Friday, May 6, 2011

A stranger read me a bedtime story

Never Done: A stranger (artist) read me a bedtime story

Let me start with the words of the artist:

In Here Is Where We Meet, artist Madhu Kaza will travel to individual participant’s homes by appointment to read to them at bedtime. This project is part of the artist’s ongoing Hospitality series, which includes projects that explore social conventions, rituals of domestic and daily life, relations between strangers, hosts and guests, and boundaries of public and intimate space. Here is Where We Meet is particularly concerned with the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep (including the drift from the world of stories to the world of dreams), a re-engagement of voice in our experience of texts, and the possibility of trust.

And now, my words. A couple weeks ago, on the day I flew home from Germany, Abigail wrote to me to tell me that her friend Madhu is doing this project where she goes to people's houses and reads to them at bedtime, and that she thought I should do it for my Never Done year. When I went to Madhu's project website, I knew right away that I wanted to do this. I loved the idea of sharing the liminal space between being awake and being asleep with someone I don't know, but whom I could assume I could trust. It's a little hard, now that I have met Madhu and have a real experience of her, to summon up the images I had of what she might be like, but I think that knowing she was Abigail's friend and a doctoral candidate in comparative literature, and the fact that she describes the project in terms of trust were enough to allow me to trust her in my space.

I filled in her application questionnaire:

Please list the members of your household and their relation to you (including pets): Josh, partner

What time do you go to sleep? 11 PM

What days and/or dates you are available for an appointment? (I gave her lots of dates.)

Please describe your bedtime rituals: I try to have my teeth brushed by 11, close the shades, and get in bed with very little light, and read until I fall asleep. The rest is erratic -- sometimes I shower, sometimes I don't. I usually wear the same t-shirt for pajamas but sometimes I wear real pajamas or nightgown. If it's warm out I open the window. If it's cold out I keep it closed but turn off the heat so I don't get hot in the night. If I am sleeping with Josh, I take a blanket off the bed. If I am sleeping without him, I add a blanket. No computer in bed before sleep.

Please list a few books that you love: Fugitive Pieces, To the Wedding, Pride and Prejudice, Just Kids. (and so many more)

How did you hear about this project? From Abigail Miller

What most interests you about participating in this project? My liminal space between wake and sleep is very, very tiny. I tend to be very alert and then on the verge of sleep, and then asleep -- without much transition time. When I am alone, I love to cross that line with a book. I think it would be very interesting to see what it would be like with a benign stranger/artist -- and the words of some wonderful writer. Will I want to stay awake to experience it more? Will I trust that falling asleep IS experiencing it more?

She wrote me back and we scheduled, and I started thinking about what book I might like her to read to me. I have not read the book she has named her project after, Here Is Where We Meet by John Berger, but I have read others of his books, including To the Wedding, which is a gorgeous love story about AIDS, rooted in his own family's experience. Most of my books are in storage. Really, most. Hundreds are in storage, and only a couple dozen are here. And when I looked on the shelf, I realized that I don't love most of the books that I have here with me. I'm not using love sarcastically here -- I am not saying that the books suck -- I am saying that there's a difference between a book that is useful, or well-written, or interesting, or substantial, or a guilty pleasure and a book that I love.

I meant to get a book I love from the library before Madhu came over, but I didn't. Instead, I stewed about what it means that I have been living for so long now without my books, and while I was at it, I stewed about living without all my other stuff (my warm winter boots, most of my pretty shoes, my guitar, my CD collection, my LP collection, etc.) But mostly my books. I really miss them. Living in limbo has required a great deal of Patience: Do not aggravate a situation with wasted grief -- but is it wasted grief that I miss my books, that I wanted to find No Flying in the House the other day after I went walking with L, that I want to lend one of my extra copies of Goodbye Without Leaving to ... damn, to whom? You see the problem? I have already forgotten who would love to read that book. I think it is wasted grief that I stewed over this instead of going to the library to get a copy of something, but here's the thing. I ended up finding a wonderful book for her to read to me.

I have been trying to read Soul Mountain for years now. Josh adored it, and highly recommended it. I started it, put it down, started it, put it down, and started it and put it down. My recollection is that I thought it was beautiful, but that I didn't have a sense of the narrative, and so I just didn't stay engaged. It's a book full of close observation, and I think I grew impatient with the lack of story. "But it won the Nobel Prize for literature," I would tell myself, trying to convince myself to keep reading. But I never kept reading.

