Death By Dreaming

Bill Burkett
13 min readMar 30


Wiki Media Commons Image: ME’s view imagined

On Medium, Dr T J Jordan recently wrote about dreams as “more than the dumping ground of the unconscious.” Adding: “But dreams can’t be interpreted according to cookbook meanings….”

She said, “we have learned that the products of our sleeping minds are much different from the waking thoughts that are restricted by logical rules. We needed to discover how dreams work to uncover and enlighten. The dynamics of dreaming is known as…dreamwork…

The purpose of the “dreamwork” is to keep us asleep while we’re working our way through some deep emotional dynamics…

During our waking hours, the pyramidal cells in our brains collect sensory information. During sleep, these same cells send out “memories” of sensory input that mimic waking experience. This internally generated information gets used by the dream work to create the dynamics of our dreams — and the terror of our nightmares. Elements of the day give our dreams their “real” quality….”

Her post reminded me of something I wrote in 2014 called “A dreaming death:”

Can you dream yourself to death? Has death by sleeping ever been listed on a medical examiner’s findings as manner or cause of death? The older I get the more I wonder about things like this — when I am awake.

Some weeks my waking periods are brief and steeped in confusion that resembles jet lag. Muscles have lost all their temper and balance is suspect. The space beneath the arch of my skull behind my forehead and as far back as my ears fairly echoes with emptiness. Far back at my brain stem, survival instincts semaphore weakly for attention: release the hydraulic pressure on the bladder, slake the parched throat with iced tea; put a pot of Top Ramen noodles on the stove to boil. Slice two fresh tomatoes to eat while the noodles heat.

It was a sixteen-hour sleep today. Not unbroken; bodily functions demanded two or maybe three awakenings. But most of those sidereal hours were spent in other versions of reality than this. Some versions had the recognizable topography of a dreamscape, but not all. Not even most.

By the time I consume my noodles, pour a cup of coffee and light a cheap but palatable long-leaf Honduran maduro, much of the dream architecture, in common with all the years, has melted out of memory. What remains are vivid images of exhausting exertion and frustration in those other dimensions…

I was on a camping trip at a wooded resort in England with a group from the United States. The camp advocated solitary camping and meditation. We marched to the end of a dirt road and dispersed during the afternoon. I walked for a ways with a young woman before we parted and I went over a rounded hill and deep into a thick wood whose seedlings probably witnessed the time of Merlin and Arthur. I slept rough as they say over there, with only a sleeping bag to hold the moist chill at bay. It did not seem strange that I was sleeping within my sleep in this sphere of existence; I didn’t even think about it. I did not build a fire and I did not eat or drink. When I rolled up my sleeping bag in the grey morning, I was remembering all the other times I had visited this particular version of England.

Usually I stayed in cities on those visits, and had a lot of interaction with British police and airline officials as a visiting investigator. I did not remember the specific international cases that led me there.

My only other rural experience in the British Isles was an interview in Scotland with a skilled fly-fisherman who operated a small tackle store on a storied salmon river. A famous Scotch distillery was nearby and he offered me a bottle that I declined; I was not supposed to accept gifts from interview subjects and I never liked Scotch anyway. I had time to admire his skill with a nine-foot fly rod while he puffed on a large free-hand pipe stuffed with a Balkan blend whose aroma permeated his Shetland wool sweater.

As I went back over the hill from my fireless camp I was thinking about that little tackle shop just down from a green-girder bridge across the salmon stream. Then I was thinking about the young woman who walked partway with me the day before. I was not conscious of any aches or pains from sleeping on the hard ground, and I covered the difficult terrain with no difficulty; I felt quite fit. There was no awareness of my old age or infirmities. But I was hungry. I walked all the way back down the dirt road to the resort headquarters without seeing a soul.

The buildings beneath wide-spaced giant shade trees were locked and deserted. No vehicles in the yard. The wide quiet waters of the lake were riffled by a slight breeze. A man approached me from behind one of the buildings and seemed quite irritated to see me. The resort was closed he told me, and no longer was in the business of hosting groups; anyone I had been with the day before was long gone on a bus to the train station. I ignored his irritation and demanded food.

He opened one of the buildings and prepared a stack of ham and cheese sandwiches on thick brown bread, complaining all the while that I should have been on the bus, but he would take me to the train after I ate….

