I never knew which came first for the lesson plans of my mom, a sixth grade teacher: the book or the made-for-TV movie. My mom used to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler with her students and once complete, they were rewarded with an easy afternoon of watching the movie she recorded off our VCR. Every few months I too would watch the VHS, commercials included, even though I never read the book.
The main girl in the movie was a nerdy, middle school-aged redhead who sported glasses and the thickest of braids. A true hero of mine. She runs away from home with her kid brother with the mission to seek adventure. They stowaway in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and end up in the middle of an art history mystery with Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, played elegantly by Lauren Bacall.
There are two things that always stuck out to me from that movie. The first being a scene in which the kid brother, suffering from a bad fever, wakes up in a bed of some famous king or queen and the sheets are covered in sweat. Claudia (aka braid) is ecstatic at this and says something like, “You sweat your fever out! You’re healed!” Now, this is great for the continuation of their adventure but when I think about those 16th century sheets loaded with some prepubescent boys sweat, I can’t help but shudder.
The second, and more important, thing that sticks out is how cool it was for them to stay the night in a famous museum. This is why it was very easy for me to say ‘yes’ at the opportunity to participate in the Rubin Museum of Arts annual Dream-Over.
The event, which is described as a ‘Sleep-over for Adults’ is way more than that. It involves not only sleeping at the museum but the opportunity to have your dreams interpreted by dream experts as you sleep under a specially assigned piece of art.
I called my sister to try and convince her to come too. “There’s gonna be a Tibetan monk! And midnight snacks! And dream experts! And bedtime stories and I mean come on, we’ll be sleeping in a museeeuuuumm.”
She said yes, I said yes, we all said yes!
The event is known to sell out quickly so when tickets went on sale I was glued to my computer. I wasn’t this serious about ticket sales since the Spice Girls reunion of 2008:
I happily confirmed my reservation for the evening.
A few weeks before the event, we were sent a questionnaire that asked us some personal questions. These answers would be used when deciding our assigned piece of artwork. A few nights before the event, we were sent an email reminding us to arrive in our pajamas and how tents were prohibited, you know, normal museum-y, sleepover-y things.
My sister and her partner came up to New York for the event. It was such a lovely evening that when 8:30 rolled around, we weren’t looking forward to spending the next 12 hours in a cold museum. However, the second we stepped into the Rubin, sleeping bags and air mattresses in hand, I was happy with our decision.
Every dreamer was assigned a docent that would be your guide throughout the event. My sister and her partner went away with their guide. My docent, Dawn, found me in the lobby and took me in the elevator. I found she participated in the Dream-Over and soon after started working at the museum. I heard this a few times from people which made me think this museum must be something powerful.
On our elevator trip up, I was taking notice of each level and what was on each floor. I noticed the 6th floor was masks and, as a former painter, made a silent wish that I wouldn’t be sleeping there. You can guess what happened next.
The doors opened on the 6th floor. Dawn led me to where I would be spending the night before leaving me to ‘get to know’ my art. Under my art was a notebook and some notes that explained why I was given the Japanese Noh masks:
“Carolyn, During waking hours you perform on stage to make people laugh, but tonight while you sleep under the Noh masks perhaps you will find yourself on a different stage; that of the world’s oldest living theater tradition.”
I immediately fell in love.
I was lucky to be put in front of not only one but three pieces of art. Plus, I’m always in a state of ‘WTF’ when it comes to my comedy career, so the fact that my art was asking me try a different stage for a change, even if asleep, made me very excited. I unrolled my sleeping bag and proceeded to get to know Noh.
The mask floor was full of ritual and religious masks, most quite scary:
Fortunately, the Noh masks put a sense of calm over me. Probably because they were all women.
Hannya, Ko-omote, and Otafuku, each represent a different type of woman. Hannya (left) is vengeful and jealous and in the beginning stages of transforming into an evil fiend. Ko-omote (middle) represents a beautiful but not yet mature woman while Otafuku (right) with her full cheeks and friendly smile stands for idealized feminine beauty. Dawn told me these masks never covered a performer’s face completely. The performers had to keep their faces still as to not disrupt the emotions of the mask.
At 10pm we met in the theater for a discussion with Tibetan Buddhist, Khenpo Lama Pema Wangdak and dream facilitator Dr. William Braun of the New York Psychoanalytic Society. I burst into the theater looking for my sister.
“I’m having the best time!” I squealed. My sister told me all about the painting they would be sleeping under: The Medicine Buddha and His Assembly. She had recently been in and out of doctor appointments. We both looked at each other with that look we had given each other so many times as sisters. Weird.
