Remembering Nicole Carstens

26 Jun
Nicole Carstens, 1958–2001

Nicole Carstens, 1958–2001

Over in Kerkrade, Netherlands, the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) will have completed its second day of annual conference workshops and symposia today.

And here in New York, the Blue Note Jazz Festival is going on throughout June, mainly at venues such as the Blue Note and B. B. King’s.

So it’s a fitting day for me to continue my dream-related appreciation of Dutch New York by writing about my late friend Nicole Carstens. I met Nicole, who was from the Netherlands, in an eight-session dream “class” / dream-sharing group here in New York in 1996. She died in the spring of 2001, while in her early 40s.

Looking back at several letters we exchanged and some notes from various conversations, I realize just how few actual contacts we had in those four and a half years. It seems otherwise, because Nicole and I quickly noticed that the dreams we shared in the class each week had surprisingly—spookily—similar imagery. This gave us the opportunity to delve into some difficult issues we had in common, despite their differing waking-life manifestations in our personal histories.

Nicole was an artist; she supported her art by working as a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight attendant (so was frequently out of town), and as a translator. Exposure to her art, in juxtaposition to doing dreamwork together, gave me another opportunity: a rather large leap forward in my level of art appreciation, given my relatively scanty art education.

Nicole’s main medium has been described as Surrealist sculpture, which happens to be a medium I can be particularly dense to. So when I walked into the Bronwyn Keenan Gallery for the opening of a show of Nicole’s work in early 1997, I broke into a sweat. The show consisted of a single work: a big oval, on the floor, of unlit electric candles, with their cords reaching toward a lit candle in the center, under two layers of plastic, with a car mirror revolving over it. What was I going to say to Nicole about it? I had no clue what this piece was supposed to “be” or what it was about.

Then I decided to use dream association on it—the process of noticing what the images, characters, and actions in a dream make me think of. My panic subsided as I decided the sculpture could be about individual identities reaching toward the core Source of light. It also reminded me of the wheel of subpersonalities around the soul-based “I” spoken about by the mystic George Gurdjieff (as described by Mark Thurston in Discovering Your Soul’s Purpose).

Someone else at the opening, a sculptor who’d been in a group show with Nicole but had never met her, told me that to him, the piece was about birth and death and the abyss. He was looking at the oval as an egg and the unlit candles as death.
This was all like being in a dream group, where a dream can bring up drastically different ideas to the various group members hearing it told. I told this sculptor my interpretation, and later told Nicole as well, and I was relieved that they both appreciated how I had looked at it. This was the beginning of my starting to relax about “understanding” art, which in turn has helped me just plain enjoy it in a much wider range.

A few months later, Nicole told me she had begun photographing on-board tasks during her KLM flights, partly as a way to feel she was making something worthwhile of a job she didn’t much enjoy. Of course, the flight attendants and flight officers wear uniforms while working, and because I had recently left a job in a support position to a unformed force, Nicole and I again had felt simpatico in what we were exploring. Airline people, Nicole told me, are on a quest—they travel in circles, without ever getting anywhere. They get very little in return—not the luxury the public envisions. They have a mission of serving people and getting them to their destination safely. A pilot had told her that he gets restless if he’s in the same place for more than a couple of days.

Nicole Carstens, "Blue Notes for the Air, Chapter 0: Open Sky" (1998)

Nicole Carstens, "Blue Notes for the Air, Chapter 0: Open Sky" (1998)

The following year (1998), Nicole exhibited her photographs in New York in a show titled “Blue Notes from Thin Air.”

That show was repeated posthumously at the Netherlands Foto Instituut in Rotterdam. Trying (unsuccessfully) to find some of Nicole’s photos on the institute’s site last night, I experienced another nice synchronicity: this weekend (June 25–28), the institute is presenting an exhibition titled “Dream City.”

Here’s to you, Nicole.

8 Responses to “Remembering Nicole Carstens”

  1. André Carstens August 9, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

    Thanks for your wonderful memories to my sister Nicole. I share your feelings with regard to her talents and energy. Hopefully she and her art will never be forgotten.

  2. DTH-LTJK March 23, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    The New York Times online today has a travel article (dated yesterday) that I almost certainly wouldn’t have made time for if it weren’t for hearing from you, Barend: “36 Hours in Vientiane, Laos” ( Seeing it there was one of those small synchronicities that have been happening for me so regularly of late. I’m pleased I had a reason to be drawn to article so I could see some new sights.

    The article also mentions this: “Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped over two million tons of ordnance over Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. About a third of the bombs failed to detonate and continue to add to the more than 50,000 casualties that have occurred in the last 50 years.”

    The experience summarized in those two sentences had a bit clearer meaning for me because of a passage I read just last night (another small sync) in my (odd choice of) bedtime reading: “Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War,” by Los Angeles Times reporter Megan K. Stack (pages 123–124). By the time she’s riding from Beirut to Tyre as Israeli planes are bombing the road she’s on, she has been through chapter after chapter of life-threatening situations, yet she has mostly felt numb before. “[N]ow some internal Novocaine has worn away… We cross the Litani on a sagging makeshift bridge of old wood. We are over the river now and I think of Dante fainting when he crossed the Acheron into hell. I don’t faint, I just sit there thinking and breathing and sensing the planes skimming the sky with dismemberment and death in roaring bellies… When you are too close to the bombing, you can’t hear the jets or see them. The explosions erupt upward like ejaculations of smoke, as if they come from the earth and not down from the clear sky… I believe that bombing is the worst dangerous thing. I would rather get shot at, risk getting kidnapped, or walk across a field knowing there might be mines. When you move loose over the ground under bombardment, death drops down gracefully from the heavens, from an atmosphere you cannot see or hear.”

