I stopped playing the banjo and guitar maybe 50 years ago. For a man who is almost 84, that seems like another lifetime ago. I don't know how it is for you to recollect moments that you spent with your folks or the special people in your life, but they are moments that I dearly treasure as I live through the twilight years. The fact that I can dream at night, and even during the day, has helped.
I used to hate it when I would hear people say that they wish the good old days would return. I would think to myself, “Why are people so conservative that they think that the old ways are the best?” But now I have come to eat some of those words because I understand better what they meant.
At times like these, I think that I'm like an alien in a strange world. On the other hand, I often have thoughts that it is the others who are the aliens in this new world, and the world I once knew was the only real world that ever existed.
There are moments when I wake up in the morning and I'm not certain whether I am alive or dead. I usually feel my heart beating, and I know that I am breathing, but everything seems so strange. It’s like I don't belong here, wherever “here” is.
I find that the ability to dream and think about the past is very comforting to me. It was like I was truly alive then, but now those days are past and I'm sort of in a space called “Never Never Land.”
Sometimes I have wished that I could be like Rip van Winkle, sleeping for 20 years and then waking up and finding out while I was sleeping it was just a dream and we could go back to living the way things were when I was a child: when we didn't lock the doors at night, where we’d chase the lightning bugs around the yard and where we’d go out into the apple orchard in the fall and pick the apples while they were crisp and cold.
I remember the Thanksgivings and the Christmases and the snow and the wind and my Mama tucking me in bed and sticking the covers up around my neck and head. I loved that feeling so much because it was cozy and I felt so loved and warm. I’m sure you must remember those days for yourself; it’s hard to believe that they will be no more.
We would be so much worse off if it were not for dreams. They can help us change our emotional space in the twinkling of an eye. They can stand between depression and disappointment, loneliness and grief, and help us change negativity into positivity almost instantaneously.
Dreams also taught me some valuable lessons in the parenting of my children. I remember, almost as if it was yesterday, when I responded to a question from my dad about what I wanted for Christmas. I was somewhere around 6 years old, and as long as I could remember it was my dream to have a pony. So, of course, when he asked me, I told him that I would love to have a pony for Christmas.
At the time, I think my dad was not in a very good mood to hear that news, and I remember he said, “Where do you think we could even put the pony?” He went on also to say, “You know it would take a lot of money to feed a pony and take care of it, and it would end up on me or your mom to do all that work!”
The message I got was, “I didn't really want to hear what you wanted for Christmas! In fact, it was wrong to want anything that was as big as a pony. Besides, you’re not old enough to take care of it, and me and your mom would end up doing what should be your job.”
I went away thinking I had done something wrong. It was a horrible experience that turned my hopes into a nothingness. I don’t think that I ever again was able to ask for what I wanted when someone asked about my birthday or Christmas. I would usually say I didn't know, or “Anything would be all right.”
Many years later, when I was attending the workshop in family therapy, I heard an expert in the field talk about this same kind of child request. I’ll never forget his answer: “Always give your children the opportunity to have the fantasy about owning their dreams; much of the time they already know that there’s no way that they could have exactly what they want, but give them the pleasure of enjoying an opportunity to pretend and at least for a moment feel the thrill of receiving their dream.”
Fortunately, I learned this lesson before any of my children told me what they hoped to receive for Christmas or their birthday.
I remember my oldest girl mentioned that she would love to have a puppy for Christmas. Fortunately, my previous experience prepared me to not erase her dream. I remember engaging with her in a long conversation about how she would name her puppy, feed it, take it for a walk and let it sleep with her in bed. She was obviously delighted with having the opportunity to enjoy the pretense of her dream come true.
How wonderful it would be, when we cannot realize our dreams, if only we could enjoy the fantasy, just for a moment, of actually realizing them. Whether it is the house with a picket fence, the shiny red car or truck in the driveway, a new baby on the way or a graduation from school, our dreams are the key things that often propel us forward in our lives.
Life can be difficult, and it is wonderful to enjoy our fantasies, even though most of us know that we may never experience them.
Robert Olson is a pastoral counselor and family therapist who specializes in geriatric issues. He invites comments and speaking invitations at firstname.lastname@example.org.