While we waited for the discussion to begin, they asked us to try and draw our art from memory. The theater, except for the ambient sound of what you would expect to hear while waiting for a discussion about dreams and Buddhism, was quiet while we all sketched.
I scribbled some notes throughout the talk:
divination through dreams
in reality we are obscured by sense, dreams - no longer delimited by senses
receive teaching through dream
isolation on earth/not real
grasping/obsessed = demon
ego - you can’t focus
when we are driving, we are free
focus like matter of life & death
loving kindness compassion
tense is dead
After the discussion, each floor met as a group to get to know one another and share what we wanted from this experience. Everyone was there for a different reason: Loss of family member, fear of being alone, I like sleeping, a friend backed out and needed someone to go with, my wife’s pregnant so this may be the last good night’s rest I get. I mentioned turning 30 soon and questioning my career and relationships and wanting to sleep in a museum and being obsessed with dreams and tried my hardest not to sound like a goof. Another girl in the group made a point to say she too was freaked out about turning 30 soon. She helped calm the red in my face. Our dream expert reminded us some of us might not have the experience we expect or even dream at all. But, she assured us, we would indeed be having an experience. I walked away from meeting my group very open, like I had just had a group therapy session. I loved everyone.
After our midnight snack of traditional Tibetan snacks and tea, we went back to our art to get to sleep. Once I was settled into my sleeping bag, Dawn came back to my side and asked if I was ready for my bedtime story. I wanted to say, “F**k yea!” but I grinned and nodded instead.
My story was called “The Women” and was written especially for my masks. It told of each woman’s dance, starting with Otafuku and ending with Hannya. It described the specific details of their movement, their dress, the color of their fans. I found myself drawn to the story of Hannya’s dance. Her moves were awkward but deliberate.
It was time to dream.
I was trying so hard to clear my head. I didn’t want anything to disrupt my experience. My hands were a little sticky with toothpaste and I feared I would end up having a dream about sticky hands. My head was facing Otafuku, my favorite mask, but I realized, reflected in Otafuku’s case were three skulls of a facing mask:
I didn’t know if I should move so I couldn’t see them anymore or maybe I wanted them in my view, a gentle reminder of my mortality. You get pretty dark when you’re alone in a museum. The next day I saw the skulls were from a mask called Sendom, a lion deity that protects against evil spirits and curses. I was glad I kept them in sight.
I tried downloading a meditation app on my phone and got agitated at the slow download speed. “My meditation app isn’t downloading fast enough!” said the world’s worst Buddhist.
At Khenpo’s recommendation, I repeated the phrase, “This is a dream. This is a dream.” In the lobby six floors down, someone played the sitar and I imagined I was eating dinner in the East Village. There were chimes. And breathing. And I think I’m about to fall asleep. “This is a dream. This is a dream.”
I don’t think I’m sleeping until I am jolted awake but either a cough, the ding of an elevator or the sounds of a body shifting on an air mattress. The night before I had been woken up by the sound of gun shots and within seconds was sleeping again. Now, an innocent air mattress was keeping me awake.
Every time I found myself awake again, I’d look to my art for comfort. Of course it was still there, they were still there. The security guards that were stationed on each floor were also still there, probably earning overtime and a good story to tell their friends: “These idiots, sleeping on the floor of a museum!”
“This is a dream. This is a dream.”
It wasn’t my best sleep but I slept. And dream. Mostly about the experience. The bulk of my dream was about being in a museum trying to sleep and trying to dream, interspersed with symbols and things that I’ll keep to myself for deciphering. I explained all this to my dream interpreter who gently sat by side around 6am, taking notes and probing me about my rest.
We all met again in the cafeteria to a light breakfast, yak tea included (and then immediately discarded by me). After breakfast, we met back with our groups to discuss our dreams. There was a theme. We all dreamt about being in a museum trying to sleep. Again, within each dream there were symbols and things that held meaning for each dreamer but I loved how we all shared this commonality.
By then it was close to 9am and our night at the museum was coming to an end. I said goodbye to my group. We only spent one night together but it felt like summer camp. “Keep in touch!” “Never forget the yak tea!”
I went back to the sixth floor one last time to say goodbye to my masks. I imagined the next 8 hours for the three women. Strangers staring, taking pictures, doing what museum-goers do. I smiled and they smiled back.
The Rubin Museum’s annual Dream-Over was also featured in The Wall Street Journal. Read more here.