The Joyful Quiet of Freedom
Once, during my third year of university, I had the following dream: I was playing baseball in the parking lot of my childhood church with a group of youngsters whom I had known through junior high school, but had not seen for years. It was late at night, and oddly silent, but despite the darkness our game seemed to be carrying on without impediment. Even aside from the strange Catholicism and quiet darkness of the setting, however, this game was unlike any in which I had actually participated as a boy. Absent were my fears of playing poorly, the awkward interactions with those among the players whom I did not know well, the uncomfortable arguments and instant animosities that inevitably interrupt such games, the threatening arrival of rival groups of youths, and the unavoidable boredom that finally overtakes even the best of such real events, leaving everyone straining too hard to extend an enthusiasm that has in fact dwindled away to emptiness. In this dream game, all that remained of my real youth were the familiarity of some of the faces present, and the recognizable location.
When I awoke from this dream, shortly before sunrise, my immediate sensation was a level of peacefulness that I should not even attempt to define. All the noise in my soul had been hushed, leaving only the happy silence, the silence of uninterruptedness. Within minutes, however, light began to enter through my bedroom window, and the dream’s afterglow quickly melted away. I willed the sun to disappear, held a pillow over my eyes, anything to revive the feeling of that baseball game. The intense desire to return to the dream—the feeling of nostalgia—was a response to the reinsertion of sound into the joyful quiet of freedom.
In what, I ask, did this blessed silence consist? Not in the baseball game itself. Not in returning to the company of old friends. Certainly not in the memory of an enchanted period of my life, which my youth decidedly was not.
My only explanation is this: Though upon first awakening from the dream I could naturally recall many of its images and identify many of the youngsters who appeared in it, over time only one image has remained clear to my memory, and retained some of the emotional intimations that the dream produced on that initial morning. The baseball is rolling along the pavement, and I am following it. It is not clear whether I am chasing it in haste, or merely retrieving it in a leisurely fashion. This much, however, is certain: The ball is rolling away from the other players, which means that in pursuing it, I too am moving away from them. None of them remain in view. All I can see is the bright ball moving away against the black background of the unlit parking lot. It is this image alone that still allows me, after all these years, to revisit the special bliss of that dream, which I have called the joyful quiet of freedom.
The joyful quiet, then, involved my awareness of moving away from the other players, and out into the lonely darkness. This, however, is an oversimplification. For the pleasure of that moment consisted not only in drifting off in pursuit of the ball, but also in being an accepted or unquestioned participant in the game. My joy, then, entailed departing from the others into my own unshared delight, while at the same time remaining actively engaged in their play, even if only on the periphery. (During my youth, just as in my dream, I always wished to play in the outfield, perhaps because an outfielder is positioned at a distance from the center of the action, without actually being excluded from play altogether.)
To be unconditionally accepted while remaining privately aloof—the life of an agnostic who has been declared a saint—this was the peace to which the dream had transported me, and to which, upon awakening, I had yearned to return. The further I moved from the others in pursuit of the ball, the more intense was my happiness, as though I were tied to the game with a rubber band, and were daring myself, with an ever-growing secret thrill, to stretch the band as far as I could without snapping it.
Why did I have that particular dream at that particular time in my life? When you can answer this question, you will have uncovered the true nature of nostalgia.
Perhaps this is as good a place as any to add a poem by Stevie Smith — the British poetess most famous for her excellent “Not Waving, but Drowning” — which, while approaching the matter from a different angle, appeals to the mind of the person who dreamt the dream described above.
In My Dreams
by Stevie Smith
In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.
In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don’t know what I think.