The same dream comes to me every night. It always starts in the lobby of One Shell Square in New Orleans. Once the large grinning security guard lets us through the turnstiles, we wait for the elevator. Inside the enclosed space, a dozen of us turn into seven and then a handful and then it’s just me, not knowing which floor to get off on. Each night, the elevator doors open to a different floor: 18, 33, 29 and place me in a donut of offices. Familiar voices in the distance, I walk (sometimes rollerblade, sometimes segway) to them, and they move farther and farther away. I reach my office, in reality threadbare and precise, but in my dreams packed full of computers, books, papers, rocks, pillows, a cot, food, plants (plants?) and every sign that I live there. I walk to the window and look outside. It is already night and outside is Houston, Singapore, Mexico City, Beijing. I hear the call of a colleague and … wake up.
The same dream comes to me every night. Or do I go to it?
Back in reality, it is Day 7 of Self-Isolation. I’ve upped my daily indoor cycling routine to 30 minutes from the normal 20, thanks to my increasingly cooperative left knee. I think of the aging and elderly suffering from or fearful of contracting COVID; their 99 problems and then this, the slowing down but having to cope quickly, the indignity and helplessness of it all. I think of my own severely immunocompromised mother who has two loving, knowledgeable and diligent caregivers and access to world-class healthcare but is still as susceptible as the next person and more isolated than ever. I think back on what this body has experienced in the last decade. It reminds me of the family friend who suffered a painful miscarriage on the banks of the Euphrates while fleeing Kuwait. And the neighbor who lost all of her frozen embryos during the flood of New Orleans. Memories, stories. I wonder what if these people had had cellphones and social media, rapid rescue and more robust storage. Wait. What if we bring the world to a point where no one has to experience much of this ever again? What if the world is not in stagnation or on the road to irreversible deterioration? My intention for us is not to overcome COVID and crisis du jour, but to live, bear witness, learn, record, remember, change, vote and act in ways that ensure we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.
That we don’t get off the elevator onto another but same circular floor every night and get stuck there until out of REM sleep.
Our nascent book club is reading Ling Ma’s Severance: A Novel, about a handful of American survivors on a fictional Earth broken by a fungal pandemic. (As much as I write openly, reading remains a severely intimate act for me and given a history of rapid exits from prior book clubs, we’ll see). More than a description of yet another dystopian world, the book so far is an exploration of inner life, especially of memory and stories. The protagonist’s memories, her people’s memories, the author’s memories, other memories, other’s memories. Stories. Dreams.
Memories beget memories. Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop. We drive, we sleep, we drive some more.
The past is a black hole, cut into the present day like a wound, and if you come too close, you can get sucked in. You have to keep moving.
The past. Memories. The present. Stories and a conduit. The future. A dream. They all exist. What we do with them will make for better memories, stories, dreams.