Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas Dreams

          Christmas is a time for dreaming.
Clement Moore’s innocent 19th-century children dreamt of sugar plums.  Today’s modern kids, being more savvy and perhaps more acquisitive, have upped the financial stakes by thumbing through their hefty Toys R Us holiday catalogs and dreaming of three-hundred-dollar gaming systems or dollhouses more expensively furnished than the homes where many of us live.
          Adults, too, may harbor wonderful dreams. Perhaps an iPad2 or a new car or a trip to the Bahamas to ward off the invasive cold of a Christmas spent in snowy Wisconsin or blustery New England. Or, considering the fragile state of the economy, maybe the best dream imaginable would simply be a safe job with salary enough to pay off the mortgage, put food on the dinner table, ensure that the kids have a good education, and provide the kind of health care that won’t impoverish the family.
          I live in New York City, in a part of Manhattan awash in hospitals. New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center is here. The Hospital for Special Surgery is here…and Rockefeller University…and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the world-famous cancer center. So many medical institutions, in fact, that the area has often been whimsically called Bedpan Alley—an obvious tip of the hat to Tin Pan Alley, the streets on the West Side of Manhattan where music publishing companies flourished during the early decades of the twentieth century. 
          The composers and lyricists who walked those streets dealt with musical dreams and ultimately produced the Great American Songbook. The dreams in Bedpan Alley are likely of a far different sort and sometimes infinitely harder to achieve. At times, as you go from place to place, you see clear evidence of what those dreams might be. 
On a drizzly autumn afternoon, you might see two women pushing a child in a wheeled hospital bed through the streets to a nearby Ronald McDonald House.  On a sunny Sunday morning, there might be another child sitting a few pews ahead of you in church with a scarf wrapped around her head in the heat of summer.  Only when you see her being put in a wheelchair at the end of the service do you understand the reason for that scarf.
And you try to figure out why—why is it some people and not others?—but you know you never can. So, instead, you feel lucky that it isn’t you (at least not yet) and you feel guilty that it isn’t you (at least not yet), and you do the only thing you can, as meager as it seems. You dream another story for them, the best one you can find: that they’re cured quickly, painlessly and permanently and live to die gently in their beds surrounded by their loving families at the age of a hundred and ten. 
It’s the same dream you’re sure they’re dreaming for themselves, the same dream that the women pushing that hospital bed through the rainy streets and the man maneuvering that wheelchair out of church are dreaming.
Several weeks ago, the assistant to the pastor of that church bid her coworkers good night at the end of the day, left to go home…and disappeared. She still hasn’t been seen or heard from.
          If the police and private investigators working on the case haven’t yet been able to solve it, you know there’s nothing you can do. But whenever you think of her, which is often, you use the only feeble skill you have: you push that awful shivery feeling aside and dream her home again, giving her and her family the happily-ever-after they need and deserve. 
          You do it because you’re human and can feel the pain, even if you 
haven’t personally experienced it. You do it because, as John Donne so 
beautifully expressed it: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a 
piece of the continent, a part of the main.” 
But you do it just as much because you’re a writer, or at least fancy that you are, though others may sometimes disagree. And that’s one of the things writers do best. They dream. For better or worse (and sometimes all those painful rejections, complicated revisions and less-than-glowing reviews make it seem like far, far worse), dreaming is in our blood, an indispensable part of who we are. We take bits and pieces from life and from imagination and meld them together until we dream into existence on the page or the computer screen things that don’t exist, things that could be or should be or might someday be if fate is kind, Christmas dreams for both ourselves and those who may not have many of their own.
Of course, sometimes in Bedpan Alley you might also witness one of those dreams coming true. Passing the entrance to a hospital, you might see a woman being helped from a wheelchair into a waiting taxi. She’s accompanied by smiling teenagers and an older man, and just before the man enters the cab, he says into a cell phone loud enough for you to hear: “Everything’s wonderful.  It’s all gone and the doctor says she’s going to be fine.”
And that’s the best dream anyone can dream, whether at Christmas or any other time of year.