html 101: keys to deciphering the “code” we use to pack and unpack our knapsacks –
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight,
and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
– Oscar Wilde
Taking Notes – I’ve kept a dream journal for forty years. A rich source of material for poems, not only in that it gives me instant access to the sub-conscious, but the years-long practice of recording and learning to interpret dream imagery and symbolism has led me not only to some searing insights into my own psyche, but to certain rather startling convictions about life in general. Like learning to “read” any language, facility and fluidity are gained with frequent application – the more often you practice, the easier it becomes.
Living Color – I started recording my dreams when I posed a question to myself in my diary: I wondered aloud (or at least on the page) if I dreamt in color. That night, I dreamt that I was standing outside of the People’s Drug Store on 12th Street, N.E. (another Washington D.C. institution, now defunct) and, as luck would have it, in the dream itself I was quite aware of looking up at the company’s logo and that it was, in fact, bright orange – too obvious to miss. In the dream, I answered myself aloud: “Yes! I do dream in color!” I was hooked. The pages of my diary ceded to a dream-record and I began a lifelong “vision quest,” puzzling out their significance and meaning.
Just a cigar? – not long after that, I had an unusually haunting dream, the kind that sticks with you, regardless of the attempts to shake it or shrug it off. Heavily symbolized, I was overcome with its emotional residue, and felt weighted down by its gravity. I didn’t become fully aware of its implications or significance for decades. In the dream, (which I somehow understood as taking place far into the future) I took a familiar route down Michigan Avenue, toward my childhood home. I became more and more aware as I approached my street that something was wrong. It looked like the row of houses on the block I grew up on had been bombed. When I got to the house itself, the inside was abandoned, the hardwood floors were rotted out and jumbled up like broken toothpicks, and I was left with the disconcerting feeling that my childhood home stood in shambles. I used this imagery to frame a poem, some thirty-five years later:
Royal Road – although I had this dream when I was about fifteen, my immediate interpretation of it had been unsatisfactory, and as such, the dream content stayed with me. It wasn’t until my father was dying and I was called back home some thirty-three years afterward that the fullness of the dream’s meaning sank in. As a teenager, I’d interpreted the dream to mean that I would leave home (which I did) and that despite the fact that I’d been very happy there growing up, as an adult with my own life, I would find that there was nothing there for me. As an adult with my own life, however, the dream’s meaning and significance deepened when I realized that the house (even if it was my childhood home) symbolized the outer, or physical realm, and that for me, especially as a poet, my inner world (or the mental/spiritual realm) was far more vital and engaging. Rather than leaving me feeling dismal, the truth of the matter, that nothing material was as attractive to me as the recognizable, albeit intangible, precepts of love, desire, peace, etc., was freeing at this point.
Freudian Slip – Tony Crisp (whose online dream dictionary I frequent) says that the closer we are to being ready to accept a thought or situation by admitting it into our awareness, the more direct (and less symbolized) it becomes in our dreams. Another dream that stayed with me for a long time provides an example of a direct confrontation that is less symbolized, and therefore easily recognizable. Making a poem out of it, however, proved a bit more of a challenge:
The interpretation of this dream appeared immediately obvious to me: the “it” that chases me, night after night, and appears to be always closing in, is fear. When we turn around and face our fears, they vanish, seemingly into “thin air.”
By the light of the silvery moon – poets often speak about the “trance state” or “liminal space” where poems come from and writing occurs. In my experience, what bubbles up from this space is most often the so-called “irrational” sub-conscious, which actually has a logic all its own. The same process occurs several times a night as we enter and move through the dream state. Learning to decode the images and symbols presented in dreams is a worthwhile pursuit in and of itself, as it sheds some light on the inner workings of our own minds. The added step of reading or working with these symbols and images in “normal” waking consciousness (i.e. translating them into language, that they might be shared with others) deepens the understanding of self, and enhances the creative experience. Freed from the constraints of the “rational” mind, writing becomes less about work and more about play. Intent on being heard, latent voices speak. Rising to the surface, they utter their secrets, confiding only to the poet who listens keenly.
The Dawn – learning to “crack the code” of dream logic is like finding a key that opens every lock in the world. By extrapolating what I know about the inner workings of my own mind and applying it to the inner workings of other authors’ minds, I can also “read” the symbols and images I find in literature. Take the Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, for instance. In dream symbolism, a cave (or being in an underground space) represents the sub-conscious (also indiscriminately refereed to, unfortunately, as the unconscious). In Plato’s teaching narrative, people are prisoners, held captive in a cave, and because the “light” is behind them, they can only see the “shadows” on the wall of the cave. The captives, in other words, facing away from the light (i.e. Truth or Self) see only shadows (i.e. fear of the unknown, feelings that overwhelm them, etc.) and are imprisoned (much like the speaker in the poem, “Sheer Illusion,” above) by this unexamined, unarticulated state of mind. When the prisoners turn around and walk out of the cave and into the light, which initially pains them, they realize the “shadows” were only false notions, not real. The allegory immediately resonates within each of us, and we all “get it” on an intuitive level right away, because the symbolism speaks to the sub-conscious directly without the meddlesome interference of the “rational” mind. However, reading and interpreting the meaning of the symbols requires some analysis, which is the province of the “light” or conscious/rational mind.
Scientists disagree on the purpose and function of dreaming, except to recognize that it is integral to our health and well-being. Comfortable with intuition and mysteries, artists, however, accept dreams and dream vision as a source of inspiration. Isaac Singer labored over improvements to the design of the sewing machine until the solution of placing the hole for the thread at the bottom of the needle occurred to him in a dream. Albert Einstein pondered complex mathematical equations, and similarly found solutions when napping. For me, a certain liberation of spirit transpires through the process of dreaming, one that is recapitulated in the process of writing. Ultimately satisfying, the two processes, woven together, yield insights into the workings of both the inner and the outer world.