i. The most I’ve ever dreamt is seven dreams in one night, back to back.
I remember the first three dreams. I bothered to get up and write them down. It happened after I read Natsume Soseki’s Ten Nights Dreaming, a book of ten short stories based on ten dreams set in different time periods. Four of the ten stories begin with ‘This is what I saw in my dream.’
This is what I saw in one of my seven dreams, scribbled down half-awake/asleep: ‘Cars slowed to a crawl. Hazard lights on. Lights that do nothing. Penetrate nothing. A dust that envelopes. Devours all. There is only fear. Only fear is left.’
Ten Nights Dreaming perfectly fuses together my two loves: fiction and dreams. The collection of short stories is deeply touching, ethereal and haunting, and I recommend it (with caution) because maybe after you read it, like me, you might experience an overwhelming influx of dreams.
ii. In researching a fiction piece, I learn it takes 42 minutes and 12 seconds to fall through the Earth.
I feel like without any in-flight entertainment it might be boring to fall for 42 uninterrupted minutes. It’s a 40-minute plane ride to get to Canberra, to get to Zhi.
On the first day Zhi and I go to the supermarket and buy two bottles of red wine and things to make ham/cheese/tomato/rocket/wasabi-mayo sandwiches. On the way out I buy a packet of cigarettes and the lighter I’m given is not of the plain one-colour variety, but a tessellation of sandwiches. Coincidence? I don’t believe in them. This is clearly fate at work.
This is the first break I’ve had in a long time. For years and years and years I’ve been studying full-time and working part-time during the day, which meant writing through the night and/or during any spare time I could find. I hadn’t noticed that I’d neglected rest/fun/myself. Around the end of 2018 when I went to Canberra for seven days to see Zhi a.k.a ‘taking a break’ I finished reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek on the plane.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was a recommendation of Ocean Vuong’s at the end of his The Creative Independent interview. I had also become interested in Annie Dillard after reading Alexander Chee’s essay ‘Annie Dillard and the Writing Life’.
You know what’s stressful? Trying to fix the hot water when it goes out on brutally windy winter nights past midnight. (It was always past midnight when the hot water would go out). I’d get down on my knees on concrete in the dark, in a part of the backyard reserved only for spiders and ghosts and other haunted things and methodically flicked switches, mini-torch in my mouth, waiting for a flame that refused to ignite.
You know what’s not stressful? Reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s a narrative non-fiction book about an unnamed author’s reflections and internal monologues on nature, life and writing while exploring the surrounding areas near her home. Which isn’t to say the book is a simple, pleasant romp through nature. Annie Dillard has resisted the label of ‘nature writer’. She has grabbed life and looked it directly in the eye. ‘Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me’, Dillard writes and other equally unflinching observations, which elicited feelings of despair in me and strangely comfort too.
A lot of the book is drawn directly from Dillard’s diaries, and her descriptions of the area and movement through the landscape come alive on the page. That being said I think of reading such a book, and as Tinker Creek itself, as a state of mind, a state of quiet that allowed for contemplation on things like life, death, nature and theology, that I don’t normally find the time or space for in my daily life.
iii. Until Zhi says ‘Let’s go to the arboretum’, I’d never heard of the word before.
It’s a beautiful word and I like saying it. ‘Sure,’ I say. ‘Let’s go to the arboretum. Arboretum! Arboretum!’.
Lately I’ve been reading poetry like my life depended on it. Without poetry I would move through the world with no anchor, completely untethered, at risk of floating away. Recently, I’ve just finished the latest poetry collections from K Ming Chang and Hieu Minh Nguyen.
The trees at the arboretum remind me of the cover Hieu Minh Nguyen’s poetry collection Not Here, which he designed himself. There is a large hill at the arboretum, perfect for throwing yourself down, which is how I feel every time I read a poem from Not Here, or really, any poem from Hieu Minh Nguyen.
A friend mistakes me for someone who works in the circus. When he asks what I do now, the 2.5 glasses of whiskey inside me say ‘every day I work with lines’ which he mishears as ‘every day I work with lions’ which isn’t too far from the truth. Every line, every segment of lines, every punch-line, every poem from Nguyen’s collection are all lions in disguise.
Here is one of my favourite lions:
In my dreams: the bouquet / falls from the sky. / Sometimes it’s on fire. Sometimes it’s just a skull / but I catch it –– / I catch it, every time.
—from the poem ‘Nguyễn’
One day, we will all know when suffering comes / to play the instrument of our bodies.
—from the poem ‘Baptism’
iv. I fall sick after my first day in Canberra.
I fall sick because I underestimated Canberra and failed to dress warmly, thinking that if spring has arrived in one place (Melbourne), it must’ve arrived in another (Canberra). After Zhi goes to bed I leave the film In the Mood for Love on loop on mute on the TV and go outside on the balcony to smoke, drink wine and look over edits for my chapbook.
Zhi gives me a broken bowl to use as an ashtray. Whenever I think of this cracked, ash-tray bowl I think of this line from K Ming Chang’s ‘Past Lives, Future Bodies’ poetry collection.
I was born barren / bottomed like a bowl, so hollow I held / a week’s worth of rain to spend on / trees, dead things.
—from the poem ‘Midas’
My cold gets worse after the second day. I am so sick that I sleepandsleepandsleep. My mother finds out I’ve fallen sick and she is angry and tells me to take the cold medicine she had not-so-covertly slid into my carry-on because she knew something like this would inevitably happen.
I dream of telling / my mother I love her / country. I dream of telling / my mother I identify sexually as / alive. Instead, I sleep
—from the poem ‘Yilan’
The cigarettes clear up my nose and make my throat worse. They keep me warm by distracting me from the cold but make my hands too busy to get any real editing done. I complain about it to the one lamppost on the corner of the street. Throughout the night she flickers on and off, on and off, so even and consistent it’s enviable.
I urn / my ghosts, know each by a name / my own.
—from the poem ‘Closet space’.
No one tells me why we capitalize God / but never ghost. Or grieve.
—from the poem ‘Televangelism’
Sitting out on the balcony, I come to realise that over the years I’d forgotten what it feels like to watch the dark and not be watched by it. Zhi is asleep. I hope she is dreaming nice dreams. I will sleep when she wakes. A single car speeds by every half-hour or so. That is enough for me.
Jennifer Nguyen’s writing has appeared in Scum Mag, Ibis House, The Lifted Brow (online), among others. Jennifer is a member of West Writers Group based at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.