer to explain everything, right? When it comes right down to it, God is at the helm of everything.
But when it comes to dreams, I'm not even sure that answer provides a full explanation. One of the reasons I believe that--not the only reason--but one of that reasons I think God is NOT the source is because some of my dreams are awful.
Generally we call these kinds of dreams nightmares, but for me even the term nightmare isn't enough to adequately define the kind of dream that I'm talking about. We usually think of nightmares as our greatest fears coming to life. Vampires and demons and werewolves and spiders and ghosts--In fact, the earliest memory that I have of any dream I ever had was a nightmare about ghosts. I was three or four years old, and I still remember this in detail.
When I was three or four the only ghost I think my little brain even knew about was Casper the Friendly Ghost. Some folks might remember the movie from about ten or fifteen years ago--maybe it was twenty years ago. I don't remember. After about age 40 time and years all start to run together, but I think it was sometime in the early 2000s with Christina Ricci.
Now I have to admit I actually went to IMDB and looked it up and it was 1995. Sheesh! It was 21 years ago! Like I say, the years all start to run together, so maybe nobody even remembers the movie, but thirty years before that, back in the 1960s, there was an actual cartoon called Casper the Friendly Ghost.
And in that Casper is mostly just this friendly floating sheet with eyes. Certainly nothing like the freaky, gruesome, decomposed ghosts that horror movie fans think of today. I think the whole point of those making this cartoon was to help kids NOT to be afraid of ghosts. Casper the friendly ghost! See? Ghosts are not that scary? Look at Casper! He's not scary! So you don't have to be afraid of ghosts!
But the ghosts I dreamed about when I was three or four WERE scary. There were two of them, and they were still floating sheets, just like Casper, but their eyes were empty black hole and these white sheets came creeping around this dark, decrepit barn to get me, and I freaked out. I woke up screaming. So if some old animator involved in that cartoon happens to be listening to this podcast, I'm telling you right now, if the master plan was somehow to make ghosts less scary to kids? Didn't work. Because those floating white sheets with black empty eye holes is still my earliest memory of a nightmare.
Still, what I'm talking about--the awful dreams that I've experienced--are more than nightmares. They usually come to me when I'm sick or when I've eaten wayyy too much before going to bed. The dreams I have on those nights are terrible. Most of the time they make absolutely no sense! Voices and images repeat over and over and characters illogically reverse roles and settings in Paris transform to my bathtub and echoes become flocks of birds and Arnold Schwarzenegger becomes my two-year-old granddaughter and I don't even have grandchildren. They're just Fellini and Salvador Dali and Edvard Muunk except that abstract art makes significantly more sense. I gotta admit, on occasion these dreams have enthralled me and I'm like, wow! This must be what it's like to take every illicit drug in the world all at the same time. But more often than not I'm climbing the walls and it's like nails on a chalkboard inside my head. So once again, what is the source--the wellspring--of dreams?
Certain dreams have been so surprising and unfathomable that I genuinely don't know if it's fair to credit Heavenly Father or the Adversary. Yet they're almost always creative and mind-bending and totally entertaining. So I guess, it'd be safest and most logical to credit them to Heavenly Father. But for some dreams, would He really want to claim credit? Some time ago I dreamed that my daughter was a serial killer. Where in blazes did that come from? Also, I remember when I was a teenager--and this one was particularly strange. Anyone who's known me all my life knows that I despise cigarette smoke. Both my parents and my stepfather smoked but I hated being anywhere around it even when I was a small child. I don't even like saying the word cigarette or smoke. They just...Ugggg! I've never comprehended it! I've always found it difficult to comprehend how anyone could find any pleasure in that habit.
Well, one time I had this dream--I was in High School--and I dreamed that I tasted tobacco. I felt like dreamed--I was given the full experience how pleasurable the taste of tobacco really was to people who partook of the habit. Not just the addiction. But the taste--the pleasure--of the experience. I understood it. I experienced it. Now why would I dream something like that? You might think, well the adversary was obviously tempting you. But no, I've still never had the slightest desire to smoke. Maybe God was trying to give you more empathy for those who are addicted. I don't even know if that was the result. Maybe. I really couldn't say. Today I just chalk it up to being another thing I find so fascinating about dreams.
