In this dream, I am in my last day of sight-seeing in a truly gorgeous place, a seaside place with an enormous Academic-Mayhem-style hotel and a frightening elevator that leads to an equally frightening train that then winds up a mountain (making many stops) until it reaches a summit affording views of unparalleled sublimity. It is possible that, as I wake up in the hotel for this last day of sight-seeing, I have been dreaming within my dream; there are strata of strange realization and pleasure that I now cannot place and suspect must have been happening a further layer in.
I am traveling with a female friend, someone I know well, though now I don't know who she was. We begin our ascent of the mountain, so that we rapidly leave behind the shore of this impossibly limpid water that now seems to be not a sea but a lake, perhaps some kind of Alpine lake, its bottom covered in stones. And it's possible that we're ascending toward yet another lake, that a hanging crater is part of the scenery toward which we're venturing. I am, as I am, terrified of rapid ascent because I am terrified of the prospect of falling. Some way up the mountain, we pause at a depot and there is time to look around. I have left my camera behind, or am carrying it but not using it because I need both hands to hang on to railings. We begin again.
When we re-descend (and what happened to all that meantime?), whales appear in the body of water at the mountains' base (mountains': I can see now that we have been traveling along ridges and through a range). Whales! One dives and surfaces and beaches himself but is somehow still safe. The whales are like whales but they are also like enormous catfish, enormous trout, enormous friendly fish, enormous like the funny dolphins I will see on lampposts if I make it to the Embankment when I'm in London this weekend.
When we swap passengers and I begin the ascent again, this time with another friend, I am my usual earnest know-it-all self, always wanting to make sure that my companions don't miss anything. Last time, I tell him, we saw whales: they were everywhere. We stand together and peer over the railings as we make the beginning of the ascent, and I point out their shadows, their dark forms, undulate over the stones at the bottom of the water's bed.
Last night at dinner, it happened again, though differently than it usually does.
Someone with whom I had only talked briefly before last night's dinner looked across the table at me, as we ate our dessert, and said, "What is your ancestry?" "I'm German and Polish," I replied. "Have you ever done any genealogical work on your family?" he asked, also inquiring about when my ancestors emigrated.
By this point, I knew darned well what he was thinking; it's actually happening more frequently now than it did when I was younger. At my left elbow, I could feel the air around my friend change, because he too knew what was coming: it formed one of our first conversations, nearly two months ago.
"I haven't," I said. "But I've thought about it a lot, especially lately." Complicated things followed: I don't know how I would go about starting this kind of research; I don't know whether any part of my family would have kept (or been kept within) records; I'm not in touch with anyone from my extended family, and I doubt that any of them would have been able to tell me anything useful anyway: if what I hope is true, it was covered up pretty skillfully generations ago, and the generations I know aren't likely to have attempted a discovery.
"You should ask the Mormons," my friend said.
I turned in my seat so that he could see my cocked eyebrow, because this sounded like the beginning of a joke. "Which Mormons?" I replied.
"The Mormons," he said, proceeding to tell me that, as far as he knows, the Church of Latter-Day Saints is known for being able to track down all manner of genealogical data for pretty much anyone who asks for it. "And so they'd follow through, and what you'd find out is that in the seventeenth century, your family lived in Lithuania--"
"Right," I said, interrupting him. "And what I'd finally find out is that I actually am Jewish." And I got ready to tell our companion across the table that that's the one reason I would actually undertake genealogical research--to prove, once and for all, that what I believe (and want to believe) about my family's past is true.
But before I could get any further than the word "Jewish," our companion said, with utter certainty, "Oh, you are." Because that is, of course, where his questions started in the first place; he just took us a more roundabout way than people usually do. "There's a whole group of Jewish people in South Africa [from which he hails] whom you look exactly like."
"Yes, I told her she was within days of meeting her," my friend agreed. "Or rather, I just assumed it."
I've lost count of the people who have believed this about me over the years. I've also lost track of when I became one of them; I think that it was right about the time I entered graduate school. I still discount what feels like some sort of bizarre instinct that I barely know how to name and that disturbs me by its very existence and persistence--is it a race instinct? and how troubling does that sound, even stated tentatively? But it's there nonetheless, one of the strangest and most inexplicable things about me. Maybe the time is arriving when I should stop simply living with it and instead get to work.
It's a strange morning, is what I'm saying.
Sometimes, when I'm having my morning coffee, I seem to take the mug away from my mouth before I've finished drinking from it. This just happened, which seems about right for today as it's been so far. Sorry about that, Roland Barthes. Fortunately my copy of Camera Lucida is mighty and resilient.
Anyone who feels like saying a prayer for the various clarities I'm seeking these days is welcome to join in. They're legion, I tell you.
What the day turned into: