If your room is ever too dark,
small one, look out through your window
up at the moon, that little bulb
left on for you in the sky’s black wall.
It will still be there come morning,
burning in a bright room of blue.
And if your room, restless one,
is much too still, listen to the clatter
of the freight, rattling past trestles
on the cool night breeze. Then follow
the moon to the side of the tracks,
where the train is a long, slow dream
you can jump on. An open car
is waiting for you — one step up —
you’re on! Now watch the dark towns, the lights
deep in the porches, and lie down
in the soft straw, and sleep till morning,
when the train chugs into station,
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!
Child in the womb,
Or saint on a tomb –
Which way shall I lie
To fall asleep?
The keen moon stares
From the back of the sky,
The clouds are all home
Like driven sheep.
Bright drops of time,
One and two chime,
I turn and lie straight
With folded hands;
They chose this state,
And their minds are wiped calm
As sea-levelled sands.
So my thoughts are:
But sleep stays as far,
Till I crouch on one side
Like a foetus again –
For sleeping, like death,
Must be won without pride,
With a nod from nature,
With a lack of strain,
And a loss of stature.
Last week I took a nap three days in a row, something I’m sure I hadn’t done since I was three years old! What it was about my condition or the environment that facilitated that, I am still pondering….
I’d flown from my daughter’s new home in Wisconsin to Tucson, Arizona, to visit friends Martin and Mabel. Those are nicknames, of course. If I didn’t care about preserving their privacy I’d use their real names, which are more beautiful and carry for me some of the flavor of who they are. These people are dear to me because of what we have shared over several decades: joys and sorrows and homeschooling, food and gardens, chickens and laughing and lots of babies. And over all and in all, the love of God.
Mabel confessed to me once that she just wanted “to make bread and babies,” and I always wished I had thought to say that first. But no one could hope to match her turns of phrase, songs that spring up from her good heart ready to bless and teach, and her amazing metaphors. On this visit she described Martin and herself as being a heavy stone on the end of a string, keeping a helium balloon with a happy face on it from floating away. I don’t remember who was symbolized by the balloon (It wasn’t me!)
The temperature was mostly in the 80’s while I was there, maybe the low 90’s, but as their house is about 2500′ elevation and the desert air is so dry, I never felt uncomfortably warm. Their spirit was peaceful, no air conditioning spoiled the mild October atmosphere, Mabel and Martin both cooked healthy food for me, and the bed was firm. I took the cure.
We talked and talked, drank tea, and walked a little – then I strolled alone Sunday morning in the cool air, and admired the mesquite trees, ocotillos, purple cactuses and palo verde trees. I attended Divine Liturgy at the elegant and evidently new Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church.
Mabel has not stopped making bread, and she fed me two kinds — first a hearty no-knead oatmeal stout bread baked during my visit. Then sourdough rye from a Tassajara Bread Book recipe; she sliced a good portion of that loaf into a ziploc for me to take on my journey home. I can’t remember ever eating anything like that bread, each fat slice sustaining enough to the body and soul that a single one would have done for a meal — but orange zest, caraway and other seeds combined in a flavor whirl that made me unwilling to wait for the next meal to have that experience again.
I think God knew that it would be hard to come back home where the fires were still burning, to a ravaged land full of sad stories, so He provided these friends to remind me of and lavish on me His everlasting Love, to shore me up beforehand. And He surprised me with naps!
I hadn’t cracked open my own copy of the Tassajara Bread Book in a very long time — my book that I bought because of Mabel in the first place. But I came home determined to revive once again my old sourdough habits, at least long enough to bake up a batch of that Sourdough Rye. It’s not as easy to turn out a homey metaphor or proverb that pleases, or to make pizza dough like Martin does, but I guess that just means I’ll have to visit again soon.