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The Plant Scientist Who's Analyzing People's Pandemic Dreams

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May 29 2020

While in my backyard cleaning, I notice a set of cellar doors propped open slightly by a hose. In my two years of living in this house, I’ve never noticed these doors before. The hose props them open just enough to reveal a world beyond the doors. I almost don’t dare look, but my curiosity gets the best of me. I open the doors and walk down a steep staircase to find an entire apartment, fully furnished, with no signs of occupancy. There’s an art studio, a living area with many, many (too many) couches, a kitchenette, and an office area. It’s small but quaint, and I figure that the previous owner of the house must have abandoned it. Whatever the case, my main excitement is hatching a plan to remodel the space so I could have an office away from my actual house.

This is just one of the many strange and vivid dreams I’ve had since sheltering-in-place in California's Bay Area. I’ve dreamt about accidentally taking a Zoom call while still laying in bed in my pajamas; about fighting off an army of unexpected visitors to my house with a broomstick; and seeking refuge in a leaky submarine to escape an oil spill.

Turns out I’m not the only one having weird and unsettling COVID-19 dreams. Sisters Erin and Grace Gravley decided to track our collective dreams on their website i dream of covid in hopes of finding patterns. I spoke with Grace, who pairs quirky illustrations with each dream posted on the site, about quarantine dream patterns and her predictions for the post-COVID world.

In one sentence, who are you?

A California-born aspiring botanist and unofficial video game expert.

What do you do? How did you learn it?

I am a plant scientist by training and trade, and I would venture to say that anyone with a deep love of botany must also be, on some level, an artist. I first got seriously into drawing and digital illustration as a means of drawing botanical illustrations. These were mostly either to help me remember interesting details about a plant species, but also a bit of a labor of love. Pretty soon I found myself drawing anything from cartoon Valentine’s Day cards to my favorite video game characters. Lots of what I have learned has been through my own trial and error, watching YouTube videos about how the heck Procreate works, and looking at other artists’ works and seeing how they do what they do.

How did the i dream of covid project come about?

This project comes from the mind of my sister Erin. After reading Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams, a book that chronicled the dreams of people living under Hitler’s regime, she was fascinated by the idea that a shared societal experience could be reflected in the individual unconscious. She decided to create a website cataloging these dreams and asked me to create a logo for her. I volunteered to illustrate the dreams and from then on it has been a collaboration. I have been drawing like a madwoman every day since!

What patterns are you seeing so far?

Many! Some of the most interesting ones that I have noticed are recurring themes about hygiene and windows. The hygiene ones make some sense, as we have been washing our hands more than ever before, and there is some sense of unwashed things being potentially dangerous. They manifest in interesting ways, though, like feeling disturbed by people eating with their hands or having stress-dreams about obsessively scrubbing surfaces to no avail of cleanliness.

The ones with windows really fascinate me. I wonder if they are associated with feeling trapped. Sometimes they show up as beacons of hope, or the place the dreamer is watching the dream play out from. For people who are stuck indoors, especially in cities, a window may be the only “outside” access they have, and maybe that inspires hope. Often these windows appear as sources of evil in these dreams, like the virus is going to come in through the window, or someone is peering outside of the window looking at something scary or horrific.

Could you describe your personal favorite dream from the project?

There are so many great dreams, but my personal favorite is called “In here it is also sad.” This dream was submitted in Portuguese by a dreamer in Brazil and was translated by my polyglot cousin, Philip Georgis. In the dream, the dreamer is dying of illness and is struggling to breathe. They are sitting on a balcony and thinking about everything they’ve experienced in life, and their final sentiment is, “All I could think was that nothing was missing.”

There’s so much fear about how we can ensure our own safety that many of our dreams become about the changes in day-to-day life, or fears that are manifested into objects like shadows or windows. It is interesting and profound to consider feeling at peace with contracting COVID and how that would change our lives and relationships. In the end, it’s a dream about love, community, and loss. I think that resonates with our experiences right now; it cuts to the core of our fears and does so beautifully.

Have you had any weird COVID dreams of your own? What have they been about?

Yes, definitely! I did not start having strange dreams until well into shelter-in-place, but now I am having them pretty frequently. Most of mine are about feeling scared that my mom will find out that I am not following the necessary COVID safety measures. For example, I had one last week where I was going on a date to a baseball game at Oracle Park. We were sitting in the bleachers and I realized that I wasn’t having a very good time. I kept feeling uncomfortable and distracted and was a bit puzzled as to what was bothering me so much. All of a sudden I realized that we were in packed bleachers and doing exactly the opposite of social distancing. I turned to my date and said, “Oh no. If my mom finds out that I am not wearing a mask and am in this big crowd, she’s going to kill me!”

What are your 3 favorite quarantine possessions?

I’m considered essential personnel, so I’m still going in to work every day and am not truly quarantined, so I think my quarantine experience has been different from most folks. But here are mine:

  • The Philodendron hederaceum vine that hangs in the window. Watching it grow gives me hope
  • The prism that shoots rainbows all over my bedroom every day starting at 3 pm
  • My crochet needles and yarn; they ease the tension

How do you see the world post-COVID-19?

This one is tough for me. I talk about it a lot with my friends and family, and I have mixed feelings about it. I worry a lot about the folks who have been and will become disenfranchised because of the pandemic, and about our ability as a country to take care of those people in an equitable and just way.

On the flip side, I have hope for us as a world to be more conscious of those we unfortunately often forget. One of the beautiful things about this situation is that we are paying more attention to the other people in our communities. We worry about those who are elderly, houseless, immunocompromised, and undocumented in a way that we haven’t before. I hope in post-COVID life we continue to do this: to protect those people who need to be protected the most, to care about one another whether we know them or not.

What’s your number one bucket list item once shelter-in-place is lifted?

Camping! I love the outdoors and cannot wait to be able to spend time in nature again.

Who are you creative crushin’ on lately?

Cait Gale of Death or Glory Tattoo in Davis, California. She does classic style tattoos and artwork; she gave me a bison tattoo a few months back that I am very much in love with. I have also been reading a lot of short stories lately, and have been particularly drawn to Edwidge Danticat’s writing. Krik? Krak! is one of the best books I have ever read.

  • Tracee Worley

    IDEO alum
    Tracee Worley is a systems designer in IDEO’s learning studio. She's been keeping a dream journal since the age of 13 and believes that dreams are a powerful method of personalized learning.
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