Driving back to the house I was staying in last week, after an afternoon walking the coastline of Shetland, I was listening to an item on Radio 4 suggesting that the wonderful natural history programmes we have these days are putting people off actually going out into the countryside and exploring nature for themselves. The contention was that the natural world feels disappointing compared with the close-up images we can see on our screens.
Chris Packham, one of the Springwatch presenters, was understandably put out by that argument. He said the motivation behind programmes like his was to inspire people to get out and discover the joy of being in nature, by showing how wonderful the natural world is, and all the plants and animals you might see.
I had just seen an otter walk down to the water across the stony beach right in front of me. I would have seen him better in close-up on TV but, having seen the footage of otters on Simon King’s Shetland Diaries a few years ago, I could fill in the detail for myself. I also knew how lucky I’d been to catch a glimpse of such a shy creature.
I’d barely started walking again when i came upon a group of seals lying on a small sandy beach. They were less shy, and allowed me to go down onto the sand and sit watching them. Again, in a close-up on TV, I could have seen every detail, but as Chris Packham said, that would not have come anywhere near the excitement I felt at being so close to the animals themselves.
Just as Chris Packham is an enthusiast for the natural world, I am an enthusiast for the inner world of dreams. Like him, when I share my own experiences, I want to inspire other people to make their own explorations, and I would hate to think it could actually be putting them off.
Not everyone has the time and dedication to devote to one area of experience and most of us like to dip the toe, as I do with my walks in nature. Devoting time and focus will always reap rewards. When I talk about the faceless ones, or numinous dreams, or lucid dreaming I know some people will not have had those experiences, but I hope that simply knowing they exist might inspire them to go looking, or at least recognise them if they chance upon one, and know what they’re looking at, like me and the otter.
A friend of mine made an interesting comment in facebook last week, in response to my post about the ants on the rat.
She said, ‘Since working at the vet’s, I am having a lot of animal dreams!!!! Am just thinking of places I wouldn’t want to work!!!’
I hadn’t really given much thought to work-related dreams, probably at least in part because most of my job these days consists of day-dreaming.
But I straight away realised that lots of people do report having workplace-related dreams, and not just big-ticket dreams about interviews or major projects; often these dreams feel like a continuation of everyday routines.
It struck me that this could be a double whammy, if you were doing a job that didn’t fire you and then having dreams about it that didn’t fire you either.
Which brought me to the wider question – is one way of making your dream-life more satisfying by trying to inject more fun and challenges into the day? I’ve seen this suggestion in a number of dream books over the years, but never felt convinced by it.
It seems to me that although the things of the dayworld are undeniably reflected in dreams, the practical, objective, outer life is very much the minor part of what the dayworld is. You can have a waking life which seems narrow and small, with very little variety and travel, yet your dream life be rich and amazing.
The day world is much more than external events; it is also the inner world of ideas and imagination, and dreams reflect the objects and qualities of both outer and inner daytime experience.
Therefore, although working at the vet’s might make me dream more about animals, so might reading animal stories or surrounding myself with animal pictures.
And if I got my nightmare job, taking the money in a toll booth say, then maybe listening to adventure stories on the ipod or grabbing a few pages in quiet times or jotting down ideas in my breaks might save me from dreaming, ‘One-fifty, please… thank you… one fifty please… thank-you…’
This suddenly makes me think of William Carlos Williams scribbling his poems on the back of a prescription pad between patients.
Confession coming up.
I didn’t have a medical problem when I was working in my various ‘proper’ jobs… I had the lid down, reading!
I’m permitting myself a wayhay today because my agent has read my manuscript… and she says ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is a remarkable book!
So while my dream book is winging its way onto editors’ desks, I’ve decided to celebrate by sharing a short extract here, about what every five-year-old knows about dreams.
Life is resonant. Small events set up vibrations in the soul which still reverberate long after the event itself is forgotten. So it was with the ants on a hot summer day in 1955 which, two years later, were to bring me my first understanding of dreams.
I was making mud pies on the back step, scraping the dry earth into my bucket, adding water from the dribbling outdoor tap and stirring the mixture like my mother did when she made fairy cakes for tea. I spooned it out in sloppy dollops onto the hot concrete and by the time I had found enough small stones for cherries my mud pies were already drying out, going hard and pale at the edges.
My mother was at the kitchen sink doing the washing. The hankies were boiling on the stove and she had the back door open to let the steam out. My father was mowing the grass. I could hear the whirr-whirr of the blades behind me as he pushed the mower up and down. My big sister Susan was riding her bike, bumping and rattling along the path that ran down the side of the garden to the wooden gate at the bottom.