Jordan: There are no calendars in our emotional worlds. What is past is present, especially when it comes to unresolved emotions. But dreams are probably best understood in terms of wishes. The argument for dreams as wish fulfillment is that once we uncover the dream wish we have an “aha” sense of resolution. We might have the pleasure of seeing again a much beloved pet who died years ago — or we might explode with rage at an abuser. The emotional content is key to understanding our dream wishes…

The next awareness I had, I was in the airport, trying to prove I had a ticket for a flight back to the States. The airline people acted as if I was trying to pull a fast one on them. We argued back and forth for a while. I got on one plane and took a seat, and then was told that was the wrong plane and had to switch. At the gate for the second plane I encountered the young woman I had walked into the woods with, just getting off that plane. She said they told her she was on the wrong plane too, but instead of being irritated she was amused at their bungling, and in just a few moments had me laughing at the absurdity of our situation. The nicest thing about this place and this airport, she pointed out, was the utter absence of the dreary apparatus of security that had become such a part of things back in the world. That’s the phrase she used, back in the world, the old GI phrase used by American soldiers all over the globe, verbal shorthand for World of the Round Door Knob, a provincial sneer at the curved levers that served for doorknobs in foreign lands.

She was right about the absence of intrusive personnel and machines and sinister helmeted men in black or camouflage body armor carrying sturmgewehr or sub-machineguns. The sheer freedom of movement through airports and onto planes was so marvelous and diverting that I didn’t pay much attention to duration of flights or destinations. It was sheerest nostalgia to relive the days when you could fly anywhere with a .45 auto tucked in your shoulder holster and no one to challenge you or even care….

Jordan: We don’t use our frontal (critical thinking) centers as much when we dream, so we “accept” the fantastic and the impossible. Perhaps we forget so easily because our left-brained analytical language remains inadequate to capture the emotional dimensions that dominate our dreaming….

Back in the States I returned to work at a large newspaper in an industrial Ohio city just in time to lay out that day’s front page, select the lead story and write headlines. They said they were glad I got back just then because there was a staff shortage, but failed to explain why. After the first deadline I wandered up and down the internal staircase renewing acquaintance with composing-room crew and pressmen, and winding up on the basement dock where the trucks loaded the press run.

The welcomes were so warm and friendly that I wondered why I ever left that newspaper for another one somewhere else. I was dimly conscious that this Ohio, this city, this newspaper did not exist on my waking lifeline; out there I never held a job in Ohio. It didn’t trouble me a bit. Nor did it trouble me that out there I never liked the idea of employment in the great rust-belt cities. Here, wherever here was, my alternative me considered my surroundings a natural and stimulating habitat. I had a huge fondness for that smokestack city and was pleased to be back.

My stay was all too short, interrupted by requirements of travel on a personal matter that I resented…

Jordan: Another puzzling tool is the dreamwork’s use of composite characters. When we don’t recognize one of the “actors,” we might consider whether they represent more than one person…

I found myself involved in disposing of furniture and possessions of a house prior to its sale. I argued with those others there. I couldn’t remember ever having lived in this house but a lot of the stuff there was mine. This was confusing and irritating, particularly when strangers presumed the right to decide disposition of my property. I was in a hurry to get back to the newspaper and felt time-pressure building.

The woman who asserted she had been my wife and shared this communal home until the divorce was not familiar to me. She got on my nerves with her presumption. The man who presented himself as some kind of referee to the division of spoils seemed in it for what he could divert to his own use. He was a lanky, relaxed-seeming individual with a deceptive good-old-boy demeanor to mask his acquisitive nature. My old aluminum skiff was parked on an unreasonably steep bank above the river behind the house. It took both of us, straining mightily, to get it hitched to his truck and pulled onto the driveway.

When I pulled back the tarp, I found half a dozen puppies buried among old gray sacks full of duck decoys, unfed and unwatered, deflated and unmoving and near death’s door.

My rage must have terrified the divorce referee, because he made himself scarce. I cupped water in my hand and held the muzzles of each puppy above it by the scruffs of their dehydrated fur. The nose was always the first thing to show life, twitching at the scent of water. Then the little tongue would uncurl hesitantly. The water seemed as effective as a jolt of brandy; quickly each would lap my hand dry and nuzzle for more as I sat each carefully by a big stainless water bowl to drink their fill. My heart ached when the sixth pup did not stir. His poor desiccated little body was cold and stiff.

To her credit, the wife-impostor seemed as heart-broken at the death of a dog, in this case a tiny yellow Labrador pup, as the only actual wife I ever remembered having;. And she was pleased as I was at the amazing recovery of the other little yellows, and the blacks. She came out of the house with a bowl of hard dog food softened in warm milk and sat it in the bottom of the boat and they promptly buried their noses, ringing the bowl in perfect harmony, no pushing and shoving. I wondered where their parents were and how they came to be discarded in my old boat that I hadn’t seen for years.

With the immediate needs of the puppies tended to, the bickering over property began again. The referee came back. I refused to unlock a small squat safe that had been hidden in a closet, which I suddenly remembered had my secret stash of pistols with no paper trail to link to them to me. The referee demanded. I threatened to call the animal police on him for his cruelty to the puppies. He backed down. What I really wanted to do was spin the dial, acquire one of my guns, and shoot him out of hand for his depraved indifference to the plight of the pups.

