This morning I was in Ashfield; this afternoon I was in Northampton; and tonight I’m back in Brookline. Going from retreat mode to home mode requires a decompression chamber. For me, it was an audio version of Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day and the long drive.
Being at a retreat is like being a resident of the Biosphere, I decided, which is a place that Jimmy and I visited with Eli and Lydia many moons ago, so many that there was no Grace. The retreat was a sealed experience; everything that was important and riveting seemed to happen inside it. I don’t mean that it all happened inside Wellspring House — there were jaunts to more than one coffee house — I mean that it was self-sustaining and total. “Real life” was outside the sphere.
Early in the week, I started working on an essay that doesn’t have a title, but that does have a key verb: recedes. It’s about the cognitive necessity of letting go — of disappointments and joys, possessions and experiences — and the emotional desire to hold on and make it last. A few days before I left for Ashfield, I had a two-act dream. The first act was sheer experience. In the the second act, my dream self tried to get back into the first act:
This part evaporates, and I, in the dream, want it back. My dreaming self tries to imagine its way back into the scene and cannot. Dream self decides, therefore, to investigate the scene of the party, and the two meeting, and the location of the car as a way of staying close to what I just experienced. It’s still night and the party has just ended. The indoor and outdoor lights are on. I walk through the empty house, see where they stood, and walk into the back. There is a high stone wall, taller than me, and over it from the next yard other lights glow. They more than glow; they are in fact almost blinding. On this side of the stone wall, it’s hard to see. There’s darkness and shadows; only the top of the wall and the space above it is lit. I feel my way among shrubs and try to find where the car might have been parked. I start to doubt that there would be any way to find out if what I had witnessed had ever happened. I hold on to it against logic, yearning to relive what I have just lived. As I stand there, weightless in the dark, I realize that it has disappeared and it would be wise to let it go.
Dream self tells dream self this, and then I wake up, and then I lie in bed and keep thinking about the dream.
So much of what I’d been thinking about experience, how it recedes, and how we try to keep it alive or even resurrect it coalesced in the dream. I’ve written more about it than the passage above, which suddenly seems to me a fitting commentary of coming to the end of the retreat week.
You are welcome to analyze my dream in your own way. What I take from this, however, is that experiences of all kinds — art, travel, love, and other big stuff — have a powerful hold on us, when we’re in them and after we, in time, move on. And yet, although we know “the world spins only forward,” and we must keep living our lives forward, we can get caught in loops of memory, too. I tell myself, “let it go,” and yet I keep thinking about the dream.