The Poetry in Dreams

I’ve been thinking a good deal about dreams and the role they play in our lives. I’ve also been thinking about how they relate to poetry. In a recent expository writing class I was teaching, many students admitted having trouble reading poetry. I discussed this difficulty with them. “Why,” I asked, “in a class of twenty literate, intelligent young men and women do only two or three read or write poetry—even occasionally?”

They thought about the question, and then a few raised their hands tentatively; they tried to articulate why poetry was hard for them: “It doesn’t have anything to do with my life,” said a female business major from Hong Kong. “I can’t get it,” said a male psychology major from Philadelphia. “I feel silly saying I read poetry—people think you’re weird if you do,” admitted another young woman from Los Angeles. “They’re too depressing—they always seem to be about sad things,” claimed someone else.

I urged them to give poetry a chance, reminding them that poems are compressed use of language, so they work like instant food: you need to add water before eating it. With poetry, instead of water, you need to bring your full attention, intellect, imagination, and heart. if you do, the poem will open and reveal itself to you.

largeI also made a parallel between poetry and dreams, since I believe that both arise from a similar place in the psyche, the more archaic part of ourselves that isn’t available to us except through images and symbols. The psyche seems to be preverbal, though this statement makes it sound as if it can’t make use of language; a better way of putting it may be that the psyche—what Carl Jung called the objective psyche—has existed since the beginning of time, and our individual psyches hook into it. Dreams, poetry, and other art forms communicate from this place, especially if they’re transformative, capable of lifting us out of our ordinary perceptions.

For people who have no relationship with their dreams, they often seem arcane, nonsensical, strange. But once you’ve become acquainted with how dreams work, you discover that they speak a special language, not unlike the language of poetry: You need to read between the lines, hear the “message” that the dream contains.

But message sounds too much as if both poems and dreams are didactic, intentional creations. A poet doesn’t start out with a message. Rather she has a feeling or image or idea she wants to explore, the poem being a place where she can make new connections between the world, memories, and language. Similarly, dreams take the flotsam of daily life, mix it with memory, desire, and potential new life, and create a coherent symbolic whole.

Yet to “get” a poem or dream, we need to enter it, walk around inside it, rather than examine it from the strong, sometimes harsh light of rational intellect. Of course we need to take our intellect with us, some aspect of it at least; but we descend into the dream or poem in order to “get it.”

In my next post, I’ll talk about the “getting part”!

Writing’s dialogue with myself and my life

I’m interested in an interview I read in Border Crossings with Canadian artist Betty Goodwin: She says, “A work is a deeply personal mixture of your earlier experiences and also your life at the present in this world. But I can’t shred it and say it’s absolutely this or that. It’s based in something you don’t even realize yourself until it gives you back information. It’s like you’re pulling and pulling and trying to get something. And then there’s that magic time when it begins to pull you. If that doesn’t happen, you can’t push it any more and it dies.”

This quote captures my feelings about how my writing connects with my on-going life, that somehow it’s shaping me as I shape it, just as dreams do. What do I mean here? Dreams speak to us from the depths of the unconscious. There is not past, present, or future in the psyche. Often, then, they not only dredge up moments from our past but also reach their tentacles into the future. Poetry and fiction seem to have a similar dynamic. The poems that interest me the most are ones that don’t follow a traditional narrative movement. They seem to take elements from multiple places, including memories as well as outer and inner experiences. In fiction, I feel I’m expressing aspects of myself as well that I become familiar with as I write. Emotions, ideas, images surface that enlarge my understanding of myself and the world.

It’s essential for my well being to have this dialogue with the work and my life.




Walking the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral

Lily Iona MacKenzie on Myth, Ritual, and Psychic ProcessWalking the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral

Lily Iona MacKenzie on Myth, Ritual, and Psychic Process

Walking the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral (Published in the most recent issue of Jung Journal.)


I’ve removed my shoes before entering Grace Cathedral’s labyrinth, considered in Medieval times the geographical and spiritual center of the world. The canvas surface feels rough against my bare feet, but pleasantly so, awakening them slightly from their usual sleep when encased in shoes.

I begin, keeping my eyes focused ahead of me, on the ground as I’ve done during previous walking meditations, raising them periodically to look at the stained glass windows.

Words fly out at me. Redemption. Savior. Mary. Disciple. Jesus. Love. Peace. Shards of intense colors—red, blue, green, and yellow made more vivid by the setting sun—flash by.

Before starting, I’d read of the three stages to walking the labyrinth: Purgation, Illumination, and Union. I’m in the Purgation stage, trying to shed the details of my everyday life, opening my mind. The idea is to surrender and let the labyrinth give whatever it will, to accept what comes forth.

