I’ve walked these streets many times. I know them, and I always recognize them, and they are never the same. I’ve cut across this endless downtown and known the geography not by recognition but by emotion. I’ve gone into this city centre by a lake, and I’ve taken the elevator in the hotel that goes up a tower and keeps on higher than the top of the building and never stops where it should and only opens the door when it shouldn’t. I’ve driven this freeway to the farther reaches of this city and I’ve known how to get to these endless neighbourhoods though they’re always different. I’ve taken this country turnoff down the exit and the rural road to this lake. I’ve been back to this small town that I spent my childhood in, always at night, and it’s always cold and foreign and always deeply familiar. I’ve continued on the road through the mountains and down into the valley, and I’ve walked the main street of the town there; I can draw a map of the church and the other church and the sanctuary in the one and the stage in the other, and I can describe the shopping lanes that lead off the main street of this town. I’ve been up this town on a hill. I’ve followed this curving street to the far side of this old European town. I’ve climbed to the eleventh storey of this endless house, to the secret rooms, countless times. I’ve gone into the annex of this ranch-style house, the one that keeps going and opens into another room and another and they’re all full of furniture and stored things and I’ve never seen them and always known they’re there. I’ve been to the sub-basement and lolled in the little hot tub. I know these places, and they are sometimes full of people, and no one other than me has ever been to them. They are often irenic, often ironic, always neurogenic.

We have a word, dreamy, that carries such a sedate and happy feeling, like a cloudy glowy love-world, that we can’t use it to describe dreams, which are so rarely dreamy. We have another word, dreamlike, that often draws trite, clichéd, and trivial images, and we can’t use it to describe dreams because they are not dreamlike, they are dream. What is the word that just refers to the world or true quality of dreams? What is the world for this universe that exists only in the mind of one person, arising unbidden when they are cut off from the world their body moves in? How do I characterize the experience of seeing a tornado coming towards me, of seeing waters rise and discovering myself far from shore and surrounded by the deeps, and yet being able to wake and sigh in the safe comfort of sheets? What is the word for when I am in a completely real world, and I think, “Am I actually dreaming? This is all so normal and banal and all-surrounding; how could I be lying in a bed somewhere at the same time? It can’t be” – and yet it turns out to be? What is it when I find myself on a stage in a part I didn’t know I was going to have to play, or stepping off a verdant and impossibly high cliff, and think, “This is a dream,” and make something up, or fly?

It is oneiric, adjective. Of course: so many of our words for the mysteries of the psyche come from classical Greek. Psyche, for one. Hypnopomp and psychopomp for two more. And oneiric comes from ὄνειρος oneiros ‘dream’ (or anything that is like a dream).

It is as different from dream as the world of dreams is from the “dreamy.” Oneiric is not creamy or drowsy; it twists like licorice and it claws at you like iron nails. When you see it, it reminds you that you are the only one in your dreams, and it hints at the eros and erosion of the dream world; when you hear it, it reminds you that sleep is ever nigh, and when you are dreaming wakefulness is ever nigh.

Humans have had many ideas about the meaning and quality of dreams. I can’t speak for anyone else; for me, they are the allegorical theatre of unsolved problems, and they are the discard pile of recent days’ awareness reshuffled back into the deck. They have sometimes pointed out to me what I feel about a person, and more often pointed out to me what I feel about my current situation. They have never told me my future. Not yet, anyway. They have never revealed to me the secrets of the ages, or at least I haven’t noticed if they have. I can’t tell you what your dreams mean, and I’m not going to go into what other people in other times and places have said about dreams. But I can tell you one thing: if you want to do a Google search (or similar) to find learnèd ideas, thoughts, and theories about dreams, a word that will help you is oneiric.

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