Flights of fancy

The other day I was sitting in a packed train carriage and I realised I was the only person not looking at a phone. It felt almost religious, the silence of everyone with heads bowed and eyes down, and yet it was I who was feeling holier-than-thou. I had made the radical decision to ignore social media and simply enjoy the view from the window. By journey’s end, I had dreamed of lives led in a variety of houses we’d passed, fantasied about what an eco-Australia would look like, and even had a quiet laugh at a remembered joke (Two hippos standing in a river, and one says, “I don’t know why but I keep thinking today’s Thursday”). It was a gentle way to pass the hour-long journey and I arrived feeling rather refreshed, cosseted by my dreamy mood. And I remembered when a famous architect told me that one of his biggest regrets was that he had spent too much time dreaming. Given that he had achieved so much in his career, I thought he was being a mite harsh on himself. Can you spend too much time dreaming?

 I think guilt is often implicit in the notion of dreaming. It’s often seen as a waste of time. Remember being told off at school for gazing out of the window and dreaming your life away? Or was that just me…

In his later years, my father would sit happily for some time, apparently looking out at the garden, his mind filled with thoughts. It’s him I thank for the genetic predisposition that sees me doing the same. Is it any wonder that I’ve ended up living in a country whose traditional creation stories are called the Dreamtime? And yet I live with a man who is always on the go, little time for dreams. When we planned a new garden, so cherished after years spent in near-gardenless flats in London, it was filled with plants of every kind – brightly flowered, highly scented, magnificent of form. “And where will we sit?” I asked. “Sit?” he repeated, as though I’d asked where we might put the go-go dancers’ podium. No time to sit when you’re busy. No time to sit and dream, is what I heard.

Of course, being of the writerly persuasion, I’d like to say that all my sitting and dreaming has reaped magnificent rewards – the prize-winning novels, the successful Hollywood films, the BAFTA – but the truth is less epic. My dreaming may not have changed the world but it’s helped me live my life.

I’ve always been blessed with an ability to fall asleep quickly, mainly because I adore submitting to the dream-world. This is a busy and sociable place where I meet up with all kinds of people I haven’t seen for ages (sometimes because they’ve been dead for a while). Some of my dreams are of the tea-with-the-Queen variety (Dame Judi’s been making a few appearances recently). Some are of the didn’t-see-the-wood-for-the-trees variety, where I suddenly realise there’s a beautiful beach at the end of the garden or a quaint Old Town tucked behind the supermarket. Who knew? Jung would shake his head at the predictability of it but it doesn’t stop them from being deliciously enjoyable.

Dreaming with your eyes open is another matter, a conscious thing. As a young boy walking home alone from school, I would often imagine that I was in a film, that there was a camera focussed on me. And so I’d walk along giving ‘thoughtful’ expressions and doing dramatic double-takes. I’m sure passers-by wondered who the weird boy was but the long walk passed quickly. (And just between you, me and the padded walls, I still do it occasionally.)

Dreaming is often a safety valve, a way of escaping the toil and trouble of the present (and long walks home). We dream of a better life, a better way of doing things. But dreaming for the sheer pleasure of it, letting your mind work its way through different scenarios, dipping into little pleasures, prodding little fantasies, is like your first day on holiday when you yield to a world of possibilities. Dreaming is different from stillness and the connection to mindfulness. Both allow your thoughts to roam freely but the difference with dreaming is that you do attach thoughts, feelings and interpretations to all the mental roaming. Mindful dreaming is active. Through it can come a sense of empathy, of new experiences and feelings. And how can you find clarity in anything if you don’t allow yourself time to dream all the different ways it might otherwise be? Being able to let your imagination take flight is surely one of the glories of humankind. Isn’t that something we should build into each day?

In his 1958 book, “The Poetics of Space”, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote that everyone needs a space in which to dream. It’s gorgeous trying to imagine what such a space would look like. Would it be bright with sunshine or darkened by shadow? Would you sit up or lie down? Would the walls be bare, decorated with pictures or non-existent, open to the elements?

Many of us already have such spaces, even if we don’t think of them in this way. I often plonk myself on a particular rock that faces the ocean and being there I find my imagination takes me to far-off places and new ideas. My father liked a certain chair that faced out into the garden. I think resting the eyes – looking at distant horizons and soft landscapes rather than encroaching walls and computer screens – helps to trigger the process of dreaming and frees the imagination.

