10 December 2009

Dreams: The Stuff Shirts are Made of

PROMPT: Dreams are always a good prompt because of their stark imagery and unusual associations. It could be one of your own that gets you writing or someone else's (with their permission, of course!). Here's one of my husband's I expanded on thanks to an news item, which also often make good prompts.

About a year ago, my husband Chris and I got a chuckle out of a dream he had in which he acquired a new skill: how to "program" shirts (yes, as in long- and short-sleeve, button-down, buttoned-up and stuffed). Chris has a degree in computer technology and has done his share of pounding out code in the 30-plus years he's worked at an electric utility. Even now, his job involves scouting emerging technologies to augment customer service. So it's a fitting dream, no matter how "out there" it seemed at the time.

Imagine, then, our surprise when this week he discovered "programming shirts" isn't as far-fetched as we thought, that one company has developed a flexible screen onto which they can feed video-rich information. Making that screen part of a garment is a logical next step:

Chris and I often tell each other our dreams and puzzle over the symbolic content. I keep a running log of mine and try to analyze many of them. We know we're the only ones who can really figure it out for ourselves and that what seems "right" to us today will likely yield to another layer of meaning tomorrow, next month and next year. A dream has that kind of life. It begins inside us like any other creative product and is just as real as a book or a poem or a program we write--even as real as a tasty holiday meal we plan and serve to family!

Dreams and Premonitions: What's the Connection?

More often than we probably realize, a dream possesses foreknowledge--either in what will come for us or for the larger culture. Sometimes in reaching ahead it gives us warnings. For instance, many people didn't arrive at work at the World Trade Center at their regular time on Sept. 11, 2001. Still others did not board planes involved in the tragedies that day. A number of these people spoke of premonitions and dreams that made them uneasy and either kept them away or slowed them down. Who knows how many of those who perished had similar misgivings that day?

I had two dreams of a car accident before I actually had one a couple years ago. All this is not to say that the purpose of the dreams was to warn me about the old lady who backed into me in the grocery store lot--in my dream the vehicle and the circumstances were different. But it could have been to warn me I was driving myself  too much in my personal life. Or, it could have been trying to tell me my thyroid medication was too low and my attention span and reaction times were off, because it was and they were.

About this time five years ago, I dreamed of a tsunami. The day after Christmas that year, a tsunami devastated the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The focus of my dream was the personal me and how I felt overwhelmed by some personal issues. In my dream, I surfed the tidal wave and watched from the ocean shallows it left behind as it went onto shore and swamped the buildings. But instead of destroying them, it washed them dazzlingly clean. The cities and peoples of Sumatra weren't so lucky.

Certainly the dream wasn't meant to warn me away from traveling or to get me to call the earthquake warning center, because I had no travel plans and the dream contained no information about where or when. But when the waking-life tsunami hit, my spine tingled. The dream became an extra source of encouragement to me that I could survive these tough times, that they had a purpose. An artist friend who also pays attention to her dreams told me she, too, had a tsunami dream--hers just a day or two before the actual one.

I believe these seemingly odd occurrences happen because everything living--us, the plants and the animals, our thoughts and our dreams--are all connected in the organism that is Earth. Just like a whale or a bird can create a new pattern of vocalization and transmit it to all other members of its species everywhere within a few months without direct contact, so can we. We haven't even begun to tap what it is that happens in our inner lives.

Searching for Evidence of Inner Life

Last June I had some physical therapy. I don't remember what was on TV as the therapist gave me my treatment, but we started to discuss it. You've probably all had conversations along this same line: What on earth is the world coming to? I said I thought a big problem nowadays was that many people have no inner life. The therapist asked me what I meant by that.

My reply was dreams and the stream of thoughts that go on inside us all, nonstop. It's not really that people lack this current of thought, but that they don't pay attention to it. They don't remember their dreams, and they don't try to. They don't quiet the outer life enough to hear the inner one, and it's the inner one that's full of all the new stuff waiting to emerge.

