In a few dreams I’ve had as an adult, I appear in my current age, time traveled back to a few years or months before I was born. I hang out, on a sunny day next to my grandparents’ pool, a friend of somebody nobody can quite put their finger on, smoking weed with my uncle or making funny faces at my older brother, still a baby in the dream. These dreams are the exact reverse of the ones you have of being a student (or, in my case, often of being a teacher): instead of arriving midway through the semester with months of work to catch up, delinquent and delayed, impossible to make up the time you have lost, the classroom a dreary mess, the desks out of order and the kids surly and suspicious and the teachers exasperated at your long absence, the dreams of the time before you are born have a wonderful sense of peace and security and lightness- there is no time to make up, no expectations to have failed- you don’t yet exist, are just an idea or not even that, and can’t possibly disappoint; perhaps this is why when I talk to my grandparents in these dreams, their not yet middle aged faces kind and happy, they never demand to know who I am or why I have come there- they are pleased to have me relax, outside of time, in the sunny afternoon of the before-time. Even my parents, holding forth in the self-assured and voluble way of young people, in the corner of my mind’s eye, are best left to their own devices, as I know that I will be trouble enough for them soon enough.
Something I didn’t realize on my first reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is that the whole book is more-or-less this kind of dream, pointing the way to the world as Nikolai Ilyich Rostov and Mariya Nikolaevna Bolkonskaya (distinguishable from Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy and Mariya Nikolaevna Volkanskaya only in the ways that dreams are distinguishable from reality) would bring their fourth child into it. The whole long saga of the destruction and rebirth of the Russian nation in the fires of the Napoleonic Wars is really only a long-winded way of telling How I Met Your Mother (and who she and I were before we had you.) Well, not only, of course, but if tragedy back to Aeschylus is about telling us the mistakes that cannot be unmade, maybe the novel is about telling us where we fit into the flow of time, how our particular consciousness appeared within it. One of the delights of War and Peace is that after you finish it, you can open it up at any point and find yourself not only among friends but in precisely that sense of amicable familiarity and lightness of the world before you were born. Pierre and Natasha come to you like the remembered faces of your parents’ kindest friends, all the more illumined because you see them before they themselves became fully formed, fully adult. The great treasure of the world, the great joy, is that of possibility- not our own, but the one we are given and pass on to another, the sunny afternoon that glitters and does not fade.