But really, anywhere will do. And as for too much dreaming? Never.

So where do you dream?







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  1. Dreamers gave us the likes of Picasso and Da Vinci. I completely agree about being on a bus or train and seeing everyone looking at their phones like a scene from Village of the Damned!

  2. I ADORE this post! Dreaming is wonderful, awake or asleep. I spend a lot of time staring at the garden and the Brindabellas beyond. But I wouldn’t mind having Friedrich Wilhelm II’s tea house that he built in the grounds of Charlottenburg Schloss as a place to sit and dream in.
    PS I hope you do have somewhere to sit in the garden now!

    • I had to look that up – wow, what a place! And there I was thinking staring at the Brindabellas had a dreamy quality to it… (And yes, I’ve got a deck in the garden now that is generally mine and only mine to sit and dream on…)

  3. Well, I can dream anywhere … I do a lot of it while watching television.
    You are so right – we need more dreaming not less. It is of vital importance to us. After all, we are the animals who create.
    Recently I heard a quote I’d never heard before: ‘Every great dream begins with a dreamer’. I thought it was fabulous and it turns out to be by Harriet Tubman, which makes it even more fabulous, and when I heard it, it did not have the word ‘great’ in it, which I don’t think it needs.
    So carry on dreaming and I will watch out for the Baftas, oh, and the cameras are rolling …

  4. I spent many an hour gazing longingly out the classroom window, especially during History and Geography lessons. Memorizing dates never captured the drama of the battlefield for me and my journeys to far-off lands in my mind were far more exciting than looking at maps. My current daydreaming venue is my “Dream Chair” (google it) strategically positioned by my backyard pond, under a tree amongst the ferns and wildflowers. The sound of the water and the visits by the birds and assorted small creatures, including this year’s baby rabbits usually lull me into dreamtime in short order. It’s a necessary restorative in this frenetic world of ours. I am convinced that all the true visionaries throughout history have been dreamers – and many of them immigrants. Not to get political, but who knows what contributions those currently marching under the DREAMer banner or trusting their fate to leaky boats may one day make, given the chance? Dream on, my friends.

    “If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need” – Cicero
    A G&T doesn’t hurt either!

    • Hear, hear! The inner life and the world of possibilities have no boundaries. Interesting you mention the sound of water – isn’t it so often the sound we affiliate with altered consciousness, from drowsily lying on the beach to the splash of water in a dreamy Moorish garden? Water is the energy of deep thinking in traditional Chinese thought. Who knows what deep thoughts about change occur on those terrifying boat journeys as people seek a better life… Go, Cicero, and yes to the G&T!

  5. Oh boy, I had a journey just like that on the tube the other day so this post has really struck a chord with me. I daydream often and I really enjoy a good old dream-filled sleep (where I have also had some interesting and reassuring chats with the dead). Some of my best ideas have happened while I was comatose, and I really should write more of them down immediately, before the rather mundane waking world drowns them out and they are lost

    • I’ve learned to ask myself, just before bed, for clarity about something I’m worrying about and so often I wake up knowing what to do. I also write the most wonderful books in my sleep and can never remember their twisting plots, which is rather irritating. But always, the wonder of dreaming is alive and amazing… Good to have a notepad by the bed, though. Dream on!

  6. Looking out of the window of a car or train is good but also because I live in sight of the tube, as it travels overground, I like watching the trains go past at night when the light in them becomes more golden and they are not so busy. Just the odd person here and there, a bit Hopperesque if you’ll excuse the cliche. I was thinking the other day about how bad I am at asking for things especially in the context of my writing process. I said to a friend – ‘God/the gods surely have better things to do in the world than help me finish my book. I should be very low down on their list.’ And he said, ‘How do you know there is a list?’ which made me laugh! I envy your abllity to remember your dreams. I remember very few.

    • I love the idea of the list – amazing what we tell ourselves, isn’t it. I would venture that the dreams are still there, even if you don’t recall them, and I would venture more that asking for clarity before sleep still works – something about the answer seeping into your bones. Even if it occasionally misses out on the mind… And I’m smitten by the idea of gazing into the passing lives of others in the Tube. Golden, indeed.

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