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The Fourth Year Dreams

Up until recently, my dreams kept throwing me back into the fourth year of high school, telling me that I still had credits to finish in order to graduate, even though I have three master’s degrees in real life.

The literal truth of the dreams is that, when I went there, my high school had a three year program. It was an Orthodox Jewish high school, and the idea was to graduate us a year early so we’d feel obligated to spend a year in Israel before college. The other literal truth is that I fell apart during my last (third) year of high school, and even though I went to college the next fall (at age sixteen), I was unable to stay there.

Looking back, I think part of the reason for the dreams was wish fulfillment. I wanted to go back to high school and do a fourth year, because I wanted to believe that my collapse in college was caused by not being old enough to handle it. Maybe, I hoped, if I could go back and finish that last year of high school, I would be all better.



And in those early versions of the dreams, my orthodox Jewish high school had a drama department, and art classes, and a therapist (none of which we had in real life). But the dreams still focused mostly on the anxiety and stress of high school, with all of the social failures, and the tests in math, or physics, or social studies that I was wildly unprepared to take.

The dreams kept going, even as I got older and worked to get better. It was frustrating to keep returning to high school as I slept, because when I was awake I knew how much progress I’d made in therapy, in writing, in self-awareness, and in my overall mental health. But the dreams kept reminding me of all of the things I still couldn’t do. With each year I fell further behind my peers: in relationships, and work, and money, and independence. I never stopped trying to move forward, but for every mile my peers traveled I made it about a foot into the future.

Ellie and the Afikomen

“Every step counts, Mommy.”

There’s a theory that if you can work through the issues behind your dreams, then you’ll stop having those dreams, but for a long time I felt like these fourth year dreams were going to haunt me for the rest of my life. And the thing is, along with all of the anxiety and failure and humiliation of the dreams, there was also a sense of possibility; that I could have another chance to learn what I couldn’t learn the first time through.

Gradually, even during the dreams, I was able to remember the work I’d done, and the degrees I’d earned in the real world. And then, after graduating with my Masters’ degree in social work last year, the dreams changed again, and even though I was still back in my fourth year of high school, this time I was surrounded by my former classmates, all at our current ages, and all trying to finish those last few credits. And then, sometime this past fall, around the same time I started teaching synagogue school a few hours a week, my high school best friend appeared in the fourth year dreams with me, despite being married with four children and living in Israel, and it was such a relief to have her there with me, and to feel like we were in this fight together, even if it was just a dream.


And I started to realize that I’m not alone in this unfinished feeling. When I looked at everyone else’s lives on social media, they seemed to be overachieving and rushing ahead and having a great time, but the dreams were telling me that maybe we each had our own unfinished tasks that we needed to go back and work on. Because we’re all still trying to figure out how to be okay. I started to think that maybe all of those kids I grew up with were having the same fourth year dreams that I kept having, stuck back in those old classrooms while they were sleeping, and maybe that’s why I saw them there so often.




I haven’t had a fourth year dream in a while now, and that seems to be a sign that I’ve passed a marker of some kind, and filled a void that needed to be filled. Unfortunately, other bad dreams fill that space now, with other unresolved issues that need my attention, and they seem to think I need to be hammered over the head on a constant basis so that I won’t forget that there’s more work to be done. And, really, I know that there’s still a mountain of work left to do, but it’s nice to take a moment and celebrate that some of that mountain may have finally been chipped away.


“Did you say chips?”


If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Puppy Dreams


I had a writing teacher once who said we should never write about dreams, or menstruation, or school, or coming of age, or drugs or…he had a long list. But the dreams were verboten because, he said, your dreams will only be interesting to you and no one else. I hope that’s not true.

At the simplest level, things you see during the day can show up in your dreams; a character on a TV show, a wheat field, a cow, a striped shirt. And maybe it’s significant and maybe it’s not. It’s just something you noticed that day. This happens when you write fiction too. You need a location or a character and, consciously or unconsciously, you grab from details you saw that day, a hat someone wore on the subway, a dog in a pet store window, a car, a smell, a song, a sound.

