The Art of Losing Isn’t Hard To Master

A friend from long ago posted some pictures of me & others (circa 1975) on Facebook recently that really, as they say, brought the memories flooding back. For many reasons — some of which I’m aware of & some probably not — I have been the sort of person who leaves people behind, a trait I have often regretted, but never managed to change. Perhaps I have been too selfish to exert the effort to maintain friendship across time & space. Perhaps I have wanted to preserve my memories without the complexities of present time. An only child, I have always tended to be secretive & emotionally distant, I think. The internet, though, has provided something I never could have expected, putting me back in touch with people going back to when I was 14 years old. Here is a picture with Mady Lund, taken by Jim Cervantes in 1976 — it captures an era & for me at least a whole universe of feeling.

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.”