Last night I had the strangest dream. It woke me at 1:00 a.m. and left me unable to fall back asleep before 5:00 a.m. The more I examine this dream in the light of day, the more I am mystified by the workings of the subconscious mind.
I can point to a conversation, a few days ago, that may have triggered this dream. My two younger children were discussing the interpretation of dreams while packing their lunches for school. My son informed his older sister, “When you dream about losing your tooth, it means you’re anxious about dying.”
Where did he learn that? Is he repeating something I said to him? I didn’t interrupt their dialogue, as I was relishing the role of eavesdropper, but I guess my subconscious mind decided to join the conversation last night. My dream began, as it usually does, with my realization that I had a loose tooth. I wiggled it with my tongue and it popped out. I tasted the blood pooling in my mouth. As I packed the hole with gauze, I discovered a second loose tooth.
Last night’s dream followed the typical pattern of my recurring anxiety dream about losing my teeth, with one notable exception. I did not wake up at the moment I discovered the second tooth was loose. Instead, it popped out, too. Only then was I released from the dark corner of my anxious, subconscious mind. I sat upright and checked the clock while simultaneously checking for signs I had been clenching my jaw while asleep. Mercifully, there were none. I grabbed my notebook and Sunday’s crossword puzzle from my nightstand, and headed downstairs. Lying on the couch, trying to get tired enough to return to bed, I thought about the Nutella incident.
Last night, I was emotionally exhausted from the events of the day—from maintaining an awareness of the violence erupting on six continents while keeping despair from overwhelming my ability to function. Around 9:30 p.m., I announced to my spouse, “I’m finished. I’m going to have a spoonful of Nutella and then I’m going to bed.” He followed me into the kitchen, watched me dip into the Nutella, offered soothing words while I shamelessly double-dipped, and then noted without judgment, “That was two spoonfuls of Nutella, you know.”
He always knows just the right thing to say to dissolve my anxiety in laughter. He returned to the couch to watch the baseball game and I went to bed with the expectation of sweet dreams. Instead, I awoke after three hours to ponder the variation on my recurring anxiety dream’s theme. What does it mean if you dream about losing two teeth? I wanted to wake my son to ask him.
In the morning, I sit down at the computer to collect my thoughts and remember studying a segment of the Talmud that deals with the interpretation of dreams. I easily locate—with the help of Google—the pages that record the rabbis’ discussions about dreams, including Bar Kappara’s report that he dreamed his nose fell off and Rabbi’s reassurance that a fierce anger had been removed from him. I scroll down, searching for something specific about lost teeth, until I come upon this: “Rabbi Hanina said: One who sees a well in a dream will see peace, as it is said (Genesis 26:19), ‘Isaac’s servants, digging in the valley, found there a well of living water.’” [Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 56b]
Maybe dreaming about lost teeth isn’t related to anxiety about my own death. I know that I am angry about the deaths of so many children this summer. I know that I am heartbroken after hearing Steven Sotloff’s mother plead for his release. Maybe my teeth can be compared to Bar Kappara’s nose: losing them is a way of freeing my mind from anxiety about death and making room for dreams about wells of water in the desert.
Reading these pages of Talmud triggers a memory of another text I learned years ago. I type into the Google search bar, “last night I had the strangest dream.” I click the link to YouTube and let Simon & Garfunkel fill my mind with daydreams of peace.