Beautiful Dreams: My Brain Prepares to Resume Its Life on Earth

An egg. An orange. Avocados. These objects exist now only in two dimensions – images, references, distant memories. Like a movie of a picnic running in reverse, in dreams I watch their bone-dry remnants lift off the page, becoming fleshy and whole again. Grapes. Cherries. A real apple.

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The closer we get to Earth, the more vivid they become, though some continue to feel, if not surreal, then certainly imaginary. Pomegranates, I’m pretty sure, are somebody’s long-standing dream: like the unicorns of the fruit world. Persimmons, too. The person picturing persimmons into existence fell asleep one summer night as the smell of cinnamon wafted in – and voila! A strange little berry many people on Earth can’t even identify. I was once at a grocery store in Los Angeles with a roommate who was getting her Masters in film. I pointed to a persimmon erroneously stacked among beefsteak and hot house tomatoes. Her gaze followed to where I was pointing. After a moment she cocked her head and replied, “That is one WEIRD looking tomato.” I bought it and brought it home to my other roommates who agreed that it was, indeed, the strangest tomato they had ever seen, and definitely the strangest they had ever tasted.

For a few months after the mission first began I would have sort of waking dreams – bright moments where, for an instant, I would be standing somewhere on Earth. New Orleans. Boston Harbor. A street corner in New York City where I used to buy falafel and watch people walk their dogs. The fleeting scene would be completely immersive: I would hear, see, smell, and feel the place I was standing, down to the warmth of the pita sandwich in my hand. Then, I would blink and it would be gone. I called them “Earthflashes”. They lasted for a few months before fading as mysteriously as they had started.

My crewmates described vivid dreams as well, leading to me to wonder if, when we first arrived, our neurobiology was attempting to compensate for a dearth of expected input. The views here of the white dome, gray floors, red lava, and blue sky are lovely in their own way, but generally unchanging. Back on Earth, the world evolves around us. Even in small towns, where the people, buildings, and cars stay the same month after month, the weather will alter. Animals – even urban ones like pigeons and squirrels, mice living along the tracks and household pets – will make unexpected appearances. Someone will paint their house or change the rims on their tires. Things are designed to change and be changed.

Almost by design, change does not happen here.  The plants grow – very slowly and very beautifully. One day someone may harvest the peas or the kale, and the change is dramatic. We installed white shelves in the kitchen at one point. A few people started using new, bright yellow EVA suits. Apart where things have broken and been replaced, where a few things have been upgraded, or where plants have grown and been harvested, not much has changed visually in almost 12 months.

For a while, the Earthflashes faded and dreams retreated into what I think of as their typical form: shadowy, elusive, almost grayscale upon waking. Then, as of a few weeks ago, they surged back into full-spectrum technicolor – as if someone with access to a neural edition of Adobe photoshop went in and dragged the brightness and contrast bars up to maximum. As if my brain understands that pretty soon there will be green and yellow, pink and orange, sea-foam green and burnt umber shamelessly scrawled all over the place. From floor to ceiling, from wall to window and all over the natural world, there will be things for my brain to process that it hasn’t processed in a year: uncut fruit and cars, traffic lights and supermarkets, pets and people, people, people as far as the eye can see, and certainly much further than the brain can comprehend; especially my brain, especially now.

While my brain’s white matter revs the engines in preparation to re-join the race, the gray matter has gone digging in the bottom of the closet, looking for old diaries holding descriptions of what the race was like. Searching past worn-out boots, wading through faded socks, and pushing aside stretched-out sweatshirts, it finds that even the old descriptions don’t match the color, texture, and clarity of these new dreams. So the dreams will have to do. They’ll have to hold down the fort and prepare me for the jump back to Earth; for the parties being planned; for the press who have been invited to be there when our hatch opens and we, for the space pease cyrightfirst time in 366 days, walk out of it without a layer of plastic between us and the world. In 16.5 days, lot will change from one moment to the next. A lot will become available to us for the first time in a year: colors and shapes, sights and sounds, fresh food and old friends. It’s a reminder that one of the most exciting things about a journey is the return: not to compare the world to what we remember of it, but to remember the places and people anew; to let them be themselves, almost unmarred by memory; to stand patiently by as the Earth we call home, with its sparrows and grass, billboards and chainlink fences, sweating jungles and sizzling asphalt re-introduces itself to me, and I – whatever I have become in a year somewhere sort of like Mars – find the words, and the way, to introduce myself back into the world.