For the second time in three days, I dreamed about eating at Yom Kippur services. In both dreams, services were in full swing, the clergy resplendent in their special white robes, when I realized I wasn’t sitting in a pew, but at a table for eight, set for a banquet. While the cantor continued his fervent chanting, servers brought dinner, and everyone dug in. The cantor looked annoyed, but not surprised – certainly less surprised than I was.
In the first dream, I stuffed my face, like everyone else. (I don’t remember the menu, besides a crusty baguette.) On the dream’s second pass, I was the only one at the table who didn’t indulge.
What does it mean, doctor?
My former therapist, who wasn’t into archetypes or psychoanalysis, tended to see this sort of question as an opening for more free-form introspection. “How did the dream leave you feeling?” he might ask.
And I might answer, “In the first instance, guilty. And the second time, when I abstained? Annoyed. And a little bit self-righteous, maybe. And then guilty, for judging the people around me.”
“Good for you,” I can imagine my therapist saying at this point, smiling that warm, between-you-and-me smile of his. “Even though the second time you were the one doing the right thing, you still figured out a way to feel guilty about it.”
And then we would probably dive back into our ongoing conversation about guilt – what triggers it, its uses and (more often) uselessness, and what other emotions it might mask.
But what if my therapist’s questions weren’t about feelings, but metaphors, plot points, imagery and motifs? What if his question in response to my question were, “How might you use these scenes in an essay, a work of fiction, a poem?”
Then I would have to say, “It depends.”
In an essay, I could use the twin dreams to illustrate spiritual indifference in today’s society. Or the social irrelevance of today’s religious institutions. A more personal essay might delve into my own passionate ambivalence around religion.
In a short story or a novel, the scenes might emphasize my role as outsider – my failure to conform with the service in the first dream, and with my co-congregants in the second. I might build in a moment where I look into the face of one of the clergy and get a glimpse of understanding, and from that an unexpected connection.
In a poem, the feast and the fast could be symbols. The diners might be feasting on the substance of the service, tanking up on prayer or tradition or regret. Or the unstoppable service could be the background of wrongdoing or good intentions that’s always there, as we blithely go on passing the bread. Living our lives.
Or, how about this? In a blog post about writing, I could use the service to stand for form – the rules that govern different genres, the structures and basic story lines we expect. And I could use the meal to demonstrate what happens when a piece breaks the rules and confounds expectations. A dream that was only about sitting through Yom Kippur services wouldn’t be worth telling. And neither would a dream that was only about eating. Put the two together, though, and you’ve got something interesting – something that opens the way to new meaning.