When I was small, I began having a recurring dream. I was on my own, with no adults along, traveling the world aboard a wooden sailing ship, the sort of ship that billowed its sails through the Errol Flynn, seafaring movies my parents used to watch. The crew of my dream ship was a happy group of penguins. The birds could talk. They were charming and kind, pointing out dolphins or seabirds overhead, roughhousing, getting into exuberant tussles. Each wore a sailor’s cap and a belt—no pants, just a belt. The only thing the cook knew how to cook was spaghetti! That suited me fine. I loved my mother’s spaghetti. I would have eaten it morning, noon, and night, just as my sailing penguins did. In the dream, I felt loved, free. I had the penguin dream repeatedly, until at some point approaching puberty, the dream never came again. Some of the things I’ve written—poems, a narrative thread in a story or play—have grown out of my dreams, usually my wildest dreams. But recurring dreams are the most interesting. They offer powerful clues to what’s going on in the hidden self and, in my case, are a wellspring for art.
In fact, I’d say there’s an artist in control of my dreams.
The photo at the top of this post was taken in the hours before my script The Rock Farm was performed in my hometown, at the Historic Ironwood Theatre, the same beautiful Italian Renaissance-style building in which I saw my first plays and movies, beginning sixty years ago.
My hometown community, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, has worked hard to preserve the HIT, as it’s known locally, which once played silent movies and hosted vaudeville acts. You’ll notice that two cast members are sitting quietly on the set, preparing mentally for the performance. Our troupe had made a five-hour road trip from Minnesota, to stage the production where I’d grown up in an iron mining community, bringing along a simple set. Some among us had traveled all the way from eastern Finland—we were doing the play in both Finnish (my ethnic background) and English. Everyone pitched in to set up, so there had been a lot of activity for the actors to decompress from.
I love the dreamy quality of this photo. Just the sight of that stage fills me with a sense of art’s power to take us out of this world. Drama is especially good at inducing a dreamlike state—in a theatre we surrender control of our minds to allow the story in. One of the things I’ve missed most since the start of the pandemic has been live theatre. But all art induces that dreamlike state, whether on the stage, a canvas, or the page. It’s why I write, to approach that altered state and take readers with me.
I pay faithful attention to the artist who controls my dreams. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll show you why it’s important. Dreams are personal, yes, but dreaming is universal. There is, I think, an artist in control of everyone’s dreams.
When I was that little girl having the penguin dream, I needed to “grow and explore” and to feel secure in it. I’ve wondered if the penguins were dream versions of my parents, who encouraged my curiosity. With that dream, the hidden artist in me kept reminding me that I was both free and safe. My affinity for those penguins was, and is, so strong that there’s an unpublished manuscript of a children’s book in a box up in my attic—my first serious attempt at writing fiction. The protagonist is a little girl who, as part of her adventures, sails aboard a small wooden ship with a crew of penguins. And yes, there’s spaghetti.
Through the years, of course, my dreams became more complicated, more unsettling. By the time I was attending my sturdy, red brick grade school—around the time Cuba sprouted ballistic missiles—we were having civil defense drills, practice for when a nuclear bomb would be flown into the heartland and dropped on top of us. The teachers guided us down the stairs to a long hallway in the lowest level of the building, marked Fallout Shelter. High up on a wall, three orange triangles floated inside a black circle. We’d line up and crouch along the walls with the lights out. The only light came from a bank of windows at one end of the hallway. We could hear one another breathe; we could feel with another’s nerves.
Those drills against nuclear explosions rattled my soul. Around that time, I started having a recurring, insidious dream about sidewalks. My family lived half a block from that grade school. Every lunch hour, I walked home and then would walk back. What I’m saying is, I knew every inch of those sidewalks—every crack, every house along the way (and the neighbors who lived in them), every place I could run for shelter.
As those nuclear bomb drills sent us to the school’s basement, I began having that recurring dream about sidewalks—only there’s no place of shelter in it. Rather than moving us to the basement as the bomb-carrying planes approach, the school officials in the dream send us home. I exit the school, alone, I get to the stop sign at the end of our block, and there the sidewalks turn sticky-rubbery, with all the properties of quicksand. I’m so close—I can see our small gray house up ahead—but my ankles are disappearing beneath me, like the feet of the unwary in Tarzan’s jungle. No matter how I struggle, I can barely get my legs free and I make no progress—in fact, it feels like I’m losing ground, and I hear the enemy planes moving closer. There is no help. I will never see my family again. I startle awake with the sound of the planes still in my ears, and it takes me a long time to calm down.
There’s this comfort. The dream never reaches its horrible end—that is, the bomb never drops or explodes. I wake up mired in the concrete, my brain and heart about to burst with fear and sorrow. I lie there and think about whatever situation in my waking life is causing this dream, this fear, holding me by the ankles. There is always something, which has nothing to do with global conquest. The most frightening things in my life are personal. When I was an adolescent, hearing for the first time the idea that the personal is political, it shook my view of the world, and I was resistant. But over time, I came to see it as truth. I write about the personal to explore and reveal the hidden politics. The real world shapes my dream world, which shapes my art.
In my sidewalk dreams, linked to my shared experience with classmates during those nuclear bomb drills, the artist in me reminds me that we’re all walking through quicksand with bombs flying overhead. But what sticks with me every time I have that dream is that I survive. We survive. There’s hope.
That’s a strong message from the hidden self.
I was raised by miners and farmers. Hope was grounded in the earth. Early settlements sprang up around the mines. Each cluster of homes and businesses, known as a location, was named for its mine. My high school years introduced a new complication to life. The location we lived in was about two miles from the school, an inconvenient walk along one of two roads with no sidewalks—a narrow main road, and a hilly, winding back road. It was more than inconvenient, actually, but we lived too close to the school for bussing to be provided. This was the era of one-car families. I would occasionally have to walk the two miles, along one of those roads. It was a frightening walk for a teenage girl even in daylight. Cars whizzed by alarmingly close, and there were no houses to run to if someone pulled to the side, opened his door, and grinned a salacious grin.
