Dream Bank for the Post-Covid World

From the series “Projection Napping,” by Brooklyn-based collective Optical Animal

Collective dreaming, tons of it, was being reported early in the pandemic. It was a phenomenon of nocturnal spaces around the world.  I was thinking about that this morning around 4am, looking out from the second story window at a sea-green garden,  an octopus’ garden, to use the Beatles’ words, with the blue-green flesh of hydrangea calling out, the pompom leaves of trees being shaken in a hynotic motion; thinking of the way we tapped into soft, amorphous time and space world during the pandemic.

I was thinking of this after we had our first dinner party; as people return to social space, they rush towards individuation only to find they fit awkwardly in their bodies. 

What was all that dreaming about?  The unconscious was ordering things in a way of deeper reality, and people not previously accustomed were becoming awake to it.  When we needed it, a curative, creative depths became available beyond the frontal barking of social media, beyond the dominating mind.

What can we now collectively gather?  Is it too much to think of reforming a collective mythology, desires and fears of our shared humanity behind the lids?  What if we made a bank of dreams — the way we bank money, and bank blood, now bank sperm and eggs and genetic material. Thinking on the model of cloud banks, dream banks will mark undivided and shifting spaces where psyches run into each other, billow and split and dissolve. I’ll start. I dreamed C.D. Wright gave me a haircut, very slanted across my neck as we talked about her waiting to receive a certificate to teach swimming; I dreamed about my mother’s belly, my bodily home, in different ages and stages. Of course, I dreamed of bounding outside of lockdown, climbing over roofs and living in endless reconfiguration of rooms. The possibilities are endless.

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Shock of the (Post-Covid) New

How distanced we are from faces with their expressive truths, how shocked by the lower halves of faces we’ve never seen.  Put these little jolts alongside big jolts, and you have emotional minefields.  It seems that everyone, upon emerging, is seeing things anew, reevaluating, having big heavy conversations.  Shock is reverberating everywhere — like 19th century poets all jolted and overcharged by subliminal messaging of the city, desiring to overwrite old realities in awkward shock-laden ways.

In a wonderful metaphor: scuba divers, who have accustomed themselves to splashing and exploring the depths of the ocean, must sometime come to the surface. They are told to approach with caution, otherwise they get the bends.  They get wobbly, rubbery limbs from bubbles in the ankles, hips, shoulders, elbows. They lurch, have an unsteady approach to regular ways.  

This lurching is exhausting. But at the same time, we are also recording sensitive changes to our emotional body.  Major concepts that are supposed to have held us are weak.  Our relations in every encounter, human and nonhuman, create worlds.  What is true in the morning might be overwritten by what is true in the evening.  Come to it gently. 

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The Rise and Fall of Mother’s Day

I dedicate a dandelion to Anna Jarvis who, having founded Mother’s Day, spent an entire lifetime trying to undo it.  Her success in 1914 quickly became overscented, oversweet, oversentimentalized by the profiteers of capitalism, and within years, she was desperate to put the cat back in the bag.  Keep it simple! she railed.  Boycott florists, squash the candy makers and card hawkers!  Stop the commercialism!  She exhausted her fortune to take back a name she  couldn’t quite claim – Mother’s Day?

Jarvis wanted to honor and respect a much more complex motherhood.  Rather than a delicately petalled flower, I see dandelion as Jarvis’ idea of mother.  Its burst of sun-like flower is charming, and the unsung tenacity of its weed with its jagged, tooth-shaped leaf and its deeply sourced taproot where its spiritual power lies.  The grit and vision of la durée, the everyday beauty of continuity, is packed into its whole.  It is “toothy” — dandelion is a corruption of the French “dents du lion.”  The feminine becomes gritty, determined, a fighter, what some might see as masculine energy while the masculine is often fragile.  Such are the truths in paradox. 

Of course, we can spy beauty in our mothers and sidewalk flowers often — like seeing dandelion when the afternoon sun comes glancing over rooftops and catches it in its jewel light.   I see wildness in its simplicity.  I see an outflow, a pouring of generosity. I am never one to scorn excess!  All the flowers I got this year have amazed me. So many beauties!  In the spirit of both/and, I gather the whole thing and offer it in thanks.

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The Carpe Diem Dilemma

Oh, moralizing culture! Since we have so little understanding of where we are, there will be endless pronouncements of where we are. Certainties about what we’ve learned from the pandemic, and prophetic images of our future.  The more we don’t know, the more we must say.  The more we shouldn’t say, the more we will.  No good void goes unfilled.  Enter a slogan.  

