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A word of comfort in the night from M.F.K. Fisher

On doctor’s orders, I now get up and read in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, although my natural inclination is to thrash grimly in my bed.

Mary FrancesBefore this new habit did a thing to improve my sleep (and it seems to be have done quite a bit, as you’ll be hearing later this week), it greatly expanded my reading time. The best books for the small hours, I’ve found, are the ones you can dip in and out of with no need to follow an argument or plot. So I returned to M.F.K. Fisher’s last book of elegant, opinionated essays, appropriately titled Last House. Painstakingly gathered in her 80s, it was her gallant final stand against arthritis and Parkinson’s disease.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher made her name recounting the pleasures of the table, which she embraced in the early 30s as a hedonistic young Californian in France. but fate was to make her an expert on pain. The happiest interlude of her life, marriage to her second husband, was cut short when he contracted a crippling and excruciatingly painful illness that eventually drove him to suicide. Her musings on food, even at their most sensual, have a poignancy rooted in her hard-won, omnipresent awareness of mortality and loss. My favourite Mary Frances line (it’s many people’s favourite) goes like this: “When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it, and it is all one.”

Reading Mary Frances is like sitting down with a wise, reserved older friend whose every expression and gesture tells me something that transcends what we’re supposedly talking about. One recent night as the sky outside my window began to turn pale, I found in Last House her contrarian essay on sleep, which turned up like a message for me alone. She begins, as if whispering in my ear:

“I know that sleep is a gentle thing. It falls like dew and all that, but I have often wondered why it is so important to people to feel that they can sleep eight hours without turning over, or eight hours the minute their heads hit the pillow, or eight hours without a dream. All this has always been silly to me.

“What is even worse, people often automatically take pills to help them get into this deep forgetfulness—forgetfulness of the day before, of what lies ahead…to my mind, it’s a form of small suicide. Instead, I have tried always to keep dreaming, and apparently I do.”

A few pages on, she remarks: “I have many white nights—I suppose about one a week–and they never faze me at all, because ever since I was very young I have slept lightly. I have always liked to believe that someone might need me during the night.”

Only a woman could have written that line about need. And this particular woman must have known how it feels to hear a cry in the night that signals anguish beyond relieving.

I put down the book and crept into bed. Waiting for sleep to catch me, I imagined myself in our first house. Wall by wall, I noted all the furnishings, starting with the bookshelves in my third-floor office with the crimson carpet. Moving on, I stretched out to read on the pumpkin couch in our old family room, which was always bright thanks to south and east facing windows. I’m not sure which vanished room I had reached, or what I felt moved to do there, when at last I fell asleep.


Posted by Rona

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