Once on my mission I listened to a talk tape by Truman Madsen on Joseph Smith (I can't think of many Elders who didn't listen to those particular tapes by Truman Madsen!) Anyway, on one tape--and I have to paraphrase the quote because I've never seen the written text--Brother Madsen reported Joseph Smith as saying, "The Lord often comforts us with dreams even if they have no particular meaning or significance at all."
We're all aware of the fact that the Lord uses dreams to inspire, teach, and prepare us. Jacob's ladder was an awesome dream. Joseph in Egypt also had some inspiring dreams (and dream interpretations!). Lehi's dreams were magnificent. Even the wife of Pontius Pilate was told in a dream that Jesus Christ was a just man (Matthew 27:19). Not that the dream of Pilate's wife brought about any beneficial action.
We all know Joseph Smith had remarkable dreams. In fact, W.W. Phelps wrote every detail he recalled of the last dream of Joseph Smith, two days before his martyrdom in Carthage, Illinois. It's a complex and magnificent dream with astonishing symbolism that hints at the death of Joseph and Hyrum and also Joseph's brother, Samuel, as well as the fate of the world and Joseph's enemies. It's also a long dream so I'm gonna have to let listeners search it up. Just type Joseph Smith and dreams on any search engine and this is primarily what comes up, which was frustrating for me because I was looking for the exact wording of the Joseph Smith quote reported by Truman Madsen.
Anyway, many scientists and inventors have claimed that ground-breaking ideas came to them in dreams. Friedrich August Kekulé, an organic chemist famous for his work with the molecular structure of carbon compounds, wrote how he was on a train and fell asleep:“and lo...atoms were gamboling before my eyes...I saw how the larger ones formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them, but only at the ends of the chain...The cry of the conductor: 'Clapham Road,' awakened me from my dreaming. I spent a part of the night in putting on paper at least sketches of these dream forms. This was the origin of the 'Structural Theory'" (Edmund W. Sinnott, "The Creativeness of Life," in Creativity and Its Cultivation, New York: Harper, 1959).
Physicist Johannes Keple, said he "envisioned" the fact that Mars rotated on an ellipse in a dream (95.C. W. F. Everitt, "Maxwell's Scientific Creativity," inSprings of Scientific Creativity, 133). The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who wrote the equations of electromagnetic theory, was once asked how he solved his problems. He replied, "I dream about them" (Brown and Luckcock, "Dreams, Day-dreams and Discovery," 695).
I don't doubt that many of us have experienced profound and prophetic dreams. It seems to be part of life on planet earth. And maybe every other planet. It's one of those things that reminds us--again--that none of us can claim credit for the ingenious ideas that come into our brain. These ideas already exist--every idea that our mortal brains can conjure have existed for millions or billions of years. They're gifts. They're just floating around out there. And dreams are often the way that they're conveyed. But often the trick is the ability to cull the gold from the dross. If a dream can't be successfully transformed into something useful while the dreamer is fully awake, it may not serve any practical purpose at all. How many times have you had this experience. You learn about some idea or see some invention or hear some phrase and think, "Hey, I thought of that first." Now this is a very different experience than have someone simply steal your idea. In this case, you genuinely DID experience an idea, and someone else took advantage of it or turned it into reality. Sometimes you might think you're being taught a harsh lesson--"Oh, the next time when you get an idea you better act on that idea, bub!" But many times, you never even had a chance to act on that idea. It just brushed across your mind and apparently it landed somewhere else.
Obviously separating what's useful and what's not useful in the myriad of images from a dream isn't easy. But for me, personally, I've found that it's often a task worth undertaking.
Wilford Woodruff wrote: "...There are a great many things taught us in dreams that are true, and if a man has the spirit of God he can tell the difference between what is from the Lord and what is not. And I want to say to my brethren and sisters, that whenever you have a dream that you feel is from the Lord, pay attention to it. (Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses, 22:333).
Admittedly, I feel I'm only partially successful at this. I also have to confess that I've sometimes had what I felt were brilliant dreams, but because I was lazy and never wrote them down or recorded them, they progressively grew more and more foggy with each waking moment until poof!, they vanished entirely.
Also, sometimes I don't think it's my fault. Some time ago I had a story idea come to me in a dream that I was convinced was one of the most powerful story ideas I'd ever received. One of the most powerful story ideas that anyone in history has ever received! Oh, I assure you, I would have written it down. I wanted to write it down badly. But the plot of the dream and its concepts were so complex, so overwhelming, that getting it down quickly enough before the structure began to fade and evaporate--it just wasn't possible. I remember asking in my mind, "What was the point of that? Why give me such a tremendous idea if I'm just gonna forget it within an hour after I wake up?" I literally panicked over this one. But as each moment passed, the dream grew more and more obscure and I couldn't bring it back.
