Distancing #30: Ease Down the Road


I don’t usually strain at the leash to leave my apartment. I never cared for a view. Generally, my quality time stays local. Travel is best done in the mind anyway, I think, even if my mental wanderings are usually homebound. But these days, since I can’t go out, that doesn’t imply where I’m living now, where I have my love, my books, my life. Thomas Wolfe be forgiven (or damned), I wish I could go home again—to that place smoldered by time, that place I couldn’t get away from fast enough. Yep, quarantined and a cliché. Royal flush.

A news article informs me that dream life is more active and vivid during this crisis. Under different circumstances, this would be an irresistibly beautiful thought: a wildly dreaming world, the kindest and the most terrible people shut away in the goodness of their sleep like children, dreaming down their fucked-up days. But of course there are no different circumstances. Different circumstances wouldn’t have turned up the world’s dream volume.

In a dream I had recently I am back with my grandma, who lived in the house next to ours, though this time she has chosen to welcome me at her home at the sea. We didn’t live by the sea, but here we are and there she is, walking toward me as if she has emerged from the waves. Her white curly hair pulsing around her head in the wind, like flower petals sleeping and waking again in time-lapse footage. In this dream the wind is somehow not wind, but a song. What I retain most from my grandma, dream or no dream, is her smile.

As I awoke, I knew exactly what this wind-song was. I knew its simple melody, its calming quality, the way the instruments sounded like they had been played at a slight distance from the microphones, so you could feel a room around the musicians. I knew the singer’s warm and slightly hoarse voice, the rhythm that was somehow upbeat though melancholic. Was this binary feeling my dream’s doing, or did such a song really exist? I couldn’t for the life of me name the song. As it turned out my brain was also in quarantine.

In the dream the song was a minor nuisance, because it drowned out what my grandma was trying to tell me. How Aristotelian dreams are: always a conflict between you and what you so desperately need to hear, do, get, struggle toward.

After hours spent flipping through my record collection, I noticed that I’ve begun to wash my hands even after touching things that haven’t left my apartment in years. Like those albums. Maybe I’m trying to save my stuff from the contagion that is me. After scouring every streaming service I subscribe to, after trying to remember lyrics heard on the wind, literally—though does anything in a dream count as literal?—and punching them into Google, I gave up and went about my day, which meant remaining exactly where I was, moving my hands across my keyboard in exactly the same way, staring at the screen just like I did when I was searching for that song spinning in my dream. My subconscious is a DJ.

After a while I forgot about the song, but I did remember something Einstein said: that an idea will most likely strike when the mind is doing its duties undetected, after the work’s experience has long trickled down the chutes or flumes of the mind and worked its invisible magic there. Immediately after this I thought of this scientist who seemed to have more citizenships than fingers to count them with, and I wondered what pandemic Einstein lived through and survived. The Spanish Flu? Of course, the Spanish Flu wasn’t Spanish at all. Maybe most instances of pandemic-baptism are iterations of that oldest of marketing strategies, racism.

By the time I thought about racism, I had forgotten about my dream and about this song that was wind. There was a pizza on the way—I was busy working on my quarantine gut, to have something to show after the quarantine is over, and the thought that someday it might actually be over eased a lot of the frustration about fattening up—and as I was making my way down the stairs to collect the food, there it was, the song, the singer, the voice, the lyrics, my grandma. It was—who curates my dreams?—the pensive and bonny “At Break of Day” by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

Upstairs, as I eased into Ease Down the Road, the album on which “At Break of Day” follows the romping “Just to See My Holly Home,” memories of my grandma percolated in my mind. It must have been the summer of 2001 when I discovered the album in a record shop back home and bought it simply for its lovely cover, that empty but mysteriously fluffy grass road on a little hill. This was a time when I was young enough to still feel hurt by being alone, to think that writing poetry meant listening to songs and setting my own words to their melody, so I would carry a small boombox and a stack of CDs to my grandma’s living room every afternoon and sit with her while she read or knitted. And I’d listen to music with my grandma in that room to which the golden evening sun was so good every day that summer. This was a time when I was old enough to know that everything fades, that the kernel of relationships is all too often the expectation of loss. I wanted to listen to music, I wanted to write, and I wanted to be with my grandma, my Oma, so I rolled it all into one.

It didn’t mean much to me at the time, but today I love the idea that my grandma, at ninety-one, was listening, through her lonely grandson, to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. How cool was my Oma?

She was between nine and eleven when the Spanish Flu washed its miasmic waves of death across the globe, and one of her younger sisters died of it as a child. This was always known in the family, but I never spoke to her about it. I wonder if there were songs that reminded her of the little sister she knew all too briefly.

Most of all now I remember grandma’s hair, which always seemed to me to be made of fluffy spring clouds. And of course her smile. And, if nothing else, I’ll take some small, small grain of comfort from the fact that this fucked-up time has somehow caused my undernourished and oversanitized brain to conjure Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s most beautiful song, one about sleeping and waking and loving with those wonderful lines “I hate myself when I’m alone / It’s just with you I feel okay.” That my dream sampled it for me, foleyed the wind with it, and made me remember days I hadn’t thought of, in a room I hadn’t been in, for years.

I wonder what my grandma wanted to say to me at the sea that night in my dream. Perhaps she just wanted to say hello.

The pizza had long since gone cold, but it wasn’t a terrible moment, listening to the music and eating cold pizza and telling my love about my grandma, the way I’m telling you here (sorry, there’s no pizza for you). And all the while I was thinking, and will continue to think until we once again meet the people we care for on the other side, of all the people who don’t have a song right now, in their dreams or their days.

— Jan Wilm
Frankfurt, day 61

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