The Cost of Daydreaming
THAT spring I was teaching in Arizona and walking daily along a road at the edge of the town, taking new pleasure in the physical beauty that surrounded me (the mountains, the desert, the clarity of light) but, as usual, running a movie in my head. One afternoon in April, right in the middle of the film, a kind of visual static — something like the static on a television screen — cut across my inner field of vision; the “story” began literally to break up before my eyes and then it actually terminated itself. At the same time an acrid taste began to fill my mouth and, deep within, I felt myself shrinking from: I knew not what.
The entire incident was so strange, so baffling, that it mystified rather than alarmed me, and I thought to myself, an aberrant occurrence: Expect no repeats. But the next day, exactly the same thing happened. There I was, walking along the blacktopped road, another movie underway in my head, when again: The story short-circuited itself, the acrid taste filled my mouth, and again I felt myself blanching before some unnamable anxiety. When on the third day the entire process repeated itself, it became clear that a sea change was in progress.
Before long I became sufficiently gun-shy — I had begun to dread the nastiness in my mouth — to want to suppress the daydreaming; and lo and behold, it turned out that I could. Now, no sooner did the images start to form in my head than I found myself able to wipe them clean before they could take hold.
It was then that the really strange and interesting thing happened. A vast emptiness began to open up behind my eyes as I went about my daily business. The daydreaming, it seemed, had occupied more space than I’d ever imagined. It was as though a majority of my waking time had routinely been taken up with fantasizing, only a narrow portion of consciousness concentrated on the here and now. Of this I was convinced, because of the number of times a day the bitter taste threatened to take up residence in my mouth.
The insight was stunning. I began to realize what daydreaming had done for me — and to me.
Ever since I could remember, I had feared being found wanting. If I did the work I wanted to do, it was certain not to measure up; if I pursued the people I wanted to know, I was bound to be rejected; if I made myself as attractive as I could, I would still be ordinary looking.
Around such damages to the ego a shrinking psyche had formed: I applied myself to my work, but only grudgingly; I’d make one move toward people I liked, but never two; I wore makeup but dressed badly. To do any or all of these things well would have been to engage heedlessly with life — love it more than I loved my fears — and this I could not do. What I could do, apparently, was daydream the years away: to go on yearning for “things” to be different so that I would be different.
Turning 60 was like being told I had six months to live. Overnight, retreating into the refuge of a fantasized tomorrow became a thing of the past. Now there was only the immensity of the vacated present. Then and there I vowed to take seriously the task of filling it. But, of course, easier said than done. It wasn’t hard to cut short the daydreaming, but how exactly did one manage to occupy the present when for so many years one hadn’t? Days passed, then weeks and months in which I dreaded waking into my own troubled head. I thought often in those days of Virginia Woolf’s phrase “moments of being” — because I wasn’t having any.
Then — seemingly from one day to the next — I became aware, after a street encounter, that the vacancy within was stirring with movement. A week later another encounter left me feeling curiously enlivened. It was the third one that did it. A hilarious exchange had taken place between me and a pizza deliveryman, and sentences from it now started repeating themselves in my head as I walked on, making me laugh each time anew, and each time with yet deeper satisfaction. Energy — coarse and rich — began to swell inside the cavity of my chest. Time quickened, the air glowed, the colors of the day grew vivid; my mouth felt fresh. A surprising tenderness pressed against my heart with such strength it seemed very nearly like joy; and with unexpected sharpness I became alert not to the meaning but to the astonishment of human existence. It was there on the street, I realized, that I was filling my skin, occupying the present.