Dream that the World Was Ending

We knew a little in advance — a comet was going to slam into the earth, or come so close it would suck the atmosphere away. C. & I decided to spend our remaining time with a friend & begin walking to her house. During our walk — through a neighborhood that, in retrospect, reminds me of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a freezing chemical rain began to fall, coating everything with rime. We kept walking but thought this might be the end of things, but the rain slows & then stops & we keep walking. I see a child, almost an infant, standing alone on a street corner. There was a moment of looking around and wondering what we should do, but then I went over and picked the baby up and began carrying him with us to our friend’s house. “At least he won’t die alone,” C. said. We shared (silently) a sense of doing the right thing even when it made no difference. When we arrived at our friend’s house she was pregnant and bleeding from the nose. Her abusive boyfriend had hit her in the face, but he was still outside. The chemical rain began to fall again & we discovered that the infant we had rescued was dead. We sat in our friend’s living room, on the floor, a candle in front of us, waiting.

Series of Dreams

The soundtrack for this post is Dylan’s “Series of Dreams.” Dreams are out of fashion in psychiatry these days, but I’m still a Freudian at heart and I pay attention to my dreams when I remember them. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” writes Yeats, quoting “an old play,” a sentiment then echoed by Delmore Schwartz in what is probably his single most successful piece of writing, unless you figure that he “wrote” Saul Bellow’s Humbolt’s Gift. Talk about intertextuality!

First dream: I’m an adult in my childhood home, having returned to live there with C. We have our usual crew of scruffy, noisy dogs with us and we’ve settled in — been in residence maybe two or three days. The house is a big Victorian affair with a balcony and a turret & a sweeping sun porch, etc. C & I are standing on the porch when an older woman, elegantly dressed, with an upswept gray coif, approaches across the driveway. Picture from last year sent to me by a childhood friend She’s a neighbor & is leading a little schnauzer — as elegant as she is — on a lead. As she comes up to us, our terriers start barking & leaping around. The woman begins to greet us, but is clearly bothered by our unkempt, delinquent dogs. She raises her eyebrows, throws her head back nose-in-the-air style, & says, “Completely lacking in class & breeding.”  Up to this point I’ve just been interested in meeting this neighbor, but at this point in the dream I become enraged & begin shouting at her to “Get off my property, get off my god damned property! ”

Second Dream: I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, except that it is located where Ottawa ought to be; that is, close to where I actually live. I’m with some other people who have never been there before & I am explaining how to get around, where to go. It is the day before I have to leave for home & I am saying to one of the people I’m with, “It always breaks my heart to have to leave this place. I breaks my heart.” Then I’m by myself in a part of town I’m not familiar with and I stop at a food stall to order bun cha (grilled pork & noodles), but either because of my poor Vietnamese or the perversity of stall owner, along with the pork and noodles I receive a grilled songbird and a frog. I decide to eat the pork but not the two more exotic offerings.

I see both these dreams as taking control dreams. One of the main themes of my dream life over the years has been loss of control — lost in big cities, cars that won’t steer correctly or in which the brakes don’t work, elevators that go sideways, buildings that double back on themselves just when you think you’re getting to the exit, etc. In the first dream here, I return to the scene of my childhood anguish and helplessness, move in, and defend my turf against the sort of people my parents desperately wanted to be. I woke from that one feeling proud of myself. In the second dream, set in HCMC, not Hanoi, which is my “home town” in Vietnam, I’m getting along well despite some uncertainty. The business with the food suggests to me that I don’t have to accept every aspect of Vietnamese culture & that I can love the place without having to embrace everything about it. (I actually have been served whole grilled songbirds in HCMC, but never frogs.)

And speaking of dreams & Freud & all that, I love this response by Phillip Levine to his then teacher Robert Lowell, who had complained about Levine’s use of Freud, accusing him of lifting it from Auden. “Mr. Lowell,” Levine said, “I’m Jewish. I steal Freud directly from Freud; he was one of ours.” Well, I’m not Jewish, but I found Freud early and under the influence of my teacher Larry Frank made him my own. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents — these have been maps to the world for me over the decades. Freud has been, in Lowell’s own words, one of my “Masters of Joy.”

