Yesterday morning I heard a snippet of soaring instrumental music between stories on the local NPR station. I knew the piece, but its title stayed just out of my mental reach all day. The music popped into my mind over and over, searching for the obscure brain cell where its identity was stored.
We all have odd little memory triggers. A song may be a vivid reminder of some long ago event. The scent of lilacs takes me back to my childhood in Wisconsin, jasmine to my teen years in South Florida. And we all (I hope!) have moments of wondering where we left something or what we meant to do just before the phone rang. But it’s what I can’t quite remember, what seems to be just out of reach, that’s been on my mind lately.
A few days ago I woke from a recurring dream I’ve had for years and can’t explain. Over time it’s gone from being a nightmare to an unpleasant annoyance, probably reflecting some stress in my life, but it’s always pretty much the same, and it makes no more sense than Salvador Dali’s famous melting watches. In it I mistakenly follow a freeway exit that forces me onto a bridge. Not just any bridge–I cross overpasses every day and bridges fairly often, and they don’t bother me. But the bridge in my dream involves an impossible roller coaster loop, and I cross it only by sheer white-knuckled, breath-holding determination. And then, oh joy, I have to find my way back from wherever that bridge has taken me. Usually in the dark.
But where could I have encountered the real bridge that gave birth to this dream? The details are so consistent, and so vivid, that I can’t believe the dream is entirely the product of my imagination. I’ve certainly never driven over a bridge that looped like a roller coaster, but I have a persistent feeling that if I could only remember some bridge, somewhere, some time, I’d know where the dream came from. And it would probably never bother me again.
Now and then I have another dream in which I find a whole wing of previously unknown rooms in an otherwise familiar house. I have no idea where that one comes from. Or the occasional memories of places I can’t quite identify–are they real, or are they waking dreams? Or the still vivid memory, decades old, of another world entered through the lilac bushes in the backyard, a memory of a place that couldn’t possibly exist–or could it?
The borderline between memory, imagination, and dreams is a mystery. But the musical mystery from yesterday morning is not. It only took a scan of my very dusty CD collection (these days I mostly listen to Pandora on the computer or Music Choice on the TV) to give me a “well, duh!” as I remembered Mason Williams’ Classical Gas.