Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Robertson Davies & Dreams

Dreams, synchronicities, and clues about life's journey
Eugene Ivanov/Shutterstock
Eugene Ivanov/Shutterstock

This time of year never fails to put me in mind of Robertson Davies and his marvelous Deptford Trilogy of novels, which I first read between Christmas and Epiphany, 1993-94. If I didn’t have an Everest of books on my desk needing to be read for the Ben Op project, I would pull my tattered Deptford off the shelf (I have a volume in which all three are bound as one) and plunge into it for old times’ sake. There’s something so satisfyingly wintry about Davies, at least to me.

One reason those three novels mean so much to me is that they introduced me to the idea of Jungian dream analysis, and synchronicity. Without going into too much detail, the three weeks over which I read those novels were taken up with travel in Norway. The second of the trilogy, The Manticore, is entirely about a character’s experience in Jungian analysis, and the third, World of Wonders, focus on a character present in all three books, a magician named Magnus Eisengrim. I began book three five minutes before my train pulled into the station at Lillehammer. I stepped off the train and walked to the nearby hotel in which I was booked, thinking about the character’s magnificent name.

The hotel clerk gave me the room key, and I trudged up the stairs to my room. I was just getting over the flu, and was exhausted. When I stood in front of the door of my room, I froze. The rooms in the small hotel had all been named for kings of Norway — and I had been assigned the “Magnus” room! Overcome by the need to sleep, I fell onto my bed and began dozing. Then I had the first of three intensely symbolic dreams, all of which had to do with central problems in my own life. As I wrote about all this in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming:

A couple of days after Christmas, I flew into snowy Oslo. My friend Trude met me at the airport. After a few days with her and her boyfriend, I set out by train for Lillehammer. I had noticed several strange and seemingly meaningful coincidences happening during my stay with Trude – the kind of things the psychiatrist Carl Jung called “synchronicities.” I remembered having read somewhere that Jung advised his patients who reported synchronicities to pay attention to their dreams during this time. Maybe that’s a good idea, I thought.


During the first night in Lillehammer, I had the first of three highly symbolic dreams. I dreamed I was an adolescent, and standing with my father next to the pond. We were arguing about something fiercely. I don’t know what it was, but it became too intense for me to take, and I ran into a nearby grove of trees.


The second dream came to me in Trondheim. In it, I peered out of the grove. My father had gone, and I saw a swan and her cygnets floating near the water’s edge. As I stepped out of the grove and approached them, I could see that it wasn’t a swan at all, but a white-robed priest baptizing white-robed children.


The third dream happened in Bergen. In it, I was swimming in the middle of the pond, wearing all my clothes. Paw, Mam, Ruthie, Mike, and Hannah stood on the bank, calling to me to come back. I thought that was odd; don’t they know I’m just fine? Then the St. Michael the Archangel medal I wore around my neck floated to the surface, caught a ray of sun, and a large fish swallowed it.


By then, synchronicities were popping around me like firecrackers. It was eerie. Something was happening. Not knowing what else to do, I sat at the desk in my hotel room and wrote a long letter to Michael, a devoutly Catholic friend in Washington who knew something about Jungian dream interpretation. In the letter, I told him the dreams, asked him what they meant, and advised him to write me in Louisiana, because I would be home soon.


When I arrived back in Starhill, my mother gave me a stack of mail. In it was a letter from Michael. I tore it open and read. Michael, who knew nothing of my family history or the emotional dynamic between my father and me, said that the first dream symbolized a clash with my father, and my need to run away. The second dream, he said, disclosed that my coming to a mature religious faith, as I had done in Washington, had drawn me out into the world, away from a place of fear. And the third dream was God’s call to me to leave my family. They won’t understand why you’re going to do it, Michael said, but the dream is telling you that this is what you need to do.


Three dreams. My past. My present. My future. What Michael wrote made sense. Could this be the direction I had been praying for?


Also in that stack of mail was a letter from the managing editor of The Washington Times, my old employer. They were creating a position for a culture beat reporter, she said; would I be interested in returning to the paper? Please let me know by the last Friday in January, she said.


The easy thing to do, the most rational thing to do, would be to call the editor and say, “Yes! How soon do you want me?” But that wasn’t my way. No, I had been so taken by the strange dreams and synchronicities that I was sure God was going to send me an unmistakable sign confirming that I should return to DC. I had three weeks in which to make up my mind about the job. I prayed my rosary and waited on God.


During this time, I heard an awful tale about the parish’s Rosedown Plantation, one of Louisiana’s most beautiful antebellum houses and gardens – a story that had the town buzzing. The new owner of Rosedown, an investor from Dallas, had announced plans to make a housing development out of a large portion of the 2,000 acres attached to the big house. As part of his scheme, he ordered the congregation of the Rosedown Baptist Church to leave the premises. Folks were scandalized.


The Rosedown Baptist Church congregation had been present continuously on the plantation since the slaves were first evangelized in the early 19th century. The current congregation was composed mostly of ancestors of the original slave families who founded it. Their modest brick church on the plantation grounds’ edge was not historically significant, but the congregation was. Besides, it was their church. They did not, however, own the land on which it sat.


The congregation was small, it was poor, and it had no one to help them. Like everyone else in St. Francisville, I was outraged. I started making phone calls. A few days later, the Baton Rouge Advocate published on its front page my freelance story reporting on the controversy. A local movement to save the church grew. Days later, CNN sent a crew to town to report on the congregation’s fight. The New York Times did a story. There were rumors that Oprah Winfrey was coming to town with her program.