Did you know Abraham Lincoln dreamed about his assassination on several occasions? His wife did as well and didn't want him to go to Ford's Theater that night. Julius Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, dreamed of her husband's assassination, too. German chemist Friedrich Kekule correctly postulated the structure of the benzene ring after seeing an image of a snake swallowing its tail in a daydream, and Mary Shelley attributed her fictional character Frankenstein to a similar source.

The list is endless. Launch a Google search of your own sometime.

I just finished re-reading a favorite book and posting a review about it: The Wild Braid by Stanley Kunitz . In it, he talks about the inner life and dreams:
One function of dreams is to inform us that the boundaries of experience are infinitely open and that the limits we perceive in our daily life are in themselves an illusion, that actually to be alive is to occupy territories beyond those we recognize as our physical universe. Each person's dream-life is in itself a universe, a product of a single tangle of membranes and nerve centers and the rest of it. In the dream you move beyond that dominion into one where the rules have not yet been discovered and never will be.
Later, Kunitz tells of recurring dreams of being lost. He admits he doesn't know how to interpret this feeling and concedes he couldn't possibly tell what the dreams "mean" once and for all. But he believes his purpose as an artist is to try to describe the feelings they evoke. "There is, above all," he says, "a need to articulate your own source of being so you will recognize that source and know who you are. How could you be an artist if you didn't explore your own inner life?"

I'll take it one step further: How could you be fully human--or fully alive--if you didn't explore your own inner life? I believe a blade of grass has an inner conscious sense of itself. My two cats are ALL inner life; they could care less about anything that goes on outside them beyond food and sunlight!

Kunitz writes of how he had a vision of his garden as it was to become prior to creating it, as if predicting the outcome. I've changed my own waking-life garden after staring at it quietly, long and hard, so that it has become, through the years, more of what both the land and I wanted. But I also dreamed once that a more ideal version of this garden existed alongside it--with trim brick paths, neat root cellars with cold-frame windows and just the right storage conditions for seeds and bulbs, and (best of all!) no weeds.

It's a garden no one will ever walk through in the ungainly western side yard of my house, but it lives in my mind to help me grow the things I say and do and write.

Are You Really an "Early Adaptor"?

Someday soon, my inner garden may also be available in a "shirt version." Do you think long ago the person who coined the phrase "wearing your heart on your sleeve" actually dreamed the same dream as my husband?

Before you go to sleep tonight, put a pen and a pad of paper on the table next to your bed and, if you have it, a flashlight. Tell yourself: I will remember my dreams. If you wake up from a dream in the middle of the night, write it down. When you wake up in the morning, lie still for a few minutes to see if you remember anything else, and write that down. Start a log on your computer with dates, all the weird images and any ideas you have about what it might mean. Begin your writing day with the transcription of the night.

You really don't want to miss the drama of your inner life, do you? Once it realizes you're paying attention, even more will begin to come through, night and day. When the "shirt version" of what makes you grow becomes available, don't you want to be ready?

The Wild Braid:
A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden

by Stanley Kunitz, with Genine Lentine
photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson

Billed as a "visual memoir," this book is an intriguing introduction to the poetry of Stanley Kunitz, the two-time U.S. poet laureate who died in 2003 at the age of 100. Published in 2005, it follows Kunitz from summer 2002 through fall 2004. It details a near-fatal health crisis in 2003, from which he says he "emerged in a transformed state" and also his loss in spring 2004 of his wife of 47 years, the poet and painter Elise Asher.

Throughout, Kunitz discusses how fashioning a garden is like fashioning a poem and how growing a body of work involves growing a life. The reader is treated not only to glorious color photos of Kunitz at work in his gardens, but also to a sampling of some of his best-loved poems. The conversations with co-author Lentine and the excerpts from Kunitz's journals give the reader a rare peek into the lived life that went into creating each of the selected poems.

My copy is hardcover first-edition and was a Christmas gift--a keepsake--from my husband. The book came out in paperback in 2007; the price difference between the two on Amazon is a mere $5. I advise you to get the hardcover, though, because this is a book you'll thumb through again and again.