Our garden was a large patch of scrubby grass, featureless except for a washing-line and a compost heap in the far corner comprised entirely of grass cuttings. On one side, a chain-link fence separated the garden from next door’s identical one, and then another chain-link fence, and another, all the way to the main road. On the other side, a tall hedge hid the flower-beds and orchards that surrounded the big bungalow at the end of the close.
We heard Monica calling but we couldn’t see her over the hedge. Susan ran down to the gate. I ran after her. I always followed although Susan never asked me to and sometimes I ended up wishing I hadn’t. I hoped Monica wouldn’t have her doctor’s set with her because if she did, they would make me be the patient. They would take me to secret places and hold me down. Susan would wield the syringe, of course – she was the expert when it came to injections.
We went out the gate and clambered over the stile into the woods, where Monica was waiting impatiently.
‘I’ve found something!’ she said to Susan. ‘Come and see.’
I followed them along the dirt path under the trees. Monica was pulling a plank of wood along the ground behind her, tied to a piece of string. I didn’t know what it was for, and I didn’t like not knowing. Suddenly, Monica stopped.
There was a dead animal lying under the long grass at the side of the path. It had a dribble of dried blood stuck to its face where its eye should be.
‘What is it?’ Susan said.
‘I don’t know,’ said Monica. ‘But we’re going to pick it up and put it on my sledge.’
They both looked at me.
I was frightened of Monica. She wasn’t as big as Susan, but she had bright ginger hair, and her pale face was covered in freckles. She claimed she could eat the skin of oranges, and I had seen her mother do it, her bright red lipstick lips drawn back from her teeth. When I tried to do it myself, I couldn’t. Even the fleshy pith was too bitter.
I looked at the animal. I didn’t ask why we had to put it on the plank, or where we were going to take it. There were fat flies buzzing around it and ants crawling in and out of its fur. I wanted to run back along the path, but I couldn’t see the house from there and I wasn’t sure of the way.
My sister flicked at the flies with a bit of bracken.
‘Go on then,’ she said.
Monica put her hand on her hip, her orange hair gleaming dangerously. Susan’s hair was black, in thick curls around her face. They were both much bigger than me. I could feel the ants crawling in the rat’s wiry fur as I picked it up.
The ants crawled out of the rat and surfaced again soon after when I was watching a film on television with my father. The Indians buried the cowboys up to their necks and smeared honey on their faces.
‘Why have they given them honey?’ I asked my dad. ‘Is it to tease them because they can’t reach to lick it up?’
Before he could answer, the ants came and everything became horribly clear.
So the ants crawled out of the rat bringing fear and revulsion on their backs, and they came to the honey, and they hurt the cowboys, and then with fear and revulsion and cruelty they marched on. They caught up with me two years later, when my family had moved to a suburban street far, far away from the woods.
I was lying in a shallow ditch. I had no idea how I had got there. The earth underneath me felt warm and grainy, and the sun on my bare arms and legs made my skin tingle. I raised my head and looked down at my body. There was an ant on my leg. I stiffened. Suddenly, the ants were everywhere. I wanted to brush them off but I found I couldn’t move. I started to scream.
My mother came rushing into the bedroom.
‘Get them off me!’ I shouted. ‘Make them go away!’
‘What? Get what off you? What’s the matter?’
I couldn’t tell whether my mother was angry or scared, like me.
‘The ants! Get them off me!’
My mother said, ‘There aren’t any ants here. You must have been having a dream.’
What did she mean, there weren’t any ants? I could see them. I could feel them crawling all over me. I started to scream again.
My mother ran out and came back with my dad. He stood in the doorway in his pyjamas, bleary with sleep.
‘Get them off me!’ I yelled.
The ants were everywhere. They were nibbling at my skin. They were eating right through to my bones.
‘What’s going on?’ my father asked – my mother, not me.
‘Just tell her there aren’t any ants.’
He nodded, and pulled back the blankets. He said, ‘Look, Jennifer. No ants. There aren’t any ants.’
I couldn’t see them now, but I knew what I had seen, and I knew what I had felt. I knew what every five-year-old knows – that dreams are real. The only difference between the ants on the rat and the ants in the ditch was that nobody else could see the ants in the ditch. In dreams, you were on your own.
After my mother and father had gone back to bed, I lay there rigid, not daring to move in case the ants came back. Then I did what every child eventually does – I turned my face away from the dream towards the light streaming in from the landing.
I looked away and my dreams disappeared, as dreams will.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome children’s author, Katherine Roberts, to the House of Dreams, on her blog-tour to celebrate her new book ‘Sword of Light.’