    Having so recently read Stack’s experience of bombing when I read the “36 Hours” travel article heightened my appreciation for Vientiane’s attractive and cosmopolitan aspects. They seem a particular achievement in light of past and continuing pain.


  3. DTH-LTJK March 17, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    Hi, Barend,

    I didn’t realize “Blue Notes from Thin Air” had been published as a book, maybe an exhibit catalog, but now that I look, I see it listed (but unavailable) on Amazon and other places.

    No, I hadn’t heard of the book “Presence.” I’ll give it a look, thanks. Speaking of synchronicity, when I clicked through from your comment to the blog post about the boats (banka), the Maslow pyramid of hierarchies partway down the page struck me in that way, because I’d encountered several pyramids with the past day (and one since). (One was in a photo of yours: a pyramidal steeple sort of structure [], which reminded me of a building I know that had previously reminded me of a dream.)

    I’ve been going through a period the past several weeks of having slews of synchronistic encounters with repeating symbols and such, although mostly inconsequential. I’m at the point where it’s happening a couple of times a day. I’ve been through these periods before, and I like to think they’re an indication of flow — of being on the right track about something, although (as now) I’m not always sure what that something is. Eventually I’ll get around to writing some of these sets of syncs as posts for this blog.

    It’s exciting to hear of your longtime interest in dreams. I think you would love the International Association for the Study of Dreams, because we’re a “big tent” organization, looking at dreams from just about every possible perspective: lab science, anthropology and other academic disciplines, therapeutic uses, inspiration for artists, and just regular folks having dreams. There’s quite a large Dutch affiliate.

    IASD is doing more and more to be a worthwhile organization for people everywhere, even if they can’t make it to the annual bricks-and-mortar conferences. There’s an annual online conference about psi dreaming that’s extremely lively, and a peer-reviewed journal and a magazine, plus online study groups on a variety of topics. In the psi conference, there’s often emphasis on doing exactly what you do with (or have noticed from) TM, which is to process and clear away the concerns of the everyday mind so that dreams can draw from a deeper source.

    Thanks again for your interest, and yes, let’s do stay in touch.


  4. Barend Frielink March 9, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

    Dear writer,

    I searched for your name but could not see it. Anyway, I knew Nicole as a student in Amsterdam. A very interesting and inspiring person. Full of life. I left in the early eighties, but stayed in touch. I returned to Amsterdam briefly in the mid-nineties and got married in Amsterdam. She was at our wedding and that is the last time I saw her. If I remember correctly, she was about to leave for NY. Last year, I decided to use the internet to locate her, and was shocked to learn that she passed away at such a young age. Since then I have been wondering what happened. Could you shed light on that?

    Many thanks in advance. Barend Frielink (now living in Laos)

    • DTH-LTJK March 10, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

      Hello, Barend. It’s good to hear from a friend of Nicole’s.

      Nicole emailed me in early 2001 from a hospital in Leiden. She said she had had surgery (but didn’t say why) and would be in touch when she returned to New York. Dumbly, it didn’t occur to me how serious this might be, and I was accustomed to not being in touch often. In April, then, I got a message from one of Nicole’s former KLM coworkers that she had died of cancer. At the memorial for Nicole, I realized she was involved in many other activities and communities beyond what I’d been aware of—an indication of, as you say, how full of life and creativity she was.

      The memorial, IIRC, was at the gallery that had exhibited her “Blue Notes from the Air” show. I’ve been looking at your gorgeous photography at, and it makes me feel you would have appreciated her show very much, and she would have loved your photography. Did she ever see any of it?

      And, BTW, one of your photos ( makes me think of a dream I posted on this blog, “Schooners and Sampans” (—not, perhaps, in the configuration I drew, but some of the images of sampans I see when I Google the word. Is that a sampan in the photo?

      Best regards,
      Gloria (

      • Barend Frielink March 11, 2012 at 7:20 am #

        Hi Gloria,

        Many thanks for the response and the information about Nicole. Sad, so young.
        As I lost contact with her (unfortunately) about 25 years ago, I never saw her photos, and she never saw mine. I have been looking on the internet for a 2nd hand copy of the book “Blue notes from thin air” but have not yet found a copy.

        The photo you refer to was taken in the Philippines and the boat is a “bangka” which is an outrigger canoe (some of them can be large enough for 100 people). See for example:

        I was interested to see your AISD member page. Never knew that there was such an organization. As a child I became very interested in dreams, and wrote them down for years. However, I have not done that since I was a student (philosophy and economics). However, dreams have always been very important to me (being a born day dreamer) and they come to me very easily. I am a lucid dreamer, and can often start my own dreams, and tell my family about them at breakfast. About 10 years ago I did a course in transcendental meditation, and practice daily. As a result my dreams became fewer (as daily experiences did not need to be processed that way) but more meaningful and intense as if experiencing a different world.

        You speak about synchronicity and precognition. I wonder if you have read:
        Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society by
        Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers. A very inspiring book about the U turn theory, which focuses on precognition, or presensing as they call it.

        I am flattered that you had a look at the photos. Some of the work I try to do is reflecting subjects that I dream about. But I have a long way to go to reach a satisfactory point.

        Thank you again for your reply. Hope we can stay in touch.

        Best regards, Barend


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