Why is this book so valuable for writers? Because of the process it depicts. Your process isn't like mine, which isn't like Kunitz's, which isn't like someone else's. But by examining how writers talk about their process we start to develop a respect for our own, as it emerges. It's like the "wild braid" in the title of the book, which is a phrase from a well-known Kunitz poem, "The Snakes of September" (included in this book, of course).

Do you have to be a gardener to enjoy this book? Hmmm...that's a tough one. You need to have a curiosity about the natural world, that's for sure. Nature has its own rhythm, and that external creative rhythm has a way of thrumming its way into your soul and feeding your creativity. So no, you don't have to be a gardener to enjoy it. But if you've already discovered your garden as a place that slows you down and feeds your inner life, then you'll likely enjoy this book all the more.

A few of the gems aglow herein:

  • Gardening is a living poem, a collaboration between the spirit of a place and the intervening human, who must respect the spirit of the place. This carries a message for the teaching of writing, Kunitz says. Just like a gardener in a garden, "it's a terrible mistake to impose your pattern on a student...What one needs to cultivate in a young poet is the assertion of that particular spirit, that particular set of memories, that personhood."
  • Knowing what to keep and what to cut (in both gardening and writing) is an art in itself. Kunitz bemoans a perfectly healthy Alberta spruce he had removed because it blocked a great view and prevented other plants from getting adequate light. "When the time comes for cutting, gathering, moving, removing, one has to be pretty ruthless," he advises. "It took may be 15 minutes for them to cut it down. It came down all in one piece. The root system took longer to hack out...one can easily sense the metaphorical resonance in that."
  • Knowing how to shape--our writing and our gardens--without destroying is also an art. He discusses a juniper he trained to spread and shelter rather than grow upright and adds the writing parallel: "The danger is that you cut away the heart of a poem, and are left only with the most ordered and contained element. A certain degree of sprawl is necessary; it should feel as though there's room to maneuver, that you're not trapped in a cell. You must be very careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin." (emphasis mine)
  • Mystery is as important in our writing as in the structure of flowers. "The height of the beauty of a bloom is its folded state, rather than when it's fully opened," Kunitz says. "That's why I've always believed that so much of the energy of the poem comes from the secrets it folds into what we would call, in a flower, its crown...In a poem, the secrets of the poem give it its tension and gift of emerging sense and form, so that it's not always the flowering in the poem and the specific images that make it memorable, but the tensions and physicality, the rhythms, the underlying song....So much of the power of a poem is in what it doesn't say as much as in what it does say."
  • Fostering an inner life is at the heart of all creative work, and what works for one person may not work for another. But: "The more you enter into the unconscious life, the more you believe in its existence and know it walks with you, the more available it becomes and the doors open faster and longer. It learns you are a friendly host...The unconscious is very much akin to what, in other framework, I call wilderness...It resists the forms, the limits, the restraints, that civilization itself imposes." Later he calls this "the wild permissiveness of the inner life" and says it was as a child "I learned I could go anywhere in my inner life."
  • Time is a luxury both gardener and writer must allow for. As a gardener, I know you plant small, with the mature size of the plant in mind. It has to have this room to survive, even if it doesn't look so great for a few years. "The mystery of the creative process is that the poem is there but not there within you, accumulating experience, accumulating images," Kunitz says.
  • Good writing means taking chances and exploring what you fear, what's unknown to you. With gardening, particularly in the beginning, that will be just about everything, and you'll make a lot of mistakes. A good gardener is one who's accumulated many mistakes and puts them to work. It's the same in writing. "...you are hesitant to explore unfamiliar areas," Kunitz says, but "if the terrain were familiar, the poem would be dead on birth...the path of the poem is through the unknown and even the unknowable, toward something for which you can find a language."
  • The art you make is your unique gift to the world and therefore is sufficient unto itself. "That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes," Kunitz adds, "but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life."

I can't pick a favorite poem in this collection because that changes for me with every reading. Certainly "The Snakes of September" is right up there, along with "The Round," "Touch Me," "Raccoon Journal" and, lately, "The Layers." But I do have a favorite Kunitz journal entry, excerpted in this book that pulls it all together: "My garden, my life, my poems--a planned disorder."

Enough said. I love this book. I hope you will, too.