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  • John Madsen

An Update From Self-Isolation

I’m clueless.


I have this dream where I’m flat on my back on a public beach, sunburnt and sticky, caught in a tangle of human limbs. There is mass gathering. A mess of towels and umbrellas and Igloo Coolers line the coast. Plastics in the water. Everyone came to lay out and bake. I see friends. Neighbors. I see Jim Morrison talking to my dead grandmother. My dental hygienist is here too, but here her eyes look like meth scabs. Hi, I say. What are we doing? Aren’t you worried about the droplets? She just smiles and hands me a bag of chips. When she hugs me I try to recoil, but the sun is hot, and this is a projection of my subconscious, so I don’t have the energy.


Lately my dreams have been hauntingly vivid. Always some demented take on the contagion genre: abject dioramas of viral transmission, scenes where people disregard scientists, an overarching sense of doom. Since the stay-at-home orders began, I’ve projected into food courts and public restrooms, seminars and lecture halls, even an Amazon Fulfillment Center. These dreamscapes are inordinately crowded and littered with material waste. They teem with life. They never make any sense.


If clarity is what I was looking for, the waking world wouldn’t offer relief. At one level, my new reality is structured around a nauseating array of Zoom calls and Webex meetings. ‘Synchronous chats.’ Bleh. We need a word for the affect of Zoom, where we exist in a flat grid, speaking at one another, at a delay, so that we cut each other off, and our voices come out garbled on the other end. If this disorientation were not enough, it seems like our social fabric and our general sense of welfare and all of our public services are rotting too. Fun Fact: the United States Postal Service announced it will be ‘financially illiquid’ by September of this year. Implication? Six months from now we might be still unable to meet face-to-face and by then every mode of communication could be privatized.


For a minute, I thought the newfound granularity of my dreams was special, dare I say prophetic-- a revelation, even. Then I heard on the news that pretty much everyone everywhere is experiencing striking, brilliant dreams right now. Everyone who can afford to sleep that is. Something to do with REM cycles and circadian rhythms and getting a full night’s sleep. Apparently, before the world shut down, most of us were so shortchanged by our capitalist reality that we couldn’t achieve a state of complete rest, nor sustain the rapid eye movement necessary to recall dreams.


Now I am cooped up and tuned into myself but I feel so politically and socially deactivated that being awake feels like sleepwalking. It’s not that I’m senseless or inert. I sense the shocks of disaster. I understand that this moment is going to produce profound societal change. But I don’t feel like I have any agency in affecting that change.


The trouble with solidarity in the age of globalized coronavirus is the fact that we are so disconnected from each other. In this digital context, our stunned skulls are bombarded with an infinite multimodal scroll of information. Our interface with the world is shaped by algorithmic personalization. Without material connection, we lose much of the pleasure of communication: empathy, intimacy, mutual understanding. Despite how grim things feel right now, I get the sense that, if I don’t at least try to affect change, and organize socially, and advocate for collective humanity, things will get worse. Much worse.


Because social distancing is the best way to show solidarity, I need to find a way to channel my individual consciousness into a collective force for good. There’s something about narrative and the ability to construct meaning out of chaos and oblivion. I want to say keep writing. That right now the best thing I can do is write. Record my nowness and share it with others. Read. No ‘but’s. Writing is so activated and self-activating. We need it to imagine social possibility and new ways to organize ourselves.


I want to say keep writing and I’m also going to say keep sleeping. I like the idea that, when I’m asleep, me and billions of other people are at rest, all closer to enlightenment, to catharsis, all immersed in surreal imagery and the contours of our subconscious. I think that maybe if I am truly at rest then I can not really hurt anyone. Besides, I get my best and weirdest ideas when I’m asleep. I think I’ll keep sleeping. Keep hoping that I’ll dream up a way to affect real change.

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NAME Magazine UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO 2020