Carpe Diem?  It seems obviously capacious, which gives everyone room to pick bones.  The dessicated twigs in front of the carved letters in the photo look like they hide a sarcophagus.  Latin and Horace and Odes might overwhelm the swinging modern individualist, even if they agree with a misreading of “Seize the Day” as a consumer-ish urge to achieve personal triumph.  

Ideologues of a different stripe might battle the hedonistic “go for it” message, again misreading the more philosophic horticulturalish reminder to pluck and gather flowers at their moment.  To pluck each day in its fullness.

So little can be said.  It’s no wonder we keep at it. 

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A Season of Yellow

Yellow, how do we read you?  Sickly or simple as happiness?  Simple as just living without ponderous thought.   Daffodils in their junior prom dresses.  Come rain, come light snow petals quiver but they don’t drop.  

Forstyhia too.  On the frontline of joy.  Out from under, like Easter.  In the face of death.  Breathing quivering glaring at darkening rain clouds that glare and brighten them

 A duck egg’s yolk, outsized sun.  That which feeds in scarcity is revered as a goddess

and fear, and disillusion, too much optimism, too much yellow that fades, becomes dingy, a street sign — crossing! bus! children! — in need of attention

and fear of the other in their own birthed skin —

and dreaming, and dreaming without bounds, call it naive, call it imagination. Yellow as an M & M.  Yellow as a lozenge, a candy-colored soft-swirl dream, a Saab sportscar soft as a miniature car capsule 

Yellow, simple as the sketch of light that draws your face in laughter

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Eternal Memories in the Eternal City

Eternal memories from the Eternal City, Rome, 2018, from the weeks we were lucky enough to spend in Testaccio. That year, religious holidays fell at the same time — Passover Seder was finishing as Easter bells began to ring.   In the days before the holidays, I got swept up in the emotional intensity, the cresting of passions in theatrical and religious Rome. I was fascinated with the intricately woven histories and texts of two great faiths.   I found some journal notes where the timeless ritual makes appearance in the living moment.  I share them: 

Last night the Trevi fountain, with its gaudy excess, the water lit to resemble tropical Hawaii, was crowded with holiday tourists.  Groups of long-skirted priests walked by, disappearing into the dark streets.  Two steps away, a church that seemed carved out of grotto rock, opened its doors. Inside a few worshippers were sitting in pews alone.  A nun began to strum a little guitar, maybe ukelele, and in a high voice slipped off, then refound her key and wavered with naked vulnerability. 

At six this morning, a group of worshippers stood at the back of the neighborhood church  chanting what sounded, in its open repetitions like the Kaddish prayer.  Aramaic speaking to Latin?  Probably not, but the cultural overlaps were beginning to seem like the point.

For our Seder, I read about long history of Italian Jews: as many as 20,000 Jews had been brought as slaves after Rome conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD.  I read Edda Machlin on her country’s venerable culinary traditions, about the excitement of returning to the community’s matzah oven, chiseled into the wall of a cavern; once a year, it was cleaned of spider webs before bringing down matzah meal and eggs. The traditional Seder dishes were baby goat, polpettoni d’agnello – lamb loaves, or turkey breast pie which must have been brought by refugees from the Spanish Inquisition.   

For our Saturday night Seder, I made artichokes Roman-style, fish with pignola nuts and raisins, puntarelle salad and almond macaroons, the recipe from cloistered nuns in Jerusalem, we leaned out on the sills of our apartment, imaginining how early community in the Jewish ghetto would hear the Dolor  — dolorous bells were tolling after midnight Easter mass.  

I wrote a longish poem which dwells on the human pain of crucifixion — but was struck by the end which I excerpt.  Although faiths have their own version of redemption, the echoes and repetitions are notable — the cry of anguish – My God, why have you forsaken me? – belongs to both Jesus and Davidic Psalm 22.  This is a story of layerings more than parallel lines coming together, ending with a sly spin on universal praise.

At least everyone can agree on one thing:
After midnight, shutters thrown open
and people down in the piazzas shout
with the complaint of braying goats,
or like a mondial harmonium,
My God, why have you forsaken me?

we Jews will tempt the cresting Sea,
red from the lash, locust wings, 
hot sand in the whorl
of our ears, going for broke 
while clutching oppression bread

the effervescent suck of death
between great waves 
so close, when all is given up
a song flies from us

all tongues, everything that brays
and breathes, 
the eyeless fish
plankton, dancing women 
praise Jah

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Speak, Kafka: What the Maxwell House Haggadah didn’t share

The Jewish way of telling things is famously contentious and fractured; stories get started, then start again differently (doesn’t an Origin story imply a single origin? Think again!)  The surface is not linear, stories grab you, then leave a key part untold. Interpretations move about restlessly from different points of view. When trying to piece together a whole, holes emerge which, if you’re into words (who isn’t?) becomes very exciting.

