Category Archives: Symbols

What does Christmas mean to you?

Christmas can be the most wonderful time, or the most bleak, depending on what’s going on in your life. We associate the festive season with abundance, and as much as it can be an opportunity to celebrate all the good things we have, it can also heighten our awareness of what we lack.

Money, certainly, with so much pressure on us to buy, buy, buy. For some people, a home. Family maybe, or friends. Or a specific family member, now departed, or a specific friend. Like most people, I’ve had some very bleak Christmases in my life, but I’ve never stopped loving Christmas.

Because for me, Christmas is about love. The birth of love in the world, the symbolic baby which, in difficult times, is the gift of hope for a better future.

I think that in the modern world we can sometimes have too narrow an idea of love. We tend only to think of it in terms of other people – children, parents, siblings, wider family and friends. But love is much bigger than that.

We can experience a deep love and sense of connection with our environment, or our work, or our inner world, which is just as transforming as love within relationships.

Carl Jung says the creative mind plays with the objects it loves, and whatever else is going on in my life, I always love the beautiful objects of my imagination, which I meet on the page or in dreams. That love is a force behind all my work, including this blog.

Love of every kind enlarges us, holds and inspires us. When we’re with someone we love, or doing something we love, or in a place we love, we’re not thinking, we’re just being. Time future and past is gone, and we are truly present.

You can call it God, this context in which we lose our small self. You can call it Nature, Great Spirit, Soul, or simply Love. Whatever we love redeems us from the lonely responsibility of feeling we are all that there is.

Love does not depend on money, home, family, friends – it’s a force in the world, and in our human nature. More than ever in these turbulent times, when we can feel helpless and in despair, love is a choice we can always make.

For me, Christmas feels like a reminder of that, in case we forget.

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This Christmas, may you feel blessed. 

 

A dream of darkness

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

 

The glimpse is the gift

Last night, I had a dream about the rewards of writing, and when I woke I thought, I can blog about that. When I turned on my computer in the morning, I discovered this quotation in my Facebook timeline, which was a delightful synchronicity to start the day.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Because this was my dream.

I am in a wild, upland place, being taken to see a wonderful plant. I’m given just the briefest glimpse of tall stems with early blooms of the most intense purple, and I realise it’s the colour that I’ve been brought to see. Usually, I am brought to see the indescribable aqua, but this time it’s this purple.

I’ve been writing something, and it’s a test – if I pass, I can come back and see this purple in all its intensity, in full flower. But this time, I have not passed and I will have to go back and start again, and try with another piece of writing.

This is the work, and I’m grateful for it. I don’t feel disheartened by failure, because the work itself is my reward.

It was always like this. I look back at all my writing, so many books I poured my heart and self into that never saw the light of day – real work, hard work – and I never achieved any kind of fame or recognition, but I don’t regret any of it.

Like the family years. I remember the sense of pride I took in the tasks of the household and childcare, which felt important, and a privilege, to be able to live in service to the work. I never felt bored or resentful, or that what I did was unimportant.

I had work, and I wanted to do it as well as I could. Not everybody is given that sense of purpose. I’ve glimpsed the colour, and one day I might see it in full flower, but the glimpse is the gift.

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Dreaming purple

 

Dreams of the places you’ve left

The last time I blogged I was still on holiday in the Northern Isles, and coming home from holidays can be hard, even if you love the place you live.

The first few nights back home, I had strange dreams which were like series of pictures from my holiday, framed as if they were in an exhibition.

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A Shetland sheep on a Shetland beach
The flight to North Ronaldsay, Orkney
The flight to North Ronaldsay, Orkney
Croquet in my daughter's Orkney garden - we're so posh!
Croquet in my daughter’s Orkney garden – we’re so posh!

These dreams reminded me of something my friend Anne used to say about depression, that it was ‘a chance for your soul to catch up.’

I was home, but feeling unsettled and wishing I was still on holiday – so my dreams gave me a chance to take a final look back and enjoy the wonderful memories. The fact that the images were framed gave them distance, so they felt like memories rather than events I was still involved in.

I wonder how often we dream about the places we’ve left, sweet dreams that bridge the gap between where we were and where we are now in the physical, like bridges for our soul to cross when it is ready.

How to get new ideas for life, work and dreams

I’m a great believer in holidays. When you’re away from home, you can see your normal day-to-day life from outside, and it gives you a different perspective. What are you relieved to be away from? How do you chose to pass your days when the constraints of work and other responsibilities are lifted? The answers to these and other questions can surprise you and offer precious insights into fruitful changes you might choose to make when you get home.

As a dreamer, one of the things I enjoy about holidays is that my dream life also shifts perspective. Holiday dreams usually have a different quality, and bring in new kinds of imagery. It was during a holiday many years ago that I first encountered the faceless ones, and began to engage with the archetypes, those images which Jung called ‘pieces of life itself.’

Holidays are times when you can wake slowly and really savour your dreams. You can carry them around with you during the day, and ponder them in quiet moments. The images you bring home with you will have the same sense of time and place as the physical souvenirs you buy.

