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Dreaming Margaret Atwood

Winner of 2016 Atlantic Writer’s Competition Creative Non-Fiction prize

A thin fading line between sleep and awake, where a light image remains, that’s what you have to hold on to; recall the contours and fabric and flow of the dream, all the details, no matter how mundane, and reach for the journal you keep by your bed, the one with the pen crammed into its spine, and write it all down.

Shadow language. It was a bike spoke. There was a moment. It was a hand, turning a stone, something was turning, being turned. It was a woman, she was drowning. Or I was flying into the ocean. There beside my pillow. A new page softened with ink.

My first lover after my divorce introduced me to the idea of writing down my dreams every morning before I got out of bed.  We called them lovers in the ’80’s; how strange it would sound to introduce someone that way now. He went so far as to tie a bandana around his forehead before he drifted off to sleep, because he believed the pressure on his skull helped him remember. I tried a bandana a few times but found it restricting and kept me awake. He wanted to share his dreams every morning over coffee, but I didn’t want to hear them, and I didn’t want to share mine.

A decade later, when lovers became partners, I joined a Dream Circle, a weekly amorphous gathering  hosted by a Jungian scholar whose research pointed to growing evidence that humanity was evolving from experiencing god as an unyielding patriarch to a loving, compassionate mother. We’d find a comfy spot amidst the oversized couches, armchairs, end tables, and her ancient oak desk, crammed with books, framed pictures and every imaginable symbol of the feminine divine, while we waited for tea and cookies to be served. I’d gaze around the walls covered with the fine tapestries and paintings  and inevitably stop at the bright yellow smiley-face ‘DON’T WORRY’ poster taped over the couch with ‘She’s coming’ written in pen along the bottom.  Our meeting would officially begin with our hostess asking, “Has anyone had any interesting dreams?” and after two hours of sharing, discussing and munching on sugar cookies, would end with her reminder, “Your dreams are trying to tell you something. They’re messengers. Don’t forget to pay attention.” I wrote in my little book, ‘


Margaret Atwood is standing on a cliff at the mouth of a cave. She’s wearing black high heels and a beige trench coat. We’re in Ontario. Or it could be Arizona. She motions with one hand to follow her through the mouth of a cave. There’s a dim light coming from inside. I follow her. There are tourists in the cave. Margaret stands in the centre and begins to lecture. I can’t hear what she’s saying. She points to lines in the cave walls and I realize they’re fissures and that’s where the light is coming from. I push my eye against one and see a little girl lying on her side, wedged so tight she can’t move. Her dark round eyes stare back at me. She closes them slowly, then blinks them open again. I step back horrified. I realize there is a child wedged into every crack. I’m terrified for them, but I don’t want to interrupt Margaret. She’s talking very quietly. I can’t recall anything of what she said.

I brought the dream to Dream Circle the following week, and after I’d read it aloud twice, I was asked by someone what I thought it meant.  I said I had no idea but felt it was very important. Our hostess reminded us all that some dreams are not obvious right away, and that more of their meaning may be revealed over time.

My dream of Margaret Atwood stayed with me. Like a splinter in your finger that’s too deep to extract, and it floats around in the body, surfacing just below your skin so you can see it, but it’s not quite poking through enough to grab it. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but whenever I’d remember that dream, I’d think, ‘What the heck was Margaret Atwood saying?’

Many years later, with a stable marriage and children raised,  I joined a Writer’s Circle. We met every other week, five of us, and shared our writing, encouraged one another, and talked writers’ talk. One evening we were coming up the names of Canadian writers and discussing what they owed to their success and someone said, “Margaret Atwood.”  I remembered my dream and blurted out, “Oh my god that reminds me of the strangest dream I had years and years ago.” and then went on to recite all the details, the cave, the cracks, the little girl with the blinking eyes wedged on her side, how helpless I felt, how Margaret was lecturing the whole time and I couldn’t hear her, “And it still bugs me that I can’t remember a word of what she was saying.”

Someone laughed, “Too bad, that might have been important information.” And someone else said, “Maybe you can dream it again and ask her to speak up this time.” We all laughed and I promised myself I’d ask Dream Maker for help.

That night, after I’d opened my journal to an empty page and placed it carefully by my bed, I threw my arms up and said, “OK, Dream Maker, I know you heard me. Please help.  I need to remember what the heck Margaret Atwood was saying in that dream.”

Dream Maker. I’d made friends with her a few years before, during my Vision Quest. Four days and nights under a tarp in the forest, within the ten-foot diameter circle I’d cleared around the spot where Bluejay landed and cawed out to me. My sacred circle. Surrounded by hemlock, oak and birch. Near a pond. In north Ontario. Mid-September.