It’s especially exciting for me because this is the first time, as far as I know, that a book has been published which was helped along by one of my workshops, in this case, for the Scattered Authors Society http://www.scatteredauthors.org/
My Heroine’s Journey for SWORD OF LIGHT, by Katherine Roberts
My inspiration for ‘Sword of Light’ came in a waking dream, when I attended a workshop led by the lovely Jenny Alexander, who guided a few of us children’s authors on a ‘Hero’s Journey’ along our personal writing paths. It went like this.
Imagine you are walking in a familiar place, when you see a sign saying, ‘To the Treasure…’
I am in the local wood on the boardwalk, and it is raining so no-one else is walking today. The trees are dripping and the bluebells are out. All smells green and garlicky. I am approaching my favourite bridge over a stream, where I often imagine fairies, when I see a new path twisting through the trees where there are no marked trails. A sign says TO THE TREASURE. I think it is one of the farm’s treasure hunts for children, so I hesitate because it might be something tacky and disappointing. But since no-one is around to laugh at me, I decide to take a look.
You find the path blocked…
I push through some ivy and find the path blocked by a monstrous dragon that some local artists have strung up in the trees by the boardwalk for the annual Arts Trail. It is a fantasy creature made of old grey canvas, black feathers, and a scary triangular beak/snout. It is meant to be a future people’s idea of a bird they have never seen because birds are extinct in the future, and it has come alive. It hisses at me. It has been tied in the trees long enough, and now it has escaped. But it can’t fly because its wings have not been made the right way, and they are soggy with the rain. Also, it has no eyes, so it is blind.
How do you get past the block…?
The ‘future-bird’ cannot see me so I freeze, trying to make no sound. I think about going around it, but the undergrowth is too thick. Also, it’s boggy because I am off the boardwalk. I am too afraid of its huge sharp beak and its powerful claws to try climbing over it, so I decide to fool it. I pick up a stick and throw it into the undergrowth. The dragon hears the stick land and flaps off after it, getting its wings entangled in the bushes and shrieking as it flounders in the bog. I hurry past before it can get free, a bit afraid of meeting it again on the way back.
You find the treasure…
As I leave the dragon behind, the sun comes out and the path emerges in a clearing where there is a barrow covered by greenery. I push aside some leaves and crawl inside, where I find a gleaming sword. This is the treasure! I take the sword, thinking it might be useful if I have to fight the dragon, although I don’t really want to soil the beautiful blade with its blood, nor hurt the ‘future-bird’ because it is the last of its kind. Also, I doubt my fighting skills because I have not been trained to use a blade. So I venture back warily along the dripping path, where the sun now sparkles through the leaves and gleams off my treasure.
What do you do next…?
The dragon is still stuck in the bog, but it has exhausted itself and the sun is drying its feathers. It steams gently, its wings spread in the warmth. It still cannot see me, but the sword is magic so it can see the light coming off it. It crawls towards me, as if hypnotised. It seems less afraid now, maybe because it is no longer lost and alone. I stroke its beak and it does not attack. Murmuring to the creatuire, I climb on its back, and since the sun has dried out its wings it can now fly. Although it is still blind, my eyes will guide us. As we take off and circle above the trees in the sunshine, I see the glint of water below where fairies live. We both feel amazingly free. As long as we continue to trust each other, we can fly anywhere in the world, and my sword of light will defend us from enemies, past or future.
I was writing the first draft of ‘Sword of Light’ at the time of this workshop, and am quite spooked by how many elements have ended up in the book:
The sword – Excalibur, the Sword of Light that was forged in Avalon.
The dragon/’future-bird’ – a shadrake, a dark dragon from the underworld of Annwn which breathes ice instead of fire.
The heroine – Rhianna Pendragon, King Arthur’s daughter.
Some years ago, I was working on my first poetry collection, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone. The book’s main section, inspired by my journey through Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland in the footsteps of an intrepid eleventh century female Viking, was complete, but I didn’t yet have a clear vision for the final part of the manuscript.
Until, over a period of several weeks, prompted perhaps by my reading numerous narratives of Polar exploration to both the Arctic and Antarctic, I had a sequence of dreams featuring that most iconic of polar creatures, the penguin. In one dream, I received a penguin delivery – he was shoved and squeezed through my letterbox until he landed with a slap on the tiled hall floor. In another, I was trying to hoist a poorly penguin into a cardboard box so that I could take him to the vet, while in the most surreal dream of all, I was metamorphosing, flipper by flipper, feather by feather, into a penguin myself.
I’d never written poems from dreams before, but the penguins were impossible to ignore. As I wrote, I pondered on all the images of penguins that exist in popular culture, as well as our persistent commodification and Disneyfication of animals, a theme that seemed to fit well with the environmental strands I’d introduced in the main section of the collection. Gradually, over the next six months, my dream penguins swam and waddled their way into a series of poems that enabled the final part of my manuscript to fall into place.
