As some of you know, I've not been sleeping well lately. I can't blame it all on my restless cats and their incessant need to rouse me from sleep at four in the morning to feed them. As the nights grow longer, they're all snoozing a bit later and now get me up around five. Still, by that time, I'm lucky if I've slept three hours in a row. When I do nod off, I have vivid, memorable dreams...and not all of them are pleasant ones.
For the past month I've been studying both slavery and the Holocaust for the book I'm preparing to write and was not at all prepared for what I'd be encountering: the first hand accounts of the slave ships, the concentration camps, the horrific experiences the survivors remember, and the stories of death. Always death. For many of the prisoners at Buchenwald, it was preferable over a life of misery, illness, and starvation.
A couple of weeks into the research I learned to put down the books and turn off the documentaries well before dinner time. I've visited the library daily to work, often sitting by a sunny window where young parents pass by with their children. Otherwise, I'm certain I'd be sitting at home in tears, alone and overwhelmed by the material. I chat with the librarians who know me by name. Share books with adults who happen to engage me in conversation. Smile at the kids as they walk by and see me reading.
It's also been a respite to watch "Are You Being Served?" - a bawdy and simply hilarious BBC show from the seventies, to read novels by T. C. Boyle, and revisit my favorite episodes from M*A*S*H. They've all helped me cope with the grief and sadness that have been like a dark cloud hanging over my consciousness. And they help me forget the gnawing pain in my stomach, the dull headaches I've been experiencing since the beginning of this project.
But it's at bedtime when my mind drifts back to the images I've seen, the memories I've been listening to online, the incredible plethora of information I've been gathering from the Shoah Foundation and The Holocaust Museum. I lay there and try to sleep, but it doesn't come easily.
A few nights ago, I was up late reading a novel, hoping it would help me let go of the thoughts of my notes from the afternoon. I turned pages, but couldn't turn off my mind. Reaching for my NOOK, I went to the OverDrive website, looking for a children's book I could borrow. My favorite, Charlotte's Web, wasn't available, but the audio version was...thank goodness. While it downloaded, I remembered my first grade teacher, Mrs. Bureau, who read the story to our class before we went on what was to be my very first field trip -- a visit to the movie theater where we watched the cartoon version of Wilbur and Charlotte's friendship. I thought about all the years I read the book to my own first graders and how I can still quote some of the lines from memory.
Imagine my delight to discover upon hearing the first line, that E. B. White, the author, was reading out loud, his distinctive Maine accent infusing the words with gentleness, inflection, and wit. White begins by saying, "This is a story of the barn. I wrote it for children and to amuse myself. It is called Charlotte's Web and I will read it to you."
Turning off the lights, I put my NOOK on the bedside table and snuggled under the covers, listening and reminiscing, letting my mind drift to all the nights I lay in my childhood bed reading Little House books, Great Brain books, and all of the Ramona books at least twice. I recalled reading myself to sleep, often out loud, pretending I was a teacher or a mother reading to my own children. I remembered countless Mondays when I'd tuck my pals, Satish and Danta, into bed and read picture books before it was time to turn out the lights. In fact, there's a chapter in my memoir that tells the tale of why this simple ritual has been and is an important part of my life...every single day.
I didn't really need to pay attention to the story, but it was soothing to hear other person's voice. To simply relax into my own images of the words painted with White's resonant, reassuring voice. Garth Williams' charming illustrations popped up in my memory when he read about Avery arriving for breakfast, when Fern tucked Wilbur into her baby carriage. When she had to sell him to her Uncle Homer for six dollars.
By the time we had reached the chapter entitled, "Escape," I was happily relaxed and attentive.
"You'll be sorry, sorry, sorry if you stay up too late," my inner goose suddenly warned me.
I didn't care.
It was one of my favorite chapters and although I knew exactly how it would turn out, I wanted to hear White's rendition of the flurry of excitement Wilbur's exodus had caused.
"You have to get up early and teach yoga-oga-oga early tomorrow," the voice chastised again.
I didn't care.
It was great fun (not to mention a great distraction) to pick up on the nuances of the dialogue I hadn't before noticed.
"Get to sleep! Get to sleep! Get to sleep!" it tried one more time ... and at the same time to goose was cheering on Wilbur to "Dodge about...dodge about! Twist and turn, twist and turn!"
I didn't care.
The retelling of a story that is thematically about the loss of childhood, but told in a very loving, whimsical, and charming way helped to soften the stories of children who were lost during slavery and World War II.
At least for a little while.
Today I finished my initial research and will begin writing the novel tomorrow. I'm certain this will be the most difficult manuscript I've written, an ominous story of two young girls who have survived experiences I could never before have imagined. But there is always hope...and both Sapphire and Keren are steadfast in theirs.
Hope for change.
Hope for freedom.
Hope for a new life once they have awakened from the nightmare of enduring slavery and imprisonment.
As for me, I'm hoping to find some relief from my sleepless nights. But in the meantime, I have Mr. White, Charlotte, Wilbur, Fern, and even Templeton to keep me company when I find myself anxious and weepy after dark.
What a comfort to know that I'm never too old to be read to sleep with an enchanting bedtime story.