La Vida Es Sueño
“Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.”
-Pedro Calderón de la Barca
I had a very vivid dream a week ago. Someone, I’m not clear who, had made it possible for me to visit a home that I had lived in, many years ago. The current owner was very gracious about allowing me to explore my old digs. It was a very large house, way in excess of what I needed and could afford to keep up. It was beautiful, and I was very fond of it, but life had made it necessary for me to sell it.
I first noticed that the carpets were gone: an exquisite and expensive hardwood floor took their place. The kitchen appliances were modern and looked like they were being used (In the old days I was not much into cooking, or healthy eating. Wendy’s was my idea of a good meal). The master bedroom was large; two huge walk-in closets were filled to the brim with designer clothes. I saw a covered patio, and professional landscaping. There was a whole wing of the house that I never used. I used to kid about how I should at least go visit that part of the building once a month, to make sure that squatters had not moved in. The proprietor had built a massive dining room; the table could sit thirty guests. There was a state-of-the-art wine cellar. I felt a bit jealous that it had taken another person to turn my property into a museum worthy of reverence.
I woke up with an overpowering sense of nostalgia. I really should make an effort to visit this place, I said to myself. One of those things that we always talk about when we experience malaise. Psychologists like to call it closure. Right then and there I made up my mind: I’d drive by the place today and see if I had the guts to knock on the door. One of the advantages of semi-retirement: the schedule is often flexible.
It took me less than ten seconds to realize, much to my panic, that I didn’t remember the address. A bit later, maybe in another minute, I had to come to the conclusion that this house did not exist. I haven’t had that many homes in St. Louis, and I went through all of them, and none came even close to what I have described to you.
This doesn’t make any sense; I say to myself. I know this place. I’ve been in it; I’ve lived there; every part of my dream, every room, I’m eerily familiar with. The windows; the woodwork; the layout that I had lovingly designed. Yet slowly, and very reluctantly, I had to admit that this palace was not now and had never been part of my reality.
For the rest of the day I kept wondering: How can that be? There must have been prior dreams, otherwise, how could I get to know the place so well? Then I tried to figure out why I had moved out of the place; what specific circumstance had made it necessary for me to leave a house that never existed. That was a futile exercise. I spent the rest of the day confused and befuddled. Why was I making such a big deal out of a fantasy?
Pedro Calderón de la Barca was a famous Spanish playwright of the 17th century, the golden age of Spanish literature. His most famous play was “La vida es sueño.” A Polish prince, Segismundo, is imprisoned by his father because of a dire prophecy that his son would bring ruin and death to the kingdom. When Segismundo is allowed to leave jail, he goes on to fulfill most of the awful predictions. He is once again imprisoned, and he is left to wonder if his brief brush with freedom was all a dream. In the most famous monologue of Spanish literature he goes on to describe life as illusion, shadows, and fiction. That the only good thing about all of this is that maybe even our suffering is not real, which is small comfort indeed.
What does it all mean? Part of me entertained another fantasy: maybe we live in a parallel universe located thousands of light years away. Once in a while protons and electrons line up in such a way that we get to catch a glimpse of our other existence.
My wife, God bless her, has the unenviable chore of keeping me grounded. When I discussed my dream and my theory with her she immediately brought me back to Earth.
“Why does it matter?”
She’s not one to enjoy speculation about black holes and big bangs.
You’re right, I say.
But deep down inside, I feel like it does matter. That there has to be an answer. The struggle between predetermined Fate and free will can never cease to be a concern for us.
A positive: I have reached closure. I have a (much smaller) palace that brings me comfort and joy. I have no use for a dining room table that holds thirty chairs. I have a very firm conviction that I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I do because that’s what I’ve worked all my life to accomplish.
And no; I’ll never figure it all out. Neither will any of the philosophers and theologians. Ignorance is an integral part of the fun and mystery that we must go through.
But goshdarnit: it was so real!