Creatures of the Intertidal Zone was published by Cinnamon Press in 2007. I was delighted by Helena Nelson’s mini-review of the collection in Mslexia and the fact that she singled the penguins out for a special mention – ‘Susan Richardson’s Creatures of the Intertidal Zone offers a marvellously different blend of passion, pathos, poetry – and penguins.’ I have continued to allow my dreams to feed my poetry ever since.
To begin with, nothing drastic.
the odd cold bath, air con on max,
the utter absence of shivers.
Then, the skin tingles, each pore forcing
the shaft of a feather forth, like a lid
with a push-through straw.
I go right off garlic, crisps, samosas,
bright red curtains, Gauguin prints.
If I must stay indoors, I want plain
white tiles, a single chilled white porcelain sink.
And oh, the fingers. Useless, as if mittened.
And stretched, the tips skimming the floor.
Scissors, chopsticks, forks – all binned.
Breasts blend with belly, waist, hips.
I’m lugging a two-fifty-litre rucksack
in an outsize black wetsuit and wellies.
My tears taste of fish.
Fresh fears keep me from sleeping.
The fleck throats of bull seals.
Ice melt. Oil slicks.
I make a nest from the last
strands in my hairbrush and what I once
knew as pencils, and string.
Soon I must push
this hard new truth between my legs
and hatch it.
The dream behind ‘One Wolf Howls,’ by Scotti Cohn.
I have always had an active dream life. The content of my dreams ranges from the mundane to the bizarre. Many of my dreams are lucid or ‘conscious’ dreams.
About fifteen years ago, I had ‘the wolf dream.’
In the dream, I am running on a paved road in a rural area. I can feel each of my four paws striking the road as I run. I realize that I am a wolf – specifically, a black, female wolf. Up ahead, I see three or four men with rifles. I immediately veer off into the tall grass. I creep closer, crouched low, watching them warily. I am very much in the body and mind of the wolf.
Animals of all kinds fascinate and delight me. In addition, I am intrigued by the idea of totem animals. This dream made me wonder if the wolf was my totem animal. I sought out pictures and books about wolves and watched television specials about them.
One night in 2003 I was about to fall asleep when an image formed in my mind: a lone wolf howling, with a full moon in the sky above. My mind began to play with the image, and produced the lines: ‘One wolf howls in the winter moonlight… Night light, dim light, midnight soon.’ The word ‘winter’ felt too general, so I tried ‘January moonlight,’ and liked it. I continued to create lines in my head, moving from ‘one wolf’ in January to ‘two wolves’ in February, ‘three wolves’ in March, and so forth.’
After many revisions and submissions to editors, my children’s book, ‘One Wolf Howls’ was published by Sylvan Dell Publishing in 2009, with marvellous illustrations by Susan Detwiler.
I dreamed of being a children’s book author my whole life. It seemed fitting that my first published children’s book was inspired by a dream.
When you don’t remember many dreams, the ones you do remember can seem weird and random, but most people find that as soon as they start to recall and record dreams regularly their dreamlife settles.
It’s like when you first start writing. It feels as if you could write absolutely anything, but gradually you discover your own inner landscape with its particular themes, characters and environments.
Each person’s dream-world is surprisingly consistent. It is characterised by certain landscapes, flora and fauna. The open spaces in my dreams are invariably coastlines and mountains – I can’t remember ever dreaming about woods or jungles. The built environments are parks and gardens with ponds and statuary, old houses, churches and castles.
The flora fits with the dreamscapes so, for me, there are very few trees in my dreams but lots of cultivated flowers, open grassland, mosses and lichens. My animals are mostly fishes and birds, but I have occasional visits from lions and tigers, lizards and snakes. I have never once dreamt about sheep, goats, cows or elephants.
The animals you dream about are like companions, or daimons, to use Philip Pullman’s word in ‘Northern Lights.’ Your favourite animal is probably your life-long guide, but others may be with you for a season. You can find your dream animals without waiting for dreams.
Simply take a slow breath to centre yourself. Close your eyes or look down. Relax your mind, and enter your inner world. The first animal you see in there is the one that has something for you right now. Run with that one, whatever it is.
Draw your animal with your non-dominant hand. Consider its qualities. Collect some pictures of your animal, and possibly a model or ornament of it. Look up more information about it online. Have these things around, so that you are living alongside them for a while. Allow your animal to reveal itself to you.
This is what my guest Scotti did, after she dreamt about wolves, and out of that process came a beautiful children’s book.