A deep, gnawing sadness descended again this week in Melbourne, Australia as we returned to a further 6 weeks of lockdown. This means only going out of the house for work, school, exercise or grocery shopping. The guidance around going out for exercise is a very ambiguous ‘not far from home but definitely not a 100km drive for a 5 hour bushwalk’. A provision has been made for partners that don’t live together – they can go to each other’s homes. Other than that, no visitors are allowed.
In many respects we have been more productive as we’ve found better ways to collaborate and produce results for our clients
Generally, I’m ok with lockdown. The company I work for is set up really well for remote working and we have been able to operate as ‘normal’ since the pandemic disruption began. In many respects we have been more productive as we’ve found better ways to collaborate and produce results for our clients. Family-wise, the kids are happy and resiliently boistering their way through their days. Most school kids will get an extra week holiday and after that it is highly likely homeschooling will return, which fills me with not insignificant trepidation. I am (as are many, I suspect) consumed with a low-level melancholy that seems to pervade everything, as nothing is quite the same, nothing is really ‘normal’, and it’s hard to see when this will end.
Normality is an interesting notion. I sincerely hope that humanity realises this opportunity to change how we do things, to harmonise how we exist with nature and become more humble stewards of, or more correctly, respectful participants in everything that makes life on earth precious and unique. But I absolutely fear the rush to save economies will wipe out this crucial chance for change.
Eject disc, insert Mule Variations
Nada Surf’s ‘Let Go’ has been playing in the car for a few weeks now, with its sun-and-love-soaked California vibe, the kids in the back enjoying the harmonies and melody, joyfully joining in with their own version of the lyrics to ‘Blizzard of ‘77’. It’s not fair to say that Nada Surf don’t have their own melancholy tracks, they of course do, like the clever ‘call and response’, two voices in conversation in ‘Paper Boats’:
Are you sure nothing’s wrong?
But you’re sad about something?
Can you tell me what?
> I don’t know… I can’t tell you… I can’t tell you.
The song finishes with an amazing harmonic crescendo in the sad realisation that their lives, like parallel railway tracks will never meet as one:
And as we pass by each other
Our heads all full of bother
We can’t look, we can’t stop
We can’t think, we can’t stop
Because we’re stuck in our own paths
And it’s the way it always lasts
And the last line is the real kicker:
But I need something more from you.
We were, ironically, on the way back from a 100km drive to a multi-hour bush adventure as we listened to all of the details, live on the car radio
All of this pain is delivered in delightful vocals and beachside guitars and where this certainly has an appropriate place, the soundtrack to Melbournian life needed to change after the address from the Victorian State Premier announced our return to lockdown. We were, ironically, on the way back from a 100km drive to a multi-hour bush adventure as we listened to all of the details, live on the car radio.
So bring on Tom and his mules.
The personas all drip with melancholy – some in destitution, others in wonderful heartfelt love songs, but still with the tobacco and whisky-thrashed voice evoking shady drinking dens and clinging solitude
After recently listening to a fair amount of Tom Waits back to back I really noticed the personas he has created to voice his songs. He has been quoted as saying “The whole thing’s an act… it’s much safer to approach this with some kind of persona. Because if it’s not a ventriloquist act, if it’s just you… then it’s really scary.”1. This resonates with Tom performing his songs as his various characters rather than the elusive ‘Tom’ himself.
The personas all drip with melancholy – some in destitution, others in wonderful heartfelt love songs, but still with the tobacco and whisky-thrashed voice evoking shady drinking dens and clinging solitude. There are characters that seem to sleep in a dumpster, others that charm strangers in bars and still others that narrate dark scenes of horror, all stitched together by a master bluesman. Among the songs there are hymns, anti-hymns and carols. The choice of his ‘Mule Variations’ album seemed highly appropriate for pandemic inspired reflections.
‘Sleep in a dumpster’ Tom: “Filipino Box Spring Hog”
‘Narrator of horror’ Tom: “What’s He Building?“
‘Hymn’ Tom: “Come On Up to the House”
‘Anti-hymn’ Tom: “Georgia Lee”
‘Carol’ Tom: “Take It with Me“
‘Bluesman’ Tom: “Cold Water”
The Rise and Fall of Franco Pavarro
The rise of the virus and the associated social isolation has obviously affected people psychologically. As time has worn on, resilient people have faced moments of crisis, as the lack of face-to-face contact with loved ones, friends and colleagues finally wears thin. It’s a case of ‘each to their own’ in terms of how this manifests itself. For some, a transient breakdown; others turn to previously controlled vices, now becoming more dominant; some people have become dangerously defiant of distancing rules as frustration builds.
I have noticed (as well as various flavours of some of the above symptoms) that I am dreaming more; perhaps a consequence of sleeping poorly, or maybe increased dreaming is how our brains try to compensate and figure things out during these unusual times.