All Over But the Grading

I like teaching, even after nearly thirty years. I love teaching. But I’m always happy when the end of the spring term rolls around and the students and I can take a break from each other. I’m giving an exam in my Understanding Vietnam course tomorrow, then I’ll have several days of heavy grading, then the wide open spaces. It looks like I won’t be returning to Vietnam until winter, so I have no serious travel plans this summer. I’m hoping to finish a book of poems I’ve been puttering around with for way too long and to revise a couple of short stories I wrote last year and get them out for editors to look at. And there are some areas of our yard that need restoration, so I’ll have the shovel in my hands quite a bit as soon at the weather improves a bit — after several nice days, we woke to snow this morning. Snow. Yesterday, black flies, today snow.

New York Walkabout, Day 2

I better post this before it fades from memory. I would have gotten to it last week, but I have been chairing a search committee in my department and that has required a lot of time and attention (and which, to speak honestly, has been a terrific emotional drain). Anyway, NYC seems like a long time ago now, but I at least want to mention a couple of memorable events from my second day in the city.

I did not range as far afield on Saturday as I did on Friday, but even though I stayed downtown, I still did a lot of walking. I love walking in the city! My main goal for the day was to visit the Rubin Museum of Art, which Carole had told me about. Here’s a chunk of text from their website:

The Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) is home to a comprehensive collection of art from the Himalayas and surrounding regions. The artistic heritage of this vast and culturally varied area of the world remains relatively obscure. Through changing exhibitions and an array of engaging public programs, RMA offers opportunities to explore the artistic legacy of the Himalayan region and to appreciate its place in the context of world cultures. The RMA collection consists of paintings, sculptures, and textiles. Although works of art range in date over two millennia, most reflect major periods and schools of Himalayan art from the 12th century onward.

I wanted in particular to see the Buddhist art in the collection and since there was too much to absorb in one visit, I decided to focus on sculpture. This means that I walked past a great number of fascinating and beautiful objects, but it allowed me to leave the museum after a couple of hours with something like a coherent set of impressions. One of my main impressions, though, was the glorious architecture of the museum itself. The building is nondescript from the outside, looking like a corner office block on W. 17th & 7th Ave. (I took the 1 train up from Tribeca.), the inside has been hollowed out into five mezzanines with an elegant circular opening for a spiral staircase that runs up the center of the building. There are thematically organized exhibition spaces on each level. Here is the official description:

The 70,000-square-foot museum occupies what was formerly a portion of the Barneys department store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. It was acquired in 1998 and renovated extensively from 2000-2004. [. . .] Many of the most important details within the building have been retained from its previous life, most notably Andree Putman’s steel-and-marble staircase that spirals dramatically through the seven-story gallery tower. In addition to spacious yet intimate galleries for featured exhibitions, the museum includes space for contemporary and historical photography, an art-making studio, a state-of-the-art theater for multimedia events and performances, a cafe, and a gift shop.

The museum’s ambient lighting is somewhat darker than one at first expects, but this has the result of putting each work in a pool of light that encourages contemplation. On the day I was there, the space was busy but not crowded, with a couple of groups of well-behaved school children moving about and whispering to each other. One little girl in particular struck me as the perfect museum-goer: She must have been ten or eleven years old, skinny as a stick, with a big shock of brown hair that kept falling in her face so that she had to hold it back to read the information cards beside the objects she was looking at. And she was reading the cards, unlike most of her cohort, who were flitting happily from one pretty or macabre object to another. She would lean forward slightly, reading the description, then stand back purposefully and look at the object, sometimes returning to the text for more information. Our paths crossed several times during my couple of hours in the museum and this child was always absorbed in steadily looking at the object in front of her. I wanted to be inside her brain — to see what it would be like to see these things without all my years of education and experience — to see them “ignorantly” and eagerly, as it were. I left the RMA in a buoyant state of mind and walked south through the Village, where I bought myself a straw fedora from a sidewalk vendor, trying to imagine what these streets looked like forty years ago when they were the haunt of Bob Dylan, Dave von Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, and all the rest of the folkies I listened to in high school and college. Hell, I still listen to them.

On the way back to my hotel, I sat and rested my legs in a little park, then strolled (like any good flaneur in his fedora) south, taking everything in, balancing my rural existence with this intake of the urban air, both literal and metaphorical.

Went back to the hotel and had a nap, read for a bit, then began thinking about dinner. When I’m alone in the city — NY or Hanoi, etc — I don’t like to go to fancy restaurants by myself — such experiences are best when shared, but I did want to have one snazzy meal while I was in the city. Fortunately, the hotel’s own cafe fit the bill perfectly. I had a bar-made soda, a panini and French onion soup, then pie and ice cream for desert, followed by strong coffee. Cash only, but with tip under $30. The next morning I took a cab to LaGuardia and was home in the early evening, even with the long boring drive from Burlington to South Colton.