Dreams About Dreams

I used to have a recurring dream about birds.  Not a, “tra la la, I’m dreaming that I’m skipping through the woods and look at all of the happy birds,” kind of dream.  This dream was not a happy one.

First, some background.  I used to own pet birds–specifically zebra finches and peach-faced lovebirds. Nobody loved the lovebirds but me.  They tended to be loud and obnoxious and their screech could resonate through the house and reach down deep into the pit of your soul. It could get very annoying. The zebra finches tended to be cheerful and weren’t nearly as bad.

Pet birds are a commitment.  With care, they can live a while. I could be wrong, but I think my lovebird that lived longest, Daisy, was about 15 when she died and the zebra finches all lived to be at least 10 (with two notable exceptions). Daisy was a bit of a spaz, and once I started sharing my life with cats as well as birds, she got even more high-strung.

To be clear, Daisy died of natural causes, not at the paws of the cats. Two of the zebra finches weren’t quite as lucky.

Anyway, all of that to say, I used to have pet birds.

And for years I would have a recurring dream about birds.

In my dream, I would come across a huge cage of lovebirds and zebra finches in some dark and forgotten part of the house.  Most often I would stumble across the cage in the dark, dank basement of my childhood home.  Sometimes I’d find the cage in a closet, or even in a locked room. But the cage was always tucked away, neglected, forgotten, and full of lovebirds and zebra finches.

In the dream, I would be horrified to find the cage, to see how many birds were in it.  Dozens and dozens of birds, all crammed in the cage together.  The cage would be filthy, and I would wonder how the poor birds managed to survive, because they never had any food or water.  I would be aware that they were my birds and I had somehow forgotten that they even existed.  I had neglected them and left them alone for a very long time.

Of course, in the dream I would give the birds food and water. As they fell on the seed and water cups, I would clean the cage.  I would promise them that I would never forget them again.  But I would always leave them in the basement or the locked room or the closet or wherever I had found them.

Although I had that dream many times over the years, it took a while before it occurred to me that it might mean something. Eventually I realized that the birds in my dream represented… me.  My hopes. My dreams.  And I was locking them up in a filthy cage, putting them in the basement, and neglecting them.  I might make an effort to feed them occasionally, when I remembered them, but for the most part I gave other outside forces priority.

And yet, as in the dream, once I realized what might be going on, I didn’t change a whole lot.  I left the birds in their cage in the basement and told myself I’d remember to feed them more often. I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice but to keep going on as I was. Maybe I didn’t have a choice.  Maybe I did.

Then my life changed rather abruptly, the way life often does, and it became something else. And I no longer had the dream.

Until last Thursday.

Oh, it was a little different.  There was only one bird, and it was a parakeet this time.  It wasn’t in a cage, but instead flew to me. It was lost and looking for help.

I put it in a shoebox. Not to hurt it, but because I wanted to keep it safe.  I didn’t forget about the bird this time, but once I was in a safe place and let it out of its box, I realized I had forgotten to give it food and water.  I realized that the bird had been free, and I had trapped it because I was afraid and wanted it to be safe.

So.  What does it mean?  I have my suspicions, although I have to work it out more fully. I think my subconscious is trying to send me a message that I’m getting a little bit off track. After another tussle with depression, I’m finally getting myself back together again, I’m finally writing again, finding my feet again, but it seems like something might still be out of step.

I think this dream might be my warning that I’m in danger of putting myself in a box again, trapping my dreams in a cage.  I think I need to look at my priorities and my actions and figure out what’s going on.

And, unlike when I had the dreams before, this time I need to make whatever changes are necessary. This time, I want the birds to fly free.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers (314)
by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –


And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –


I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.


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