I hear the sound of feet in nylons swishing on canvas. They sound like waves. I pass bandaged feet, toes with bunions, a woman with a metal crutch. I think of all the feet that have passed before me on this path and all those that will follow. I feel part of a pilgrimage.

Feet suddenly seem very vulnerable to me. They don’t get a day off. No vacations. I’m in awe of feet, my own seeming more precious. I promise to rest them more, give them footbaths, pamper them.

I keep watching for some sign that I’ve passed through Purgation and entered Illumination. Will death be like this? I wonder if I’ve left out the salmon I’m planning to have for dinner. Did I remember to tell my students the reading assignment for the next class?

Then I remember that Illumination is the time spent in the center of the labyrinth, quietly praying and receiving whatever wisdom is forthcoming. I’m anxious to get there now, wanting to see what will happen.

One of several musicians standing at the front of the cathedral lifts his oboe and plays. The music sounds like an animal’s voice probing the interior, an animal let loose in the city, rooting under the pews, sniffing at our feet. The sound is so intense it creates an ache in my chest.

I try to keep my mind on the walk and my breathing, but I think of how the sunshine filters through the stained glass and a shaft of light catches the edge of a pew as I pass. Is that Illumination?

I match the movement of my feet to my heartbeat, one foot, then the other. Why haven’t I ever noticed before that walking matches the heart’s rhythms?

The path is narrow. Someone wants to go by. No room to pass. I have to make myself skinny or step over into the next lane. We don’t look at one another’s faces. I focus on the person’s feet, legs, back. Most eyes are downcast, staring at the canvas. Purple boundaries that mark the path wind around and around.

For a moment I panic and think ‘What if I can’t get out. What if I get lost as I did once in the British Columbia wilderness.’ I almost bolt, but I calm myself. Focus on my breathing.

Remembering that a labyrinth is different from a maze quiets me. Mazes aren’t predictable. They can have many entrances and exits, trick corners, blind alleys, and dead ends. Riddles to be solved.

A labyrinth offers calm certainty—one well-defined path that leads us into the center and back out again. No tricks. No cul-de-sacs. No intersecting paths. The labyrinth directs you, guides you, leads. You follow. Knowing you’ll reach the center without having to think about it helps focus and quiet the mind, one purpose of using the structure.

Mazes sound more interesting. Less orderly and predictable. Like life.

I reach the center and sit on the floor with five strangers, trying not to let my voyeurism spoil the experience. But I can’t help glancing at one woman who is standing, balanced on one foot, a little like an egret. Maybe that’s the way to Illumination.

No big epiphany. I just feel pleased I’ve reached my goal, the kind of feeling I get when I’ve made a particularly steep climb and have finally reached the top.

Things I’ve read say that walking the labyrinth will help me return to some sort of center, assuming I have one or that I’ve lost it. Is this what enlightenment looks like? No lights? No great insight? The ordinary?

The center’s getting crowded now, and I rise slowly, controlling my impulse to rush out, eager to experience Union, the final stage, and reach home before the family does so I can start supper. I rework the path, preparing to reenter the world, taking the labyrinth with me.


Dreams and the Narrative of Our Lives

Since my late 20s, I’ve recorded my dreams every morning, curious about the wonderful dramas that unfold each night in the subterranean depths. During a recent trip to Osoyoos, B.C., I got a better understanding of dreams and the role they play in our lives when my husband and I stayed at the Observatory B&B.

The rental was located on one of the highest promontories in the town, and the observatory had a world-class telescope. Jack, the “amateur” astronomer, has published six books with Cambridge university press on his explorations. Each night and morning he takes his guests on a tour of the sky, exposing viewers to sights they otherwise would never experience. I was transported from Earth to constellations that I’d only read about, if that. It was a mind-blowing, life-altering experience.

Jack became interested in astronomy when he was ten on the Canadian prairies. He received a telescope for a gift, and that set him off. What was so intriguing about his presentations is how much is out there in the universe that we know so little about and aren’t aware of, a teeming life beyond our ordinary vision. And vision is something he’s very informed about. We see things in black and white that a camera picks up in color. That shocks me. How we’re trained to see. How much our eye picks up that our brains won’t allow in. He pointed out to my husband that there could be a ghost sitting next to him, but he wouldn’t see it for a variety of reasons, reinforcing the idea about parallel universes. Jack definitely believes there is life out there.

When I reflected on this experience later, I realized that viewing through the telescope was very similar to my involvement with dreams. Like the telescope, they also take me into territory I otherwise wouldn’t know about, offering views on myself and my interaction with family and friends. But, most important, they help me to understand there is a level in all of us that we’re normally unaware of. Dreams offer us ways to explore our psyche, a universe that most of us ignore. They create subtexts, not unlike what some fiction does as well, suggesting that there are unexplored levels that are informing the on-going narrative of our lives.



Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.