A couple of similar, very simple dreams have really caught my attention recently – the first, when I realised two words had become my focus during sleep. Not just two words actually, but specifically a first name and a last name. As I became aware of the name in the dream I focused hard, feeling certain it was important and that I had to remember it. In the dreamstate it felt significant and perfect for a character in a future story, or… something. I repeatedly focused on the name in my sleep, reading it over and over, feeling that the words physically existed written down somewhere in my mind. With relief, in the morning I remembered the name… Franco Pavarro. Huh?
A brief internet search reveals no obvious matches for Pavarro as a surname; Franco Navarro is from Peru, currently a football manager and was a top flight striker. But this is not my Pavarro. Bavaro was suggested in the search results as the next best thing. It is an Italian surname, derived from ‘Bavaria’ in Germany. Maybe this is my guy. For me, Franco Pavarro/Bavaro is styled in Scorcese’s ‘Goodfellas’ gangster characterisation, not a successful mob boss, but a loser, finding things tough, slick hair and clothes but a less slick life.
So Franco Parvarro was conceived, but died to give rise to Franco Bavaro. What will become of him?
Death and the Batman
The second was a similar dream where a word, the meaning unknown to me, seemed to be the most important thing in the world and during my sleep I should do whatever possible to remember it. The word was ‘meure’. During the night, instead of going slowly mad by repeating the word over and over I dragged myself awake to fumble-type it into my phone. In the morning, I had of course forgotten about the whole experience but later on when I looked at my phone, found the word ‘neure’ typo-ed in and Google had pulled back a map of a region in central France. I recalled the dream and the word being ‘meure’, so I searched again. Now I was getting hits for a French word and, using a translation website, found that ‘meure’ is a form of mourir, meaning ‘to die’.
Well, so weird so far, and with a macabre twist. I am absolutely no believer in dream interpretation but nevertheless, it was quite thought provoking.
It immediately took me back to youthful days backpacking in Australia. Twenty four years of age and recovering from the trauma of a failed relationship, I felt that travelling and being on my own was the answer to everything. I didn’t trust anyone else and felt a desire to lead the rest of my life alone. To help deal with things, I had been keeping a journal, a major part of which was the documentation of dreams. The more I documented, the more detailed dreams I had. Every night would be packed with vivid adventures. For a while, I’d had a series of dreams about death, which were troubling me. This is an example, verbatim from the journal entry dated 19th July 1997:
(in the dream I’d been running around in a field, joyfully, with good friends)
“…I feel totally liberated; exhilarated beyond belief and take a long running jump.I end up falling into a deep ravine like crack in the mud. I keep falling until I land in some very soft mud, which I realise I’m going to keep sinking in. The walls are a wet, sticky mud and very close. Mud is all around… I try and grasp a hold, but it is useless. I think about calling out, but I know that it is useless too. I keep sinking, the mud getting steadily closer all around me… and I realise that this is it. I’m not that scared, but have an incredible feeling of… ‘well when is it going to happen, when am I going to die, and what does it feel like?’. Soon everything goes dark – that’s it – just dark, no other sensation… and I know that this is it. Just prior to this, while falling & sinking I have a feeling of… ‘no, not now; the time isn’t right…I’ve got lots to do and see… I can’t die now.’.
Total reconstruction of the self is possible only through acceptance of psychic terror and symbolic death in the dreamstate
At around this time, 3 months into the adventure I sought, I was still having a difficult time connecting with people and definitely not realising my travel dreams. A resident at the boarding house where I was staying wouldn’t stop chatting to me, even with my lack of interest in talking with them. I found talking with others, particularly groups of people excruciating and often found myself frozen with fear. Their persistence somehow broke me out of this pattern of self-consciousness and I see this as a huge turning point in the journey, realising that humans are hardwired to be social, and existing as an island, isolated from others, is not a healthy path.
After working in Sydney and travelling the east coast for a bit, I ended up in Melbourne where I found work at a paper recycling factory. It was my job to help load the conveyor belt with literally truckloads full of ‘recycling’ and then help sort through the waste as it went on its way by grabbing and throwing to one side anything that wasn’t paper, or cardboard, or the recycling material of choice for this batch. It’s quite amazing what people throw away. There were many good quality, interesting books and magazines. When something of interest went by, it would be rescued if I got to it soon enough.
On one occasion, a comic appeared: ‘Batman: Shadow of the Bat’. I grabbed it and thumbed through. One speech bubble immediately jumped out… ‘Total reconstruction of the self is possible only through acceptance of psychic terror and symbolic death in the dreamstate.’2.
The words took me back to the dreams of dying, made me think about acceptance of change and being open to new possibilities. It made a lot of sense and made my brain morph a little and find a new state.
Like I said, I’m no believer in dream interpretation but this imagery helped me reflect and find peace. I loved the thought of death representing change, and an extension of this being the navigation of hardship acknowledged head on through a lens of mindful experience, accepting the good circumstances with the bad and learning from all.
Hopefully these are helpful thoughts in troubled times.
1 “Hobo. Sapiens”. Telegraph Magazine (April 10, 1999) Mick Brown
2 “Batman: Shadow of the Bat” (1992) #51 by Alan Grant, Dave Taylor (penciler), John Dell (inker), Pamela Rambo (colorist), Carl Critchlow (cover)