But we also dream about the things that trouble us, things from the past or the present or a jumble of the two. Our old stories get reset in new locations, or new stories get stuck in the labyrinth of the old places. I tend to have a lot of bad dreams set at the house I grew up in, and an inordinate amount of dreams about serial killers, but the most upsetting dreams I have are about puppies.


Doberman Puppy!

Poodles puppies.

Poodle puppies!

I started to do dreamwork for therapy when I was still in college. My book of Genesis at my Orthodox Jewish high school had one or two lines from the actual book on each page, with paragraphs from different commentators picking apart each word and offering every possible interpretation and interpolation one could think of. So that’s what I did with my dreams. I wrote down everything I could remember, as soon as I woke up, and later, I’d copy the dream into a special notebook, and write down my general impressions, and then do a line by line exegesis. One dream could take up ten pages of college ruled paper.

But with these puppy dreams, no matter how much work I put into the interpretations, the dreams stuck with me. I could put aside a serial killer, a flood, a crashing airplane, a car flying off the side of a bridge, but squashed puppies haunted me, not only for the rest of the day, but for weeks, and months.

Sometimes the puppies in my dreams were as small as mice, and hairless and pink, and sometimes they were barely formed and looked like pieces of raw chicken cutlet, or balls of play-doh. The puppies seemed to represent the deepest, most real and identifiably ME parts of me. As if I were made of puppies, as if I am a stringing together of puppies inside rather than the usual human organs.

Sleeping puppies.

Sleeping puppies.

There was the dream when the puppies surrounded me in a circle and I kept tripping over them and squashing them by accident until I couldn’t move in any direction. There was the dream when the lead puppy of a pack pointed a tiny machine gun at me and told me it was all my fault, without specifying what “it” was.

When my Doberman Pinscher, Delilah, gave birth to her first set of puppies, I was seven or eight years old and there to watch their birth, early in the morning, with the sun streaming in through the kitchen windows. Each puppy came out in it’s own sac and Delilah carefully licked them free and set them on their feet to wobble about and figure out how to walk on solid ground.

Delilah, ready to feed the puppies.

Delilah, ready to feed the puppies.

I loved those puppies. I brought a handful of them to school for show and tell, and put another handful in a basket to carry up to my room. I got used to the overriding smell of puppy poop mixed with newsprint and sawdust, from their puppy box in the basement. We had two sets of puppies for seven or eight weeks each, and I guess that gave them time to imprint on me.

I often have trouble remembering how small and vulnerable I was as a child, especially because I was tall for my age, but thinking about those puppies reminds me what vulnerability really is. Even the wiliest of the puppies was in no position to truly protect herself. She could try. She could fight. She could put everything she had into saving herself. But if someone wanted to squash her, she’d be squashed.

For some reason, maybe especially in America, adults want to imagine that children are the superheroes they pretend to be. Children can call 911, climb out of burning buildings, save the dog, if only they would apply themselves.

I remember a dream where I am standing in a living room, in front of a bay window, at night. There are cages full of the tiniest puppies I’ve ever seen, but they have no newspaper or mats in the cages and I’m worried that they are going to fall through the slats of metal. I’m there to save these puppies. I am planning to take the cages with me to a better place, though I can’t picture that place in the dream. As I pick up the first cage, it’s too unwieldy and I lose my grip on the cage. This is when the dream goes into slow motion and I watch as the puppies are torn apart as they fall through the sharp metal bars of the cage to their deaths. I went there to save them, and I killed them instead.

The dreams are so dark that I feel like a terrible person, hopeless, and useless, until I wake up, because my real dogs are barking at me to take them out to poop.

Which is an incredible relief.

My puppies.

My puppies.

I wonder what they dream about?

I wonder what they dream about.