The imposter-wife was setting out duck and goose decoys from the bags in the boat, and asserting her ownership while estimating how much money she was going to make selling them as antiques. They weren’t bad-looking decoys, handmade oversize mallards in cork and basswood, silhouette white-front geese in a wood I could not identify, light and flexible as plastic.

I had never seen them before. I never hunted white-front geese. Why someone else’s decoys were in my boat I had no idea. Out in the real world,I sold this boat one summer long ago for next to nothing to an old duck hunter from the Sacramento Delta who dreamed of one last season without knowing the cancer inside his brain was already so advanced he would never see another autumn. I wondered how the old boat had floated into this alternate reality beside a house I never lived in, in possession of a woman I never was married to.

The negotiations finally wound down to the point where I would keep my unopened safe and one of the unusual white-front goose silhouettes for my decoy collection, and she could have the rest; the referee could have the boat. I really needed to get back to my newspaper job. She promised to find good homes for the pups, though professing no knowledge how they came to be discarded in the old boat. For some reason I believed her, and knew my upcoming travels would be too rough on the recovering pups to take one with me. I sure wished I could.

While I waited for a rental truck to arrive to carry off the safe and few items of furniture I had claimed, thoughts of travel to other alternate existences ran through my memory…

It is a strange feature of my recent unconscious excursions that I remember past dreams more clearly and relive them more vividly than conventional memory:

The Alaskan brown bear that I killed less than four hundred yards from the camp where I was a guest, having won a drawing; part of the prize was having the trophy fully mounted and on display in a California city where the bronze plaque listed it quite high in Boone&Crockett records.

The military camp whose primary challenge was a cross-country foot race through very ugly terrain, a course I ran again and again, with increasing dexterity, until I found it merely relaxing rather than a problem.

The nationwide train tour I took with a large tour group, learning every terminal and style of passenger train in the country, gone for almost a year. With a little effort I could recall the whole trip.

And then this: the strange dream house I had lived in repeatedly: a vast bulk with spreading screen porches and four or maybe five floors. One feature of its myriad wings was wide quiet peaceful screened-in sleeping porches, the beds and hammocks rented to various victims recuperating from injuries by the agency that managed the property for me . The furniture was strange and heavy and probably collectible, but I never educated myself as to furniture eras.

And I absolutely never, ever, climbed the wide stair to the top floor, though the agency encouraged me to do so and take inventory. Something resided there so terrifying I could feel its looming presence downstairs, and I made a silent vow: I would never climb the stairs if it would stay up there…

All these memories and more assailed me as I waited for the rental truck at the house I never lived in, with a woman I was never married to. The day was fair and calm. I was startled to see aerial things swoop above us, like a cross between a hang glider and a modern drone, each manned by a solitary pilot in a bubble cockpit.

They rose here and there across the surrounding country and took up station a couple hundred feet above the ground like barrage balloons from another, distant history. The divorce referee told me they were a new wrinkle in Homeland Security. The pilots seemed happy enough, waving down at us as they flew by. But I really wanted to get back to my smokestack city and its vibrant daily newspaper.

As I loaded the rental truck when it finally showed up, I wondered what my lead story for page one would be when I got back; would it be as dramatic as the day I led with the death of Chairman Mao when I was doing a tryout on the news desk of the daily newspaper in Pendleton, Oregon during their annual rodeo?

That had been a strange week; I bought a pair of cowboy boots to blend in, and picked up a woman tending bar that had seemed amorous but turned shy in my room. I was too exhausted from my early-morning trick at the Pendleton daily to talk her out of her clothing so I just fell asleep, and when I woke up she was gone.

There was something not quite right about that memory. I tried to work out what it was as I drove the rental truck away from the impostor-wife, the divorce referee, and the frolicking, round-bellied little pups full of food and milk. The Homeland Security bubbles began to fade overhead as if a haze was forming. What was peculiar about that Pendleton memory? At last I had it: the Pendleton memory was from my waking timeline.

The neurons in which it had been stored away the week Chairman Mao joined his ancestors had fired off in the midst of remembering things from alternate realities.

Which meant I must finally be waking up. No sooner realized than I, in fact, woke up.

Stumbled around in a fog tending the animal needs of the organism, waiting for images of the other world to fade to nothing as they usually do, though not so much of late. Poured several cups of strong dark coffee down the hatch and stoked my pipe. I felt very much like an invalid, run over and battered by too much dreaming; I could have used one of those recuperative screen porches with their healing breezes in the strange huge house I owned over there on the other side, with the frightening upper floor up a wide staircase. I have always tried to exorcise my demons by writing, so here I sit.

Wondering if some final trip up those wide stairs over there will lead the medical examiner over here to determine dreaming as manner — and cause — of death.



Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.