Save Point: Nights into Dreams

Recently I was teaching, and my usually vibrant late-morning class was inexplicably glum. Students drooped over the fronts of their desks, eyes downcast. My PowerPoint slides and carefully planned discussion questions were met with shrugs and glances out the window. Finally, I stopped. Something clearly wasn’t working. “What’s wrong today?” I asked. “Everyone seems so sleepy.” Sometimes acknowledging this helps—reminds them I am human, that I get tired too. Pausing to recognize our shared march through a semester with too much work and too little sleep can lift the unspoken frustration hovering around us like fog.

Their response was different this time, though. As with times when I’ve called out the elephant of fatigue in the room, dozens of heads nodded in unison. But this time, the affirmation followed one student’s comment of, “Half the country is on fire.”

“Yeah,” another echoed. “The Columbia River Gorge is burning, and we’ve had, like, three hurricanes this month.”

“It feels like the end of the world.”

I’ve wondered what to do about this. This: the swirling chaos outside the classroom. My regular approach has been to set it aside as best I can, to try to give them a break from the churning news cycle while equipping them with skills to rejoin the fray. I do this out of anxiety as much as compassion. When I teach, to some extent, I perform, put on a persona. The persona isn’t untrue. But it isn’t vulnerable, either. To eschew descending eyelids, I prance and gesticulate and cry things like “Holy cats!” while putting my hands on the sides of my face like a grown-up Shirley Temple. I do this to disguise myself. I try to buoy us.

But sometimes this doesn’t work. The weight of things just past the closed door leans and oozes in. And I’ve read that it’s better to recognize them. To not try to grin them away. I recently read this: that it matters, to students, that you name the mass shooting, name the catastrophe, name the fill-in-the-blank. I hesitate because I fear my own reactions to these things, because I fear letting my despair show. Because sometimes I still feel like I need a mentor, but that in this setting, I am the mentor. I sometimes don’t know what I need to hear, much less what I should say.

But on this day I pause. I say, “Yes.” Shut the textbook and let the persona slip, just for a minute. “It’s hard,” I say. “It’s sad.” I wish I could tell them the Gorge will rebloom like scorched land at the end of a movie. I wish I could tell them the hurricanes will lessen, that we can reverse the damage we’ve done as a species if we just stick together.

There are days when it feels like the end of the world to me, too. So what do I say to these students?

Last spring, a family member sent me to a Tarot reader. How much stock I put in Tarot varies, but I went with an open mind. At least, I think, divinations can be Rorschach tests, revealing through the reactions they provoke as much as the predictions themselves. Unlike in past readings, where I’d had a specific question, in spring I came as a blank slate. “I’m willing to receive any wisdom,” I thought. But still, without realizing it, I unconsciously hoped for insight pertaining to my personal life—marriage, friendships, artistic endeavors. I rarely think of work when I read my horoscope, draw a card, or meditate. Work feels separate from spiritual inquiry. For this reason, the reading surprised me.

Card after card related to teaching, to the role of the counselor. “Your job right now,” the reader said, “is to not let the young ones despair.”

But how can I help the young ones not despair when I’m fighting to resist that quicksand myself? What can sit in place of despair on the days when hope feels futile?

For the past month I’ve been thinking about Nights into Dreams, a Sega Saturn game from 1996. At the start of Nights, two children experience nightmares that force them to relive their own brushes with despair. For a girl named Claris, this comes in the form of a botched audition for the solo part in an upcoming concert. Despite her hard work and devotion to music, she freezes up under the glaring stage lights and succumbs to her fear of the panel of judges, who tap pencils impatiently and scoff. For Eliot, it comes when an older boy bests him at basketball in front of his friends, then chucks the ball into his stomach and laughs. At the end of each nightmare, the antagonists morph from human judges and bullies into horned demons with red eyes. They chase the children through misty green corridors until, at last, there is a light at the end. The light turns out to be Nights.

Leading the rebellion against a villain named Wizeman who seeks to enter the human world through dreams, Nights is a sprite who can merge with humans to push back the tide of evil as long as they retain one important quality. While Wizeman’s minions can rob sleeping humans of many “Ideyas”—floating colored spheres representing qualities such as purity, wisdom, hope, and intelligence that could be used against him—the one thing they cannot touch is the red Ideya of courage. At the start of each playable sequence, we see Claris or Elliot literally fall from consciousness into sleep, where the level of their dream awaits. Though they start each descent with five Ideyas circling around them, Wizeman’s monsters rush forward and strip them of all but their courage just before they touch the ground. Still, with that one bright circle orbiting around them, the children are able to fuse with Nights and soar through the air, reclaiming the stolen Ideyas and overcoming bosses, including, eventually, Wizeman.

At the end of the game, Claris and Eliot return to the sites of their initial nightmares to face their fears. When their respective antagonists approach, they steel themselves, closing their fists over their hearts, which glow briefly with red. In each of their concluding sequences, they confront their challenges undaunted, with Claris being awarded the solo and Elliot impressing the older boys with a slam dunk. In both cases, courage is framed as the untouchable quality—the thing that remains when all else has been taken.

When I played Nights at age 10, this lesson felt vital: Courage, yes, the untouchable thing. I was persuaded to face some of my own fears, wearing this story like a talisman. Yet even then, I questioned whether courage was always the needed quality—the surest, most necessary quality. Shouldn’t something come before courage? I wondered. And still, I wonder this. When everything feels taken from me, I’m not sure that what’s left is courage. I don’t know the name for what remains.

Being English graduate students interested in children’s literature, my friend and I experienced synchronized mini-meltdowns in 2012 when we watched Rise of the Guardians, a film in which characters must identify their “center” in order to win the day. One character’s is wonder. Another’s is joy. The center represents the core of their power, the thing that most closely defines them. We weren’t sure what ours were. About this, I wonder too.

What is left when the chips are truly down? When half of the country is on fire? Is it wishful thinking to rely on the presence of a “something” that shines in our fists or our hearts? A “center” that circles around us? I say to my students, “I feel that way too, sometimes, like the world is ending, but we have to keep going as if it won’t. And we have to do our part to make sure it doesn’t.” Awareness of the fact that many people through many generations have believed the world is ending: is that a form of hope? Or a slightly offbeat sibling? Is fatalistic hope the same thing as courage?

I want to believe I can get better at this, that we can face fears, rewrite nightmares. That maybe a center isn’t innate, but something decisive and constructed. I want to have answers for the nervous window-glancers, for the young ones looking for their future. I want to think maybe it isn’t emotion that steps in and lifts the roofs shattered by despair—that maybe it’s action. After all, it isn’t the glow that rewrites things. It’s what comes next that counts.