Even into my late middle age, I have dreamed occasionally that I’m at the high school. It’s dark, I don’t know what time it is, and I have no way home. I walk out to and along the main road with my heart pounding in my ears, through an area known as the Caves. In the dream, the hills of waste rock that I’ve known my whole life rise dark and foreboding. All around, flooded mine shafts lurk, which in waking life we were forbidden to swim in, and everywhere the ground lies like wrinkled corduroy where mine drifts that were too close to the surface collapsed, turning the land above into an undeveloped wasteland. The dream never resolves—I wake up suspended in fear, alone and walking through the Caves, disconnected from time and space and comfort.
I’m never sure what prompts that dream—my cumulative losses, a sense that time’s up, time’s stuck, there’s no going back? It’s the dreamscape of distorted time that interests me. The year I turned forty, a watershed year psychologically, I began work on my novel, A Notion of Pelicans, and I made time an invisible player in the story. The main action takes place on one day, sunup to sundown, but the characters travel through time and memory as they live that day. One of the characters, Claire, loses her sense of time completely.
Look again at the picture of my actors on the HIT stage. Imagine waiting in a theatre’s wings—imagine standing backstage.
There’s a play in my novel, and Claire is acting in it. Her chapter takes place mostly backstage as she’s waiting to perform. She goes back and forth in her mind between present and past, through the memories of her traumatic history. She’s suffered yet another injury—she’s going through a divorce. Everything she’s relied on in her carefully scripted search for normalcy has been upended.
After my mother-in-law, Ruth, read the first version of the manuscript, she looked at me with a pained expression and said, “I wish you would get Claire back together with her husband.” I’d written the novel in the voices of four very different women—to reflect women’s diverse experiences and shared concerns. “I can’t,” I said. “It wouldn’t be true. Relationships end.”
It was the artist talking in me, and the artist of my dreams talking through me.
Here’s a definition of art—making things up to reveal truth. More than violating my vision of art, fixing Claire’s marriage would have been a denial of my own history. I had gone through a divorce, as so many have. The decision was mutually made by my first husband and me, but it was no less painful for that fact. After we separated, I began having another recurring dream. In it, I was with a man, and he would take me into his arms and kiss me. I felt such happiness to be wrapped in someone’s arms, to feel his lips on mine, parting, exploring. Then—his tongue would come apart in my mouth. It overwhelmed me with horrible taste and a bitter burning. I would wake up spitting the brackish fragments out, sick with revulsion.
I imagine it’s not that unusual that a dream like this will recur to anyone after divorce. After I’d had the dream several times in as many years, I had it again. Only this time—well, let the close of the story be told in this poem that grew out of the dream. I wrote it after I met and became engaged to Ruth’s son, who had gone through his own divorce. The poem, which sympathetically brings together the lives of three women, was published in the anthology Dust & Fire: Women’s Stories from Bemidji State University.
* * *
Edna Poe’s Ring
Edna’s hand was small, I think—
mine’s thin and long, still warm.
Yet her engagement ring, passed down
to her grandson and from him
to me, fits as if it were made for me:
seventy-odd years spliced
into a web of white and yellow gold,
a diamond chip.
When I lie quiet, when I listen
to the clock and the strident pulse
of trains passing almost unnoticed
by me now, I think of all she must
have felt: the baby on her hip,
its unearthly face a blur rocking
toward the camera, her man
who gambled, the son she lost at sea.
And I miss her. If we could
meet, I’d band my arms around her
and love myself. I am, she
is, all women, whether we wish to be.
We’re even she who wore this ring
before me, the first wife, the bright
and angry child of the photographs
who held their past like glass
in the palms of her hands. One night
down the alley of sleep, a lover’s tongue
unfurled into its separate, bitter
fragments in my mouth, and when I spat
into my hands, they formed a pattern,
a brilliant mosaic of light and color
and texture: of pain,
become a mirror passed from hand
to hand, a spirit’s eye,
a prism after rain—the ring
on Edna’s and my hands, the yes,
the in spite of it, the because
* * *
When that kaleidoscope of light appeared in my palms, in place of those putrid fragments, I knew I had no uncertainties about that dream, no need to wonder as I have about other dreams. One marries, especially a second time, knowing that pain will come. Through that dream of light in my palms, the hidden artist, my hidden self, told me that healing was done. I could handle both pain and love. Not long after, I met Ruth’s son, my Bruce, and we were right for each other. We had both learned our lessons. I’ve not had that dream again, a sign that, as hard as marriage can be, we’re still doing in our time together something right.
You might wonder—is there really anger in the photos of the woman who wore Edna Poe’s ring before me? No, and if you’ve read any of my earlier essays about writing and poetry, you could have guessed it. Poems are not fact. They smell of the rose—but they are not the rose. In the photos, the other wearer of Edna’s ring is a beautiful, smiling young woman. Still, when I see the pictures, I know that their marriage will end, and I see shadows. Why? Because I’ve lived what any divorced person has lived—I’ve known the hurt and anger that come from having to hold the past like broken glass.
Both women and men know that life delivers injury upon fresh injury. It serves up endless opportunity to move past disappointment, from pain to healing—healing not meaning there are no scars. We all make that move repeatedly, in different ways. My weapon against despair is my love of words. I pay attention to my wildest dreams, especially the recurring ones. I listen to my hidden self, that natural artist, and then I write, knowing firsthand the healing that comes from turning nightmare to art.