Finally, the beleaguered plantation owner relented. The church was saved. My mother and father told me how proud they were of what I had done for the cause. They saw how passionate I was about this story, and how much good I could do with my journalism.


“Son,” said Paw, “if you want to go back to Washington, go with our blessing.”


The easy thing to do, the rational thing to do, would be to take my parents’ blessing as the sign from God I was waiting for. But that wasn’t my way. I still had a few days before I had to let The Washington Times know of my decision. Maybe God had something else to show me.


On Friday morning, I was at home at Weyanoke, and received my college friend Kim, up from Baton Rouge for a weekend in the country. She was going through a tough divorce, and needed to get away from things. We sat in the kitchen, lingering over lunch, talking about how hard things were, and where God was in all this.


“Oh, Kim, look,” I said, pointing to the clock. “I have to make a phone call to Washington. End of business today is the deadline for this job offer, and they’re an hour ahead on the East coast.”


“Are you going to take it?” she asked.


“Yeah,” I said. “I was hoping for a sign from God, but I didn’t get one. I think it’s the right thing to do, though.”


I excused myself and went into the hallway where the phone was. I called Washington, accepted the job, and told them I’d report in two weeks. So it was done. I was going back. I nearly wept with relief.


I took my rosary, slipped into the nearby downstairs bedroom, and shut the doors so Kim wouldn’t see me. I sat on a chair next to the four-poster antique bed, and began to pray the rosary. But first, a word with the Blessed Mother.


“Mary,” I said, “I didn’t get the sign I was hoping for, but I know you were praying for me all along. I know God helped me make this decision through your prayers. I want to offer this rosary in thanksgiving. And, you see how much Kim is suffering; please hold her hand through this divorce.”


I began to say my beads. When I rubbed the bead between my right thumb and forefinger, starting the second decade, the room, which had been gloomy in the overcast January gray, suddenly filled with sunlight – and the aroma of roses. What was this? I slowed my prayers to a crawl, and began inhaling in deep drafts through my nose. This cold bedroom, in the dead of winter, smelled like a rose garden in full bloom. I eked out the prayers of those ten beads, savoring the intense rose aroma for as long as I could, the said the Glory Be, ending the decade. At that moment, the clouds returned, and the rose scent faded away.


I hurried through the last three decades of the rosary, then searched the bedroom for clues. There were no flowers in that room. There was no perfume, no scented soap. There was nothing that could have produced what just happened.


Finally, after I had made the decision, I had my sign.


Kim wasn’t in the house when I emerged. In a daze, I went upstairs to make up the beds. As I pulled the covers up over my bed, I heard the thwack of the screen door downstairs, and the padding of Kim’s feet up the stairs. She hurried through the door holding her right hand out, palm up, her eyes wide.


“Smell this!” she said.


Her hand smelled like roses.


“Did you put perfume on?”




“Did you wash your hand with soap?”


“No! I was just outside walking around. When I came in, I came up the stairs to get something out of my room. I rubbed my nose, and for some reason, my hand smells like roses.”


I swallowed hard.


“Oh my God, this is amazing,” I said. “I was downstairs a few minutes ago praying the rosary. In the middle of it, the room filled with sunlight and the aroma of roses. There’s no way to explain it. There’s nothing in that room that smells of roses.


“Kim, here’s the thing: when I started my prayer, I asked the Virgin Mary to hold your hand through this trial you’re going through.”


Her jaw dropped. The rose scent vanished.

I went back to Washington, confident that I had done the right thing. I learned to pay attention to synchronicities after that, and to dreams. The same kind of thing happened to me in the three weeks leading up to the day I met my wife in 1996. I have learned from experience to take these things seriously — even as I keep what I regard as a healthy distance from Jung, whose occultism at times unnerves me. And it all started with reading Robertson Davies.

One thing that brought all this particularly to mind on this lazy, cold New Year’s Day was a dream a couple of days that someone I know well shared with me, because he was so rattled by it, and asked my help in understanding it.

In the dream, says my friend, he was standing at a block party on Capitol Hill, in Washington. It was a golden day, late in the afternoon, and everyone was happy and content. He said it was a Republican crowd, and he, not being Republican, felt vaguely uncomfortable around them. But everybody was very nice, and my friend said he was trying to fit in.

Suddenly, a large hawk swooped down over the crowd. It was pursued by three black vultures. Everybody stopped what they were doing to observe the drama in the sky. My friend said that everybody was excited by it, and said that the hawk was clearly leading the three vultures into some sort of trap, where it would kill them. “You don’t get it!” my friend screamed in the dream. “Those things are going to kill the hawk!”

The vultures forced the hawk down on the next block, behind an alley. My friend ran to help the hawk fight the vultures. When he arrived, he saw that the three black birds had killed the hawk, split its head open, and were eating its brains.

My friend (who does not live in DC) wanted to know what I thought this dream meant. It was super-creepy, to be sure, but I didn’t know what to tell him. I asked if there had been any synchronicities leading up to this. He said no. I am mystified. It may be just a dream … but after my own experience, I am reluctant to dismiss any dream as “just a dream.”

Any Robertson Davies fans out there in this blog’s readership? Anybody had any meaningful experiences with dreams and synchronicities that they’d care to share? Just trying to shake things up around here, and keep it eclectic…