I was reaching into imagination and thinking of Haggadot, the story’s interpretation, not yet heard, not yet seen.  For instance, where is the hand-written Haggadah Kafka brought to his family Seder table, wanting to offer a fresh take on this meta-narrative, with no beginning and no end? Where is these yellowing paper with folds, imprinted with the wings of an insect?  Where is this anguished take on God’s gift, the wordless cry, the emptiness in a journey where God hovers as an absentee landlord? Folded into the pages of his own stories, obviously.

I’m ready for Haggadah of phenomenology, where everything has a voice — every person, every thing.  Already decentered, in this story we give equal voice to the midwives Puah and Shifra, we flesh out the anonymous people, Pharaoh, the Egyptians.  We voice the animals — “Let all that have breath praise Yah” — fish, mules, snakes.  All things — the dry land, waves, the sea, the tambourines. This is where wise ancient texts, already rich with choral vocals, meet the new. It’s part of the command to see the radical in the traditional, for if the original hadn’t been radical to begin with, it wouldn’t have survived.

Back to what we might find at my table, I’ll mention narratives in which we acknowledge personal obstacles that keep us “in narrow places” (Mitzrayim/Egypt).  But give the last word to the imperative of justice at the heart of the great ur-tale and its charge that liberation is ongoing.  Abraham Joshua Heschel tells it from the 1960s as he could tell it today, the same with difference: “At the first conference on race and religion, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses…the outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. Exodus began but is far from complete.”

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That Old Keen Darkness

Rooster consciousness,
the rooster that sees light in darkness
rooster announces the light while submerged in darkness
from the deepest place as it’s starting to turn

soon we’ll be in light, you can feel it
it teases, it plays in spring dazzle
that exhilaration, that rush forward
to leave everything behind

We have been staring into darkness
We have been shown darkness

Gingerly, carry that darkness

stirring to its strange voice
its story

carry it in your pocket
rub it like a stone
take side glances at its face

all our transformations
in that stony face
looking towards the light

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Topsy Turvy Holidays during an Inverted Year

Welcome to the Dionysian spring holidays — Mardi Gras, Carnivale, Purim, falling in love — that turn things upside down during a year in which everything has been turned upside down.  It makes for fascinating spatial — and metaspatial — thinking.  If I turn upside down while I’m standing on my head, am I right side up?

No, but it opens the imagination up to all kinds of interesting propositions! What kind of reversals or forays into chaos would you induce to find some new stability, some reemergence of order?  The rabbis back in the day allowed all kinds of forbidden habits to happpen, even commanded them. The faithful get dead drunk, so that their utterance is completely and totally confused.  Up is down, he is she, heavy is light, mourning is celebration.  Surprise breaks into the expected to shatter fixed concepts of reality.  Inside that reality was a little miracle lurking all the time, another divine reality, a seeming opposite joined by a hinge to a larger unity.  

What seems like happy confusion is a whole field of philosophy, naturally, with twists and turns through the nonduality of mysticism and literature. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, illustrates simultaneous difference and sameness with the famous aphorism: 

“The road up and the road down are the same thing.”  It’s a succinct vision to hold as we approach the anniversary of the pandemic. 

I’m rarely so clear-sighted. I’m in the camp of Artsi Ifrach, an Israeli-Moroccan fashion designer who said, “All those phantasmagorical connections might seem odd to certain people, but for me they create an inner, quiet logic.”

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World Valentine

This Valentine’s Day, my object of love is the world, and what kind of a clear manageable object is that?  

I could narrow it down, focus, make it a simple object, like an oyster, and use all of my five senses to explore its delicate being, its opalescent color, its sand and pearly shell  

I might complicate things by thinking about the ocean, and how many people die in it every year, and how many sailors and fishermen have perished over centuries, how many in the Middle Passage, and wonder if I can still love the ocean

or that oyster that is its product and essence of the ocean itself

and I might be eating the oyster as I am listening to a roll call, to documentation of a country falling apart

eating at itself, indulging in fantasies, imposing fictions on phenomena that is watery and impossible to fix or order

and I might wonder how I can love that project too 

or the oyster raised in a tainted original colony  

but since I’m past the point of infatuation, not holding the world 
to promises that it would laugh at if ever charged, I’ll keep witnessing, in all flavors and registers

all beauty and monsters that comes from the ocean

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