As a writer, I find the same shift in perspective. Ideas I’ve been working on at home seem different from far away. Sometimes more exciting,  sometimes less. They form up in unexpected ways; they show different aspects of themselves to me. I’m sure that’s why so many writers go on writing retreats.

You don’t have to go to exotic places or spend a fortune in order to feel the benefits of going on holiday. In fact, like many other people, I usually go to familiar places I love. The point is simply to be somewhere else, to look at things from a different angle for a while, and come back to normal life feeling renewed.

Thinking creatively in shop-free North Ronaldsay recently - petits fours made from prunes and dark chocolate. Not something I'd ever have eaten at home, but surprisingly good!
Thinking creatively at the bird observatory hostel in shop-free North Ronaldsay recently – petits fours made from prunes and dark chocolate. Not something I’d ever have eaten at home, but surprisingly good!

Have you ever found that being away from home gave you new ideas about life, work or dreams?

Can a dream really change your life?

When you tell acquaintances and strangers that you write and teach about dreams an interesting thing happens – the polite, interested look disappears, their faces light up and they straight away tell you about a dream they’ve had…

This is the first sentence of Writing in the House of Dreams and I wanted to tell you about recent example, when a complete stranger told me this story.

He said that as a young man in his teens he had experienced intense suicidal feelings, and he happened to be going out with a girl who felt the same way.

They talked very seriously about suicide and he was in no doubt that they would indeed end up killing themselves.

Then one night he dreamt they were waiting for the last bus near a roundabout on the edge of town, after an evening out. Everything looked orange under the street lights and there was no-one else around.

When the bus finally arrived, the dreamer saw through the windows that all the passengers were skeletons.

‘Don’t get on the bus!’ he said, grabbing his girlfriend’s arm. ‘We don’t want to get on that bus!’

When he woke up, he thought the dream had been about her, and that he should tell her not to think about killing herself any more, but then he realised it was actually about both of them.

He thought, ‘If we’re not getting on that bus, we need to think of good reasons for living. We need to find out what we want to live for.’

From that day, the dreamer stopped obsessing about suicide and started to live purposefully, and at times in later life when things felt hard, he remembered that dream, and stayed off the bus.

As I write this, I’m struck by the curious fact that decades after the dreamer had this dream, there’s now a website for people considering suicide that uses the term ‘catching the bus’ to mean killing yourself.

I’ve heard lots of stories about people who have had a life-changing dream at a time of crisis, like this man, but sometimes a not-at-all epic-seeming dream can change the way we see the day-to-day things we’re going through, and help us over a hurdle.

For example, I had a dream that coloured balls were pouring from the sky as if someone was emptying a giant ball-pool. They were bouncing off the ground and landing all over everything.

I thought, ‘This isn’t right! The balls all belong in one place. They should all be landing in one box.’ When I woke, I knew it was about a situation that had been making me feel annoyed (it was ‘a load of balls’) and realised I had been  judging everyone according to one person’s behaviour.

That dream didn’t change my whole life forever, but it did change the way I was handling a passing situation. Big changes, little changes – dreams can provide an opportunity to consider things from a different angle when our conscious mind is going round and round, stuck in the same groove.

There’s another great story of a life-changing dream on Tzivia Gover’s blog 

Have you had a life-changing dream, or has someone else told you about theirs?

The mysterious geometry of writing

In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande points out that it isn’t only themes and characters that emerge from the unconscious mind through writing. She says the unconscious is also ‘the home of form.’

So as well as trusting the flow of ideas if we open our mind by entering the ‘writer’s trance,’ we can also trust that the ideas will organise themselves into the shapes of books and stories.

I definitely find this in my own work.

When I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I start with a sketchy plan and head off from Start in the general direction of Finish, wondering how on earth I’m going to get from one to the other, until suddenly I begin to see the shape of the whole thing in my head like a geometrical figure or a pattern of numbers.

At that point, I become fully engaged. I dash along like a mad thing, joining the dots to make the beautiful shape of the book I’m creating.

This means all my books have a sort of symmetry in the contents – the four Peony Pinkers, for example, all have 17 chapters. Why 17? I’ve no idea, only that that was the number they needed, and I knew each story was on the right track the moment I could see how it could make 17 chapters.

 

The Peony Pinkers - 4 times 17
The Peony Pinkers – four perfect 17s

Writing in the House of Dreams came out as four parts, each part having three chapters.

4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams
4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams

My brand new book, The Binding, has three parts and each one seven chapters.

The Binding - 3 parts, 7 chapters each
The Binding – 3 parts, 7 chapters each

This mysterious geometry is very marked in my own writing practice but not all books divide so obviously into a balance of parts, so it can’t be exactly the same for all writers.

Still I imagine there must come a time for everyone when something clarifies in the mind; you see the finished shape of the whole book, and the writing steps up a notch to engage with it.

If you are a writer, do you recognise what I’m talking about, or am I just weird?!