A few days after I last blogged, way back in May, I went to Iceland. I’d always been drawn to the North, so Iceland had been on my must-see list for decades, but what made me actually go this year was a series of dreams I had around the time of my mother’s death last November. They were ‘big dreams’ – dreams that had a momentous quality, a deep sense of mystery and meaning.
They were a call to ancestors, to the place beyond death and, specifically, to Iceland. So like all dreamers, who have learnt how and when to listen, I followed the call of my dreams.
Being in Iceland felt, to me, like being in a dream. I had completely underestimated the size of the island, and the sparseness of the population; I had not expected the vast tracts of volcanic deserts and inaccessible mountains. I hadn’t noticed that the key on my map had only three kinds of terrain – places where something’s growing, places where not much is growing, and places where basically nothing is growing at all, which was about 40 percent of the land.
Ice, water – and fire too. In Iceland, the hot water in your shower smells of sulphur, because it’s piped straight out of the volcanic ground, and when you’re walking in some places, you can hear the gurgle of water boiling and bubbling, breathing out wafts of sulphurous steam, and then the earth feels like a living being. You can absolutely understand why Icelandic people believe in earth spirits – you can believe it yourself.
Land of fire and ice, and of light and darkness too. I visited several art exhibitions which explored the creative sensibility of the peoples of the North, shaped by long dark winters and summer months of continuous light. They made explicit how this environment can drive a psychological rhythm between extremes of celebration and isolation, of joy and depression.
I felt these extremes in myself, the whole time I was there. On the surface, excited and enchanted by everything I saw and everyone I met, but sensing all the time, the darkness moving underneath. A few days in, I had this dream:
The car is packed for the next stage of my journey and I’m having a last cup of tea with my hosts. Looking out over Rekjavik through their big window, I see a sudden darkness coming across the sky – clouds?
I see black clouds rising along the edge of town, pouring up into the air from the ground, and as I watch, a sudden column of sparkling fire shoots up, exploding in a great shower of sparks, orange and red, filling the thick black cloud that’s covering everything.
‘What is that?’ I gasp.
‘The volcano’s erupting.’
Black soot is falling everywhere, covering everything, but it doesn’t matter. This is what I’ve come for. The darkness. Not just fun and distraction. I always knew it.
It was the beginning of what has been, for me, a difficult summer. I went to Iceland following the kind of dreams that will take you deep into your own darkness, as well as bringing you, eventually, to wonder and light.
I had expected to meet the black dog, but black dogs come in different shapes and sizes. This one turned out to be huge and hungry, feral and strong, and he was never going to settle for living in my house like a sad old labrador for just a few weeks or months.
It’s been a long and exhausting trek through his cold darkness but, last week, I woke one morning with a great sense of relief, after my first full night’s sleep for months, and a bright thought filled my mind like a sunrise, ‘It’s over now.’
I’m sorry I was away so long, but very happy to be back.
6 thoughts on “A dream of darkness”
I don’t see this really as a dream of darkness, but more of light – albeit hidden behind what, to most, appears gloomy and uninviting. Iceland may symbolize the extremes of nature: a near-arctic island with pockets of volcanoes. Volcanoes, however, have played a critical role in the formation of Earth and therefore, in humanity. Volcanic ash is rich in nutrients, which aids plant growth. That’s one reason why such areas as southern Europe and the western edge of South America produce some of the best fruits and vegetables.
When Norse settlers arrived on Iceland towards the end of the 9th century C.E., about one-fourth of the island was forested, with enough arable land for a relatively small populace. Unfortunately, the Norse began arriving in greater numbers, and deforestation ensued as land was cleared for farming. Animals such as sheep and pigs only added to the ecological chaos. The environment had been stable enough, but was still too fragile to handle such abuse. Jared Diamond’s “Collapse,” which examines in detail how communities succeed or flounder in relation to their environments, can explain it better than me.
In a way, I guess all of that represents the circle of life. What seems dark and forbidding on the surface is a cover for innate beauty and sustenance. It’s something of a test to get through the madness to it; a test of your personal fortitude and a will to live. Once you do, though, life can be extraordinary. Yet it can metamorphose into a lair of sadness and melancholy, if we don’t care for it properly. It can become the very thing we thought it was at first.
I know a little of what you’re experiencing now, Jenny. I lost my father in June and my dog, Wolfgang, last month. It’s ironic because, for the longest time, my father would pet Wolfgang and tell him, “We’re going to go together.” It’s like he was relaying a secret, but loud enough for me to hear. In the short time between, I’d catch Wolfgang looking off into the distance, as if he was watching someone or something. On a few occasions, he’d step into my parents’ bedroom and stand or sit for the longest time, just staring straight ahead. He’d never behaved like that before. I managed to get a couple of photos of him doing that. My cell phone doesn’t produce good still photos or video, so I’d hurriedly reach for my digital camera.
Those losses created a pain in my soul I’ve never felt before. But I know my father would be very disappointed in me, if I just gave up now. He finally accepted that I wanted to be a writer and not an office drone. So to relinquish all those dreams and promises now would be a betrayal.
Besides, who else but me is going to write the myriad of stories I have floating around in my strange little mind?! And I know there are plenty of dogs who desperately want a permanent home.
It might be a scale thing Alejandro! Because I live in England, which is not very big, I imagined Iceland with such a tiny population would somehow be much smaller! And although there are fertile parts, I hadn’t pictured myself driving for 2 hours across literal grey sand desert, where a sandstorm can strip all the paint off your car in seconds, or along the edge of lava fields, mile upon mile, where nothing much was growing at all. Amazing country – I can’t wait to go again.
I’m sorry to hear about your losses, but glad your father did come to accept your ambitions.
Always fascinated how outer and inner landscapes reflect each other – hope things are easing for you.
Me too, Vicky – and how outer and inner worlds generally reflect each other, just like these landscapes. And thank-you – things are very much easier now.
Great that you’re blogging again Jenny and I love this one. It is so powerful! I also love Alejandro’s comments. Having experienced two deaths this year I can relate to it all. Looking forward to reading more. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences in the comments too, Pat. It feels lovely to be back here – though slightly edgy pressing publish after such a long gap, I must confess.