There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.
I was slightly embarrassed to tell about my recent story-listening, because of the time of day I’ve chosen for the vicarious experience, of living in India, caught up in the web of dysfunctional families and disordered souls.
It’s when I wake in the middle of the night and am unable to go back to sleep; I find I am not up to praying near as long as my mind might be wakeful, so I listen to stories. I have run through all that’s available of my latest favorite storytellers, and lately settled on a collection by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, because she is very good, I already know that. It won’t do to listen to writing that is likely to annoy me for any number of reasons, in the wee hours.
It’s the sadness of the stories that makes me think they might not be the best fodder for my mind, which I’m trying to lull back to sleep. But — you could say that sad feelings and events play a part in all human stories, and Prawer Jhabvala’s are not dark in a modern way; many people point out the humorous and kind aspects. I won’t try to assess how this author’s point of view differs from others who are skilled at drawing characters and pulling you into their worlds, but many of the stories end suddenly with disappointment or a feeling of hopelessness. She wrote about this:
“I think most of my novels do end on a deep note of pessimism. Shadows seem to be closing in. The final conclusion isn’t that life is wonderful and everything is bright and cheery and in the garden.”
Whether or not you recognize the name of Prawer Jhabvala, you might be very familiar with her work as a screenwriter for Merchant Ivory Productions. From their beginning she worked with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant on more than 20 films, including “Room With a View” and “Howards End,” and adaptations of several of her own novels, such as Heat and Dust, which was the first of her works I ever read, with amazement, quite a while ago.
Her early life was full of drama and suffering. In 1939 Ruth the adolescent fled with her Jewish parents from Germany to Britain, and lived through World War II and the Blitz in England. After the war, when her father learned that 40 members of his family had died during the Holocaust, he took his own life. About this trauma she said, “All my stories have a melancholy undertone. That’s probably why.”
Ruth Prawer married an Indian architect and raised three daughters with him in India. Later she moved to New York and became a U.S. citizen; she died in 2013 at the age of 85. She was a shy and quiet woman, which I imagine contributed to her powers of observation. “I’m more interested in other people than myself.”
I have had only happy dreams since beginning to listen to this collection of her stories, At the End of the Century… until last night. If it weren’t for the dream I had, I wouldn’t try to tell you anything about someone whose writing I hold in such high esteem. And at first I did not connect the dream to my reading material; I just thought it hilarious. But then, thinking about it as I woke, it made me (a little) sad in a way that these very human stories could never do.
The presenting problem of my dream was that I could not find my “favorite emoji” on my phone. I ended up at a big warehouse store where one could browse extensive catalogs of parts that were somehow both physical and digital, from which to concoct one’s own emoji, such as faces that had been “discontinued,” because only the most popular emojis were part of the default options on the apps. The dream ended before I ever managed to restore my old emoji habits, and I’m not sure but I was about to give up and just do without. But which emoji do you think I felt so in need of? The simple “crying face.”
Isn’t it odd, what the mind will do with all that goes into the mix throughout the day (and night) to produce dreams? (For the record, I do not have a favorite emoticon.) Our prayers of Compline and Prayers Before Sleep lead us to pray that God would “quench the flaming arrows of the evil one” and “lull to sleep all our earthly and material reasonings,” that we may be granted “a tranquil sleep, free of every fantasy of Satan.”
Truly, over the last few years when I’ve been living my own story of loss, which might have been full of flaming arrows and bad dreams at any hour of the day or night, I have been well protected from darkness of the spiritual kind. And I do not claim that God gives me my dreams, but they are often quite amusing, the way they capture some crazy truth.
The contrast between Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s nuanced and exquisite writing, with — an emoji? Well, if that’s the best the “forces of evil” can throw against me in the night, I should be grateful. But I also feel amused and insulted, to have waked with those simplistic images and a self-service version of an Apple Store in my thoughts. The whole experience confirms what I just shared yesterday, about being fed up with screens. And of emoticons? I’m considering a boycott!
