LONDON, ONTARIO – Recurring dreams are funny things. Sometimes I wake up reflecting on a dream which I believe to have been a repeated phantasy, yet when I think about it again several hours later, I realize that’s not so; that its flavour of reiteration, so convincing at the time of its unfolding, was artificially baked in and was in fact not true; that this was actually a one-off. I believe I could identify about a dozen dreams that are actually repeaters. While some details will certainly change each time out, the broad outlines of those repeating dreams numbingly remain the same.
While it’s true that many of my repeaters tend to be menacing or troubling or profoundly sad, I don’t think I would qualify any of them as nightmares. Indeed, unlike some of the people whose sleeping patterns I know best in this world, I don’t seem to have nightmares anymore. In denying that classification, I could just be saying that while I still have dreams that it’s a relief to wake up from in the grateful realization that a dream is all that they are, it’s probably been about fifty years since I was propelled out of bed in soul-shaking terror.
But I’ve noticed something interesting about the meddlesome sense of uncertainty and dread that we’ve all been living with since the Wuhan panic really took hold one full month ago. (While I don’t seem to have any Chinese readers, I do have a few in Italy and will just point out that Canada was comparatively late in acquiring the Wu-Flu panic and I personally held off succumbing for longer than most of my countrymen; blithely pushing my way into near-deserted bookshops and churches mere hours before their complete lockdowns were imposed.) And that revelation is this: the proliferating psychological miasma of this crisis carries distinct overtones that are eerily reminiscent of three of my least favourite repeaters.
In the agitations that assail me when attempting to get a grip on this plague’s progress and construe my own best response, I am reminded of that all-too-familiar dream where I find my presently constituted self is somehow back at high school where I am unhappily enrolled as a student. That in itself would be humiliating enough but even worse, I have landed back there on examination day. I am about to be tested on a subject I know practically nothing about because – so total is my indifference to everything being taught at this school – my attendance has been unforgivably lax.
Indeed, quite often with this dream, I’m shocked to discover that I’m still enrolled there at all. I thought I was done with this crapola. In addition to generating dread at my unpreparedness, this dream also awakens wild irritation with myself. Why haven’t I worked up the courage to walk into the office and quit this charade decades ago? This school has no claim on me. I’ve been of more than legal age to quit for decades. Why haven’t I made my resignation formal and put this nonsense behind me for good? Well, it turns out that the answer to that perplexing question is because ultimately you can’t. Nobody can.
Part of the pleasure of becoming an adult is the illusion that you’re no longer at the mercy of the collective. As long as the gears of social and economic intercourse continue to turn over in a dependable and predictable way, you are able to believe that you have safely moved beyond the range of all kinds of would-be manipulators who claim to know what’s best for you and are determined that you will get it whether you actually want it or not. But in a period of widespread breakdown like this, that cherished sense of independence – that you are the captain of your very own ship – dissolves in a trice. You know that fixing this mess is far beyond your ken and with dreadful misgivings you have no choice but to submit to the cobbled-together game plan of leaders whose intelligence, honour and expertise you have previously had ample cause to doubt.
“We’re all in this together,” well-meaning social cheerleaders are wont to say during this crisis, assuming that their words will deliver a buoyant lift to our hearts; little suspecting the claustrophobic menace those words evoke in so many other hearts right now, including mine. We’re all in what together, pray tell? Well, nobody knows with any certainty. But I’ll tell you what it feels like: high school on examination day even though we haven’t been attending to any of our required subjects and we happen to be sixty-seven years old.
In anticipating what kind of world we’ll inhabit when and if we come out on the other side of the bat flu plague, I can’t help recalling another of my grim repeaters in which we find ourselves living in a different house that we were somehow persuaded would be better for us but it most decidedly isn’t. This is a dream that always leaves me soaked to the bone with a pervading sense of Edenic expulsion; a howling sense of regret for comforting amenities that have been heedlessly discarded and placed beyond reach.
Our youngest daughter, currently on furlough from the now-shuttered independent record shop where she loves to work, dropped around and reported how unusual it was for her and so many of her similarly de-employed friends to be flush with dough from emergency government relief and have nowhere to spend it except grocery and liquor stores and pharmacies. Her father’s daughter, her instinct when she has a few extra shekels in her pocket is to make her way into a worthy book or music shop. But they’re all locked down right now, many of their owners and workers wondering if and when they’ll ever be able to resume their operations.
And the only book and music retailer left to rake in all those governmentally-dispensed bucks right now is big, bland and utterly soulless Amazon who only pay a fraction of the taxes routinely imposed on the little shops. It’s uncanny how unbeneficial to everybody but Jeff Bezos that particular arrangement is, and how rancid it would be if that’s what we’re left with in the wake of this pandemic.
The third of my repeaters which has acquired a whole new pertinence this month, relates to my life as a writer. In this ghastly dream I am standing at a podium in a well-packed hall where I am about to give a public reading. Having foolishly decided to wing it this time and take my cues from the mood of the room, I have brought along a whole range of different essays and stories but am unable to definitively select one over the others and get my presentation underway. I start to favour one and then remembering some infelicity I meant to repair and haven’t gotten around to, I set it aside.
“Here’s one that’s pretty decent,” I think, but then doubt that its abstruse subject matter will have any appeal with this particular audience and reject it as well. Desperate to stop wasting everybody’s time, I take up another at random and just start reading it out, then choke after the first few sentences, thinking, “No, that really won’t do.” In one particularly long-winded variation on this dream, I excused myself from the hall to go into an adjoining room where I could make my final selection without pressure, and then returned to the hall to find – surprise, surprise – that everyone had gone home.
Aside from strictly private writing and ongoing work with other projects, I have felt more than a little like my dithering dream-self this month when selecting what subjects to write about and set before the public. Day after day I bring in The London Free Press from my mailbox and – simultaneously incredulous and understanding exactly why they do this – read a front page banner that promises, “CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC: 16 PAGES OF COVERAGE”.
Yes, we’re all sick to death of reading about it but it’s all that anybody wants to read about. It’s the subject that won’t stop itching even though we can’t stop scratching it. I guess we keep knocking back successive takes on the same old misery in the hope that this time, it’ll turn out differently; that this is the version where everything will work out after all.
It can feel indecent, or at least negligent, to veer off that topic for a second even though we also know in some deeper core of our being that it would probably do us a lot of good if we could. In the face of this endlessly cascading calamity, can I summon the audacity to write – let alone find anybody with the patience to read – a piece about something other than the Chinese flu? Something that I actually know about and, in less distracting times, care passionately about? Or will the glorified hallway monitors in charge of enforcing every condition of the lock-down pay a midnight visit to my study if I'm found to be generating copy on disapproved subjects like Anthony Trollope or the nourishing mysteries of faith or the lessons of life imparted to me by the dogs I’ve known and loved?
So consider this a heads up, dear reader. If I dare to take up some apparently frivolous or esoteric subject in subsequent Hermaneutics postings, this does not mean that I am a shallow or heartless or politically subversive bastard. I do so in service to the better interests of all mankind.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :