Thursday, January 14, 2021

Pandemic Meditations: Walking and Dreams by Kate St. Ives

Dreaming is Believing by Humphrey King, used under CC license

Walking and Dreams

by Kate St. Ives

My first dream of the pandemic included a siren. It was the third week in March and I still lived in Indiana, in Bloomington. I had an apartment right up next to a one-way street that ran north-south, and I often heard sirens at night--ambulances rushing down the street so that they could turn right at the end and come north again up Walnut to turn left on Second, to go the hospital. Or, if it wasn’t an ambulance, then it was a police car whizzing by. I’d see the flashing blue and red through my white curtains. Sometimes people carried off bikes from front porches or got in a fight at Seminary Park. The police patrolled a lot. 

In my dream, I am inside a body, maybe my own body. I see veins, nerves. I am in the blood. Small objects move around me--meeting, touching, separating, and passing one another by. I’m at ease. Then my perspective shifts. 

A heart and lungs lie before me, each organ light against dark. It’s as though I am looking at a computed tomography scan of a body. The organs take on additional colors. Vivid red, brilliant gold, blue, purple, pink. The edges of the colored areas pulsate, merge, and form new colors. Gradually, I realize that what I’m seeing is a scan that shows not just the material structures of a body but passion itself. I feel confused and then elated. I hadn’t known that passion could be seen.

I had been sick for nine days when I had this dream. I had returned, on March fourth, from a trip to California with a friend, and I went to work the following day. 

“Welcome back,” my boss said, rising from her desk when she saw me. “You look great—I mean you’re not sick, so that’s good.” 

She had a large bottle of hand sanitizer next to her computer. More bottles stood on desks and counters throughout the building. Signs about how to wash your hands properly hung taped from the edges of these surfaces. Concern about the coronavirus had taken on urgency since I had left five days earlier. Still, there were fewer than one hundred confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Indiana. 

“No, I’m not sick,” I said. 

Four days later I ran up a flight of stairs at work, and when I reached the top felt so exhausted, I had to sit down on one of the sofas designated for visitors before taking the last fifteen steps to my office. By afternoon I had a sore throat, sinus congestion, and a light cough. I went home early. 

In California, in the small town we were visiting, my friend and I stayed in an old hotel with high-ceilinged rooms and big, beautiful, drafty windows. Above sturdy eight-foot-tall shutters I could see a block of drizzly grey sky.

After a walk through the empty lobby, sitting rooms, and hallway, my friend commented, “It seems this hotel is not fully booked. In fact, there are only a few rooms that are occupied." 

“Do you think it’s because people are afraid?” I asked as I unwrapped a bar of fragrant white soap. In my palm the soap looked inadequately small for those windows, that room, the edge of the Pacific.

“It’s the off season,” he said confidently.

We probably should have cancelled our trip, but we had planned it months in advance. For me it was an opportunity to visit with a friend who lived faraway whom I hardly ever got to see. Besides, we wanted to use the time to talk about how to make an important awake-life dream a reality. We did talk, in the town’s little streets, where we wandered into cafés and drank tea or stood at the water’s edge and watched harbor seals surface, shimmy onto partially submerged boulders, and lie there, like boulders themselves. Across an inlet of dark water stood the weathered remains of an old cannery, a place where working-class men had once labored in a once working-class town, until all the fish were dead.

The neighborhood where I lived in Bloomington also recalls an earlier, different kind of town and life. I didn’t notice it so much until the pandemic lockdown cleared the streets and allowed the squat little turn-of-the-last-century houses to become a focal point. Tract houses is what they are called a friend told me, probably originally built for workers in the limestone industry; some are also weathered now, while some have fresh coats of bright paint, their attached patches of ground filled, in summer, with flowers. Many are divided into tiny apartments for university students. 

In the early days of lockdown, the flower beds were still mostly bare. Crocuses found their way out first. Although they sought the warmth, I imagined instead that they brought it with them--purple flames overcoming winter and lighting up the world. When I felt well enough, I walked the streets of my neighborhood, weaving between garbage and recycling cans fallen over curbs, stopping here and there to gaze up at trees. Some of the trees were horribly marred, hacked off where the trunk forked in an attempt to keep branches out of electric lines, others had been allowed to grow wildly skyward, between and beyond the power lines, flirting with danger, as though the city had decided to allow the continuance of at least a few private, unspoken negotiations between nature and man. 

When I didn’t feel well, I lay on my bed and checked my pulse. I had read that COVID-19 can cause sudden dips in oxygen, and so I looked at my fingers tips to make sure they weren’t turning blue. I listened to the soft, wheezing sound of my breath coming in and going out and thought about the virus’ spiked proteins inside me, latching onto my cells. When it came time to collect my work computer, I felt sad that I didn’t have the energy to walk the mile and a half to the building, as I had often done in the past, and I felt sad that my coworker, our department’s managing editor, wore gloves and held a cloth over her face as she gingerly handed me my laptop in the parking lot. 

On our last full night in California, my friend and I decided to have a seafood meal on the wharf. We walked the mile or so to get there. Hardly a ray of light shone through the clouded sky over the western ocean. We passed four men on the sidewalk hunched around a fountain next to backpacks bulging with sleeping bags. One held out a plastic cup to me, “Could you?” he asked. I searched my pockets for change. On the cluttered wharf the booths selling candy, games, and stuffed animals had closed for the night. In front of one darkened booth, three blond children with strings of plastic beads hanging off their arms and toys in their hands, stood imploringly in front of a man and woman. I could see only the whiteness of their faces, hair, and bare arms and legs and imagine how cold they must feel by the water in the dark. 

“They are speaking Danish,” my friend said, “I recognize the language.” 

Though the booths were closed, all along the wharf restaurant doorways stood open, their warm light spilling outward and casting inviting orange squares across the walk. Signs propped up outside advertised the best fish or the greatest clam chowder or the most food on one plate. The light from the open doorways was inviting, but I was surprised I didn’t also hear a hum of voices or clattering of dishes promising the comforts of a meal among others. 

We reached the end of the wharf. 

“Well?” my friend asked. 

Next to my feet, in a circle of light, a small boy crouched by a wooden sign, mumbling to himself, sometimes laughing and pressing his forehead or one little index finger against the wood. 

“Hello,” I said, leaning down. “What’s that?” I could just make out the engraved pictures on the wooden sign, animals that lived there in the ocean.

“Whale,” the boy said. 

A man with grey hair, perhaps the child’s grandfather, emerged from the dark and stood next to my friend and me, his eyes looking kindly and appreciative under the glow of the light. The boy slid his finger down the sign to the picture of a different species of whale. “Whale,” he said.

“That’s right,” the man said.

“Yes, another kind of whale,” I added.

“Yes, very good,” said my friend.

The boy stood suddenly. He ran forward, to the very end of the walkway, to where only a metal barrier stood between him and water. “Whale,” he cried out to the ocean. He did it again and again, his silhouette fliting across a wall of black and his high, triumphant voice the only sound on the wharf.

Inside a restaurant, a waiter set plates, glasses, and silverware in front of my friend and me. “The appetizer is free,” he said as we opened our menus. 

“Thank you,” I said.

“You are lucky, tonight two appetizers are free,” the waiter said, striding back to our table with a basket of bread. “The wine is also free,” he added, setting two more glasses on the table and filling them from a bottle he had brought out with him.

“It’s nice that he’s giving us all this,” I said, “but don’t you find it a little disturbing?”

“Yes,” my friend said, gazing into his glass of wine, “I do.”

At the end of our meal the waiter lay a single long-stemmed rose on the table. “For the lady,” he said, smiling at my friend and then at me. It was nine o’clock, still, the large dining room was empty save for a young family at a center table, a single man on the far wall, and my friend and me, surprising for a place that’s supposed to have the best seafood on the wharf. 

In my dream, the heart and lungs are like fish. They move within the parameters of their private worlds inside the sea. If you looked at them from above with human eyes, you would see a cluster or jewels, fins and gills, scales, appearance and disappearance, bounded and without bounds. But then you would see them, the creatures themselves, and as your eyes locked onto their simple flesh amid the chaos of crowded beauty, you would believe that you were seeing something that required more of you than you had ever given before, and you would want to give it, whatever it is, but you wouldn’t be able to, because you wouldn’t understand the creatures, and then, before you could try, they would be gone. 

In my dream, I do understand the creatures. I understand the force of their contractions, the miraculous energy of their expansions. I understand their belonging in their small world and their riotous resistance when that world changes. I understand them because I am them, and I am screaming.

Kate St. Ives
Kate St. Ives writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and works as an editor at a company that publishes books for K–12 educators. She lives in Kentucky. Walking and Dreams is part of a longer work about her experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Pandemic Meditations is a weekly series in which creative people share responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Find more meditations at