Writing is such a solitary pursuit. Or rather, it is solitary only in a sense. I need utter stillness around me, and writing within that stillness I find all the ways I am connected with everyone else.
I was at it the other day, and then my thoughts turned elsewhere. I received an email relaying the sad news that my cousin’s son had been killed in a car crash. Another 20-year-old coming to a tragic, untimely end: a handsome kid that had just met his West Coast cousins a year previously, at a family reunion.
News like that, laden with the otherworldliness of grief, takes several days to work through one’s system. After a couple days I noticed that the torrent of feelings had become manageable. Then, a post from another cousin who had gone to the memorial. Along the way he had stopped at the family cemetery in northern Pennsylvania and enclosed a couple photos from his visit. Which is why my writing ground to a halt for the afternoon after viewing this headstone.
Annie Chapman Hill was my great-grandmother, the woman I was named after. My grandfather once said I was the spitting image of his mother, except with brown eyes instead of blue. She was the latest of all my ancestors to emigrate, leaving Somerset for Susquehanna County as a young woman. Her eldest son did the typical thing for first-generation children of immigrants: left the family farm, went to college, joined the Navy, anything to divest himself of the old world and embrace the new.
That day I had been writing about dreams, so having my great-grandmother’s headstone appear in my Inbox automatically transported me to a dream I had of her years ago: she in the kitchen of her old farmhouse dressed in white, staring at me intensely, some unspoken challenge in her stance, while I became unnerved and fled through the screen door.
What do dreams convey? I think they reference the future as much as the past, and speak to us of the collective as well as the changes underway in our own psyches. Discerning which part is which is both the art and science of dream interpretation.
Coming face to face, so to speak, with one’s namesake is a dreamlike occurrence. But then my cousin helpfully provided a panorama of the scene: stern white church on a cold day in late winter, gravestones scattered like memories across a barren field. It could be Rockwell or Hitchcock, depending on your mood. Maybe a little Country of the Pointed Firs thrown in for good measure.
As a writer alone with my thoughts for the afternoon, I experienced an almost unbearable intimacy between my surroundings and the unfamiliar landscape of my family’s history. A conjunction between destination and point of departure that defied physics, as well as my attempts to brush it off and “stay focused.” I too was viewing the panorama surrounding my life as a dreamworker and writer, and it was filled with other lives both remembered and imagined. All were real, and in motion, and every so often mine and theirs would collide.
What I had felt as a disturbance in the forceâ€”the surreal news of death, the gravemarker of my namesake who I had only met in dreams staring me in the faceâ€”was the force itself, it turns out. And it is far greater, and far more ordinary, than I ever anticipated. Even through email, the medium we love to hate, the numinous appears. Even when we least expect it, what is remembered lives.