It was a row of houses and no one else could see them. I’d returned to the neighbourhood where my family lived when I was in primary school and I recognized many streets, the old houses from the early part of the 20th c., the cemetery where we rode our bikes down leafy lanes between the mausoleums and small gated graves. The high narrow coloured houses in the row I was describing were near Government House, off Rockland, and they were perched on the edge of a high rock face, a cliff. I was wondering how they could have been there all those years without me ever noticing them before, above a street we drove frequently, an arrow pointing to a small road leading upward, towards the houses, and I was longing to know more about them. The yellow one, with its fancy gingerbreading, painted like buttercream; and the blue one, the deep pink one. At a little corner store with ice-cream posters in the window and a case filled with jars of penny candy, a woman thought for a moment and asked me to repeat where I’d said the houses were. She thought again. She called to someone in the back, behind a curtain, and that person was puzzled too. A line of houses, with turrets and high windows, a widows walk on the roof of the yellow one? No one else could see them. When I woke up, I could still trace the route I’d taken in the dream and I thought about the road we’d often driven along; as far as I can recall, there’s no cliff, no houses painted the colours of summer.
This has happened to me before, in dreams. A house never noticed before, an attempt to find out about it, walking through a maze of streets leading further and further inward. Or a place so familiar that I recognize tiny details – the shape of the sky through leaves, the scent of the grass under my feet, how a field stretching from the road rises to a hill where a horse grazes, oblivious. Once I was so sure I’d been to the place I’d awoken from that I tried to track it down, parsing each element to determine the relationship of the parts of the dream-grammar. And discovered it was like a slightly different dialect, one I could understand completely when dreaming but not very well in my waking hours. I’ve read a little about dream theory and it seems that the house represents the self. The size of the house indicates one’s own sense of self, the possibilities of growth, of showing your face to the world (if the front of the house is primary in the dream) or turning inward (if the back of the house is presented). I think of the doors, gracious and brightly painted in the row on the cliff, and the abundance of high windows, shining and clear.
When I travel, I often dream my way into houses seen from train windows. Last March in Portugal I saw a small farm nestled among citrus trees, cork oaks and feathery pines, a few black pigs in its fields, and it seemed that every part of me yearned to live there, to know that space and that weather, the dry air and the weight of oranges from those trees in my hands. It was, I suppose, day-dreaming but it’s also the kind of recognition that often precedes writing for me. A novel about someone like me, or not, living on that farm, and looking out to see the train passing on its way to Evora?
A book important to me as a young writer (and later on, too, when I was thinking about memory as I was writing Mnemonic) was Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space: “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. ”
I don’t often dream of my own house, though John does; he sometimes dreams we’ve lost it and he wakes up with such relief that it’s still here, that we’re still living in it with all our stuff, all our memories. When I do dream of our house, it’s always years ago and the children are still small and there are dogs. Dogs mean companionship, I think, and loyalty; they are repositories of deep emotion. And waking, I feel sorrow for the ones we’ve lived with and whose lives mirrored our own and who died here – this one in the photograph died on that very deck, after a long life with us. She died of old age and John held her for her last moments of life. She’s buried in our woods, with an earlier dog (and this one’s mentor).