Sometimes Providence has smiled and I've been a bit luckier. I remember when I had the idea for the song "Whispered Visions," sung by Katherine Nelson, and which I put in the movie Passage to Zarahemla . I conceived this song while I was fully awake and driving home on Bangerter Highway from the Salt Lake Airport. It came to me virtually and wholly intact. I hummed it in my head over and over and over. But then I arrived home, got distracted, perhaps heard some other music in the background, and suddenly it was gone! I'd lost it entirely.
For an artist few things are more depressing than losing a great idea. And that night I was very depressed. So before I went to bed, I knelt down and prayed for the song idea to return. And Heavenly Father heard, because the next morning, just as I was emerging from that dream state we all experience before waking, the tune came back to me lock, stock, and barrell. Every note--the verses, the chorus, the bridge--were fully restored in my mind. This time I was smart enough to sing it into a digital recorder!
I wish I had more answers for the reader on the nature of dreams. If nothing else, the dream I described at the beginning made at least one positive contribution to my art. It compelled me to go back and rewrite a scene in one of my "Tennis Shoes" novels.
This is from Sorcerers and Seers. Basically, Marcos and Josh find themselves in the Rainbow Room, but in the distant past, before the room has fully formed. In fact, Marcos actually does something that "brings about" the miracle. I won't go into the details in case some haven't read it, but this is the description that Marcos gives of what takes place in the "dark void" where he finds himself. As I read it, I hope it'll be clearer how it relates to dreams.
"It was as if we were witnessing an act not unlike the primordial act of creation. Light becoming matter. Matter becoming element. Electricity forming into molecules. Joshua forgot to mention how some particles vibrated incessantly, like lightning flashes or strobes. This was how I might have imagined the universe would look when the Gods first created a cosmic body—star or planet—in the midst of unorganized space. Or how it appeared as they heaved the breath of life into a billion particles of dust. Joshua thought I was controlling it. I didn’t believe this. God was making it happen. Nevertheless, I still felt that it was happening because I somehow willed it to happen. Things were reacting to my creative imagination, as if in harmony with a kind of music in my mind. It was influenced by Joshua, too. Don’t let him tell you otherwise. He sells himself short if he insists that he played no part.
"In a way it was like a dream. I’d had many dreams where I didn’t control the succession of events—where I felt I had no power over what I saw or what occurred. And yet who else was in control? My brain was certainly the source of these images. They were part of my psyche. They were inspired by events from my previous day or from the previous years of my life. But not all of them. There was more to it than that. Some images, I was certain, had not originated in my mind. They were from somewhere else. I felt sure that dreams were not purely random events—not mere flashes of synaptic energy. Some other power in the universe also participated. And like my dreams, it was the same with what was occurring around us. I did not understand how all these shapes and colors came about, but somehow it was the power of my mind combined with this other power—this mysterious, universal, celestial power—that had set matter and elements free."
So...does that offer any enlightenment about dreams? Eh, probably not. In the end it's all poetry. But maybe that's what dreams are. Poetry. A pure form of art. Maybe the purest. Something that might be interpreted differently, or touch someone differently, than it would touch anybody else. Ah, but in this case, the poem was a gift designed for just one person--the dreamer. It's a work of art designed exclusively for you. So I suppose it's all still a mystery. But what a wonderful mystery! One of my favorites, as a matter of fact. And so, for the miracle of dreams, I express to my Heavenly Father my eternal gratitude. Thank you. Dreams have helped support my family, and they've also made my life infinitely more interesting. Just promise me, Heavenly Father, that in the life, you'll explain some of them to me. Or at least explain why I had them or how they work.
I hope next week I'll conquer the other topic I was working on--the one that's probably a little more controversial. Oh well. I hope it's fun sometimes merely to expand the imagination. I also have a well-known Latter-day Saint who's offered to give me an interview. In either case, the schedule remains very busy. So--stay close to the Lord. If you don't feel the Lord is as close to you today as He was yesterday, who moved? May God bless you and your families. This is Chris Heimerdinger. And this is ForeverLDS.