When I was a girl in a New England summer theatre program I remember singing some song about 'The Knell'… it was a pre-Goth original indie musical someone had written for kids… I had no idea what this meant but it sounded ominous and dark. Last night, lying in bed in the first summer-preview open-window sleep, this was playing in my head, like a lost Pink Floyd track.
At the end of my Latin Hip-hop dance class, we lie on mats and do some kind of core training and stretching. For most of my life I've done some kind of dance-- in a studio, in a gymnasium-- often ending up on the floor, staring up at an ultra-high ceiling with fans and fluorescent lights. It's a kind of continuity, a kind of comfort. I remember missing my Mom at summer dance training, looking up, as a 9-year-old. I remember crushing on some drummer as a teenager, stretched out on hard mats sensing my limbs and some kind of desire. I remember weeping over a missing boyfriend as a young woman, hearing cool-down music, looking up at lights in metal housing, sensing the deja-vu. Tonight they were playing a sort of reggae version of Cat Stevens' Wild World, pressing my nostalgia buttons, firing off endless flares of memory in that space where you are sweaty and tired, trying to collect your body and consolidate your energy for the night ahead or the walk home, sensing the ceiling as floor, the floor as a kind of springboard. Sometimes our teachers would turn out the lights so we would become dancers without ego, without legs or arms-- floating corpses on a padded wooden sea of past choreography. A kind of relief that it was over, a kind of sadness that every class, every routine, every performance has an ending. An enforced rest-- the calm after the intense physical storm.
A friend called at 5 AM last night. He confessed that every time he fell asleep he sensed that he might not wake up, and he would then force himself awake: one of the many variations of insomnia that seem to be afflicting my aging creative friends. Sleep haunts people--evades us, tricks us. I was so tired last night-- an exhausting week with nominal rest-- and I awoke startled from some disturbing dream, felt my heart pounding from some terror or dread… and got up like a psychic to answer calls. Sleep is a kind of Catch-22 for some of us… a challenge, a dread-- something that steals our creative hours, consecrates our passions and consumes time…. like a friend whose company we crave, even though we know she will pickpocket and deceive us-- betray us while we are happily unconscious and ignorant.
My doorman has a new baby. He is excited and reports to me every day. Last night was the first relentless sleepless night. The baby had a crying jag--- maybe colic, maybe some small discomfort-- maybe his evening milk was bitter… but he seemed inconsolable. So complex, these infants who cannot communicate-- only cry. Mothers learn to distinguish these cries-- hunger from pain from discomfort, colic from teething. Sometimes it just sounds like fear and you convince yourself this is impossible… that besides the trauma of birth-- how can these emotions manifest? Or maybe the ingrained fear of abandonment, the initial separation-- maybe this is valid and universal and we are virtually born with death in our DNA and the subconscious knowledge that we will be ultimately left, no matter how good or beautiful we are. We will lose our audience, our friends, our lovers, our family-- our selves. The baby knows this, somehow, and has no control or comfort. You hold it and rock it and feed it and nothing works. A tiny night terror. You hope this will not become habitual.
Do babies dream? Science says they do-- the way dogs dream, within the realm of experience, subconscious and electrical brain impulse… and maybe this was a first nightmare-- maybe it was being 'set' somehow in this tiny psyche, and would become the nightmare homepage. The deep fear or terror which weaves itself into our soul, becomes part of our dance-- our walk, our thought process and decision-making.
Another friend called at 6 AM. He has lost all structure-- the boundaries between night and day have disintegrated. This happens to musicians, in a good way. We are outside of biological patterns and the rule of daily sunrise and sunset. We are free-- we work when we work, play when we play, eat when we eat…. sleep when we sleep-- or not. But it wreaks havoc with our sense of continuity-- our structure. Walls blur, floors move, light taunts and 'straight' life seems disconnected. We are outsiders… party people when we are young-- edge-makers and trend-setters… and a little daft and baffled when we are old-- fragile and twig-like we dream through glass and float on falling bedclothes. Our nightmares are often things that have happened, things that will not happen… our dread is the alarm clock, our ambition becomes the nod, our eyes close just as they are about to see.
I tried so hard to understand my doorman's baby… as I tried to understand my own baby boy, who has always been such a good sleeper. Through injury, through troubles, through break-ups, victories and losses-- he sleeps. As for me, I hear the Knell song… like a nostalgic old soundtrack the meaning haunts every phase of my post-dance physical malaise-- from little girls in pink leotards to women in yoga clothes, executing choreography designed for way younger people-- trying our hardest to conform to a group, to hear the commands and the music as it evolves…. a lot of nice things turn bad out there… the song warns… I'll always remember you, like a child, girl… I was not much more than a child when I first heard that record… the word always sounds so different now that it has become stretched into a fuller lifetime, now that most of my years are in the past rather then the future. I suppose every song has its Knell… every dance has its ending… every room has the ceiling you can turn into a floor if you squint and dream.
My boy is a man. He doesn't share his terrors; he has few, I think. I have plenty of 'knell', that's certain. Enough for 5 generations and then some. Words like 'time' and 'dark' and 'rain' and 'sad' have an extra prick for me. Love has an edge… desire has a black lining… even 'baby' has a certain heart-shaped soft-shell. Skin…
My fiancee many years back was deported from the country. Denied entrance-- sent back. A forced separation like a violent emotional amputation. We'd been so attached, so physically interwoven. It was unbearable for a while… and then I began to swim. Lap after lap in a dark blue pool, as though I was drowning in my own tears, I found the backstroke… where I could stare up at the ceiling lights like stars, like a swimmer in a kind of empty Egyptian tomb… silent and alone… a version of rehearsal for the nights I've come to embrace of late: wet soundtracks and the blue light of slow morning. The unpredictable strokes of sleep-- words in my head, questions in my heart, missing children and lost loves at my side, and now the Knell… like an unlit candle…. not even calling… just there, like the sense of church bells or the way most of us go from day to night to day--knowing and not knowing, listening and not listening, seeing and not seeing, fearing and not fearing, loving and not loving, remembering and forgetting, turning down some old bedclothes in vain, calling out through dreams, turning reluctantly and bravely toward some version of light…