At one point, I asked Josh to tell me what happens at the end. I think, actually, that he told me that the last page was wonderful, and so I was going to read the last page -- which is something I tend to do -- but he just hated the idea that I would jump to the end without arriving there step by step. This precipitated a huge discussion about the valid ways to engage with literature, and during that discussion, I came to understand that my tendency to jump to the end has a lot to do with wanting to avoid unnecessary tension, as a result of extremely tense trauma I've experienced, and that if it means that by skipping to the end I will pay closer attention to the journey of the rest of the book, that that's completely valid.

The language in Soul Mountain is gorgeous, and I thought it might be interesting to hear it in Madhu's voice, as a new way in. And even if it turned out not to be a new way in, it would at least be a new experience of the beginning. So let me tell you what it was like to have Madhu come over and read to me.

She showed up and I immediately felt like I already knew her. She came in and chatted easily, and she asked me if I was sleepy (I was) and Josh gave her a gorgeous scone he had made (with no flour but almond flour) and I brought her in to the bedroom, where I had set up a chair and a glass of water and a lamp and my book. We talked for a while before she started to read. I don't actually remember what she asked me, but I do remember we talked about Soul Mountain, and I told her the final image of the book (Josh finally agreed to tell me): an image of god as a frog, with one eye continuously open, and one eye continuously blinking. She showed me the little book she was making for each person she's reading to -- it looked like a little Muji notebook, and she asked me to sign the front of it. She told me she was going to write the first and last lines she read into the booklet, and also some other notes. She reminded me that she was going to tape record her reading. And then some other warm talking -- I don't remember about what -- but I do remember that it felt like talking with a friend.

And then she transitioned into reading. "Soul Mountain. One. The old bus is a city reject. After shaking in it for twelve hours on the potholed highway since early morning, you arrive in this mountain country town in the South." And she kept reading, and I watched and listened to her read, and voice was fluid and melodic and soothing, and she was a wonderful reader -- I don't often follow well when someone else is reading, but I followed. I heard Gao Xinhjian's images, and I heard his humor, and I loved it when both Madhu and I found the same passages funny, and at some point I remembered the truth about why I haven't continued reading this book. He uses a second person convention -- it is right there in the first paragraph that I printed above -- that I find confusing and annoying. Normally when someone uses the second person, it's clear what the convention is. It's either meant to be the reader, or it's meant actually to be the writer, or he's writing to another character in the novel. But in Soul Mountain, I have never understood what convention he is using -- it seems to move around -- and I find it incredibly annoying. Maybe it's incredibly literary. Maybe it's going to have a beautiful payoff, paid off by my stunning persistence and patience once I have actually read this book. But for now, it's annoying.

A little less annoying when Madhu was reading. Maybe because, unlike me, she didn't skip over "boring parts." In fact, with Madhu reading, I got to realize that reading this book is going to be like climbing an actual mountain. Sometimes there are going to be breathtaking vistas, and every now and then there's going to be a mountain spring to drink from, and sometimes you (second person meaning "one" and including me) are going to cross paths with other hikers, but mostly you just have to take step after step after step. Like training for the triathlon. Like Haruki Murakami writes about in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Like climbing a mountain.

And it's going to take patience -- and a commitment not to waste grief on the confusing second person convention -- nor on the question of whether I'm stupidly not getting his actually quite brilliant convention that's completely clear to everyone else. That most of all.

But I wasn't thinking about all this while Madhu was reading -- I was listening to Madhu read, and eventually I got sleepy, and I noticed the sensations in my body, that my legs were a little restless, that my neck hurt, that my heart rate was slowing down, that I was starting to drift. And then I did drift, and wake, and drift, and wake -- and I thought I was following, but I knew I wasn't really, and I would wake to images that I wasn't sure came from the book or my mind, and then I eventually turned on my side, and I just let myself be comforted by the melodic lull of Madhu's voice, and I knew I wasn't really hearing the words any more, and that was just fine with me, and then I was asleep, which I only knew because at some point I noticed that she turned off the light and slipped out of my room.

And I tucked myself deeper under the covers, and fell back to sleep until early morning. And Madhu, no longer a stranger, went out into the night, and rode the trains back to Manhattan. I hope we see each other again.

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