It was a silent quest. No food, only water enhanced with maple syrup, turmeric and lemon. Deprivation my doctor called it. “You’ll probably start having hallucinations by the third day.” I didn’t tell her I was hoping for that. I also didn’t tell my mother I was going to be alone and exposed to the elements because I knew she’d worry. Later, when I did tell her, she said, “Of all the crazy things you’ve done, this is by far the craziest. I can’t even describe how crazy that was.”  and we both laughed. But I also told her it was the best thing I’d ever done for myself. Still, she shook her head in disbelief.

I hadn’t met Dream Maker the first day I stepped my way around and around my sacred circle, stomping to the rhythm of my heartbeat, stretching my arms and leaning into the hard places. I was alone as I pushed through old baggage. Big bad beginnings. Circled and cried, choked on old ideas as they rose in my throat, thick and rank, and spit them out into the fresh air. Sat and sighed, watched the angles of sunlight change through the trees, until my sighs became lullabies for my weary heart. Alone with my body, breathing in and out, and the wind, and the creatures I could feel staring at me. I huddled in my sleeping bag and lay under my tarp on a nest of soft earth, under the night, and held the line between sleep and awake. Then I rose and walked again, step by step, around my circle, around my life.

I met her on second night, when Wolf came. I knew she was with me even before I’d named her, tapping me awake to notice someone warm and close.  I shifted my body and felt the ground near my head shudder under stamped paw, heard a snuffle and the splash in the pond, and the scattering of small creatures.

I held my breath and waited in the after-silence and wondered why fear was only ten percent.  I said, “Is this real?” And in answer, from one hundred paces away, Wolf howled one time. I emptied my mind, and hugged my body. Owl hooted from a distant hillside, and then, from even further away, Wolf howled again, one long and three short howls.  I held the sound close, and I said, “Thank you Dream Maker.”

So, the morning after I asked Dream Maker to help me know what Margaret Atwood had said in that long ago dream, I had every confidence I would wake up with a clue. I kept my eyes closed and grabbed my pen and journal and waited for the undulations and hints to emerge. I relaxed and listened. I strained for images or sounds rumbling in the deep. And found nothing. I waited for many moments, holding off the urge to pee and run to my coffee maker. And no answers came. I shrugged and finally decided, ‘There’s your answer. Whatever she was saying wasn’t important.’

Five days later, walking past the large window of a local coffee shop, I saw her. Margaret Atwood. Sitting alone. Twirling her cup. Staring into space. And before I could talk myself out of it, I veered and brought myself to inches of her table.

She smiled up at me standing there.

I smiled back and said, “Hello! Margaret Atwood! I’m so sorry to disturb you!”

She lifted her coffee cup a few inches from the table, and shrugged, “Not at all.”

“I just really wanted to say hello! And tell you I’m a great fan.

She nodded and looked through me. “Thank you.”

“And, um, well really, it’s such a coincidence, seeing you here. I was just meeting with my writers’ group, and we were discussing successful Canadian writers, and of course your name came up. And we were trying to figure out what kind of indomitable confidence it must take –

“Hold it right there.” She interrupted me. “No writer’s always confident. We all have our down days.”

As she twirled her coffee cup and talked about never being sure there will ever be anything left to write about, that dream of mine was poking through my skin. I smiled as she held her arms out to her sides and said, “You have to be like a surfer, always ready for that next big wave.” When she pointed her finger at the window and said, “Writing’s the easy part. Getting people to read it! That’s the tricky part.” we both laughed, and my dream pushed through and dangled from my arm.

I said, “Actually, to be completely honest, the real reason I’m fascinated to see you at this very moment is because a few days ago during my writers circle, I shared a crazy dream I had over 20 years, and you were in it, and it’s always stuck with me, because, well,  -actually, do you mind if I share my crazy dream with you?”

“Not at all.” She shrugged as if this was the most normal thing in the world, and I was reminded of my Dream Circle.

“OK. Well. I’m standing on a cliff with Margaret Atwood.” I nodded at her and she nodded back. “She’s – you’re talking, and you want me to follow you into a cave…” and then I gave her the broad strokes, her lecture and how she was pointing to the fissures in the cave walls, and how I stared into one of the cracks and saw the blinking eyes of the little girl wedged in there, how all of the cracks held children and I didn’t know how to help them.  And I finished with, “And it’s always bothered me that I could never recall what you were saying.”

She’d listened, and when I was done only asked one question, “Did you say fissures?” and drew a line in the air.

I nodded, “Yes, fissures.”

“OK.” She nodded again. “I’ll tell you what I was saying to you in that dream.” Then she looked straight at me. “I was telling you to let them out.”

“I know!” I threw up my hands. “Oh.”

Shadow language. Messages.

Margaret Atwood was already twirling her coffee cup again. “Got it.” I said, and pressed my palms together in prayer position in front of my heart. She shrugged and looked through me again.

Later that day I wrote, ‘Note! Dreams are messages, sometimes answered in real time.’