In the late fall I was sitting here at my desktop after dark when I heard an owl in my back yard. I knew it was an owl because he sounded just like the ones in the movies. I don’t think I had encountered one in person ever.
But I didn’t know what species he might be. I spent a good hour listening to various owls on Cornell University’s site All About Birds site, and the owl cooperated by demonstrating his distinctive call many times. He came another night not long afterward. For a while that first night I thought perhaps he was a Barred Owl, but eventually I knew for sure that he was a Great Horned Owl.
In my research I found advice about how to build a platform for this owl to nest on, how high up to attach it, and that it should go up in November so that the owls might find it when they go looking for good nesting sites in February. I did wish that I could start on one more project like that, but it was obviously not the right thing for me this year.
Probably everyone has more familiarity with owls than I do, but if you’d like to hear the calls of five owls this is a helpful Audubon page that limits itself to just that many: Identify Five Owls
You can guess how honored I felt that such a creature had visited me, even if he couldn’t be seen. His voice seemed full of romance, and let me in on the secret drama of the night. Of the five owls on the linked page, his call is surely the most pleasing, low and soft. So many owls are screechy.
Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about an owl’s voice. His own voice is more pleasant to me than that of the Barred Owl that he writes about; maybe that’s why someone came up with the explanation for a child, and why I like his poem so much. You can listen to him reading it: here.
A BARRED OWL
The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.
The library is a pleasant walk away from Kate’s apartment, but maybe not on a day when it’s over 90 degrees and the library didn’t open until 1:00. So Kate drove the two of us while Raj was napping, and that way we could completely focus on finding the titles we really wanted, most of which we had researched together online the night before.
We were looking not for ourselves, but for a toddler. Kate’s eager to fill her child’s life with the most enriching books, nourishing not only because of the pictures or the text but also for how they provide an experience for the adult and child to share — and that they both enjoy. We’ve been talking about what makes a child love a book, and why we don’t like some of the traditional favorites. But even in cases where we can’t quite put our finger on what is “wrong” with a story or the illustrations, one reading to find out is more than enough time to give to it.
Today the bag of 14 books we brought home included 6-8 board books, including a few by Sandra Boynton and Byron Barton (Mi Carro); there were many sweet options in this category, so many that we had to narrow our choices by such considerations as, “Let’s not borrow this book I Hear, because listening to a book is not an experience of hearing the birds, rain, or wristwatch that are pictured; why don’t we talk about sounds when we are actually hearing them.”
One charming picture book with fold-out pages is Papa, please get the moon for me, by Eric Carle. It’s a whimsical tale in which the girl making the request does get her wish, and she even plays with the moon as soon as it gets small enough for her dad to bring it down the ladder. Raj seems to focus on the pictures of the moon in his story books, and I always love to return to the more poetic depictions of the moon when reading or singing to children.
A title that popped up on my screen was The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, with pictures by Beth Krommes. It appealed to me right off, and the majority of reviews were positive, but some people said it was too dark and that several children had not liked it. As luck would have it, the small local branch had it available so I was able to see it for myself very quickly; now it’s my latest favorite picture book.
It has elements of Goodnight Moon, but the verse form of the traditional “This is the Key of the Kingdom.” And though it is about nighttime and there is little color on the pages, it is about light even more, somewhat in the way that the novel All the Light We Cannot See is radiant with love and hope.
The moon is shining in the sky when the scene opens, of a bed, where a violin and a book are lying. Only one line describes each scene.
In that book flies a bird. In that bird breathes a song… all about the starry dark.
Every week at Vespers we pray “Thou appointest the darkness and there is the night,” and it reminds me of how C.S. Lewis wanted to name his space trilogy something about Deep Heaven, because space sounds cold and unfriendly, whereas heaven is full of angels. God created the night and He is in it. This book seems to be about the sun (shining on the moon, even at night) and the electric lights in our houses, but when you come to the end and read about “a home full of light,” you realize that it is also about the human love and care — and that is only an overspilling of the love of the Holy Trinity — undergirding it through the night, making it the most restful place that is both safe and bright.