Updated: Apr 26, 2021
At night, I open my bedroom window, turn on my air purifier, and climb onto the wonderful latex mattress that fits me like a glove. I love to sleep and, now that I am retired, Social Security funded, and truly old, ninety-four, I tend to sleep nine or ten hours a night. I don’t remember when I began to sleep so long. My time abed has certainly increased during this past decade. My family and friends know this and usually avoid calling me early. I find myself restored by sleep. To paraphrase Macbeth, I truly believe a night of restful sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of Care.
Much like my father who fell asleep easily, I have always been a good sleeper. He drove my mother, an agitated sleeper, crazy by sometimes falling to sleep while she was talking to him. But my adorable, if sometimes sleep-deprived, mother is the one who read me A Child’s Garden of Verses and who seemed to enjoy the poems as much as I did. Our favorite was the magical Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, by Eugene Field, about sleeping, sailing, and fishing for stars from the wee one’s trundle bed. One of the poem’s charms was the double message.
I am particularly grateful for the comfort of my current bed. For several decades, particularly while studying Roma in California, I had no certainty of my sleeping circumstance. I occasionally ran out of money and moved in with Katy, a very dear Seattle Machvanka friend. My nights at Katy’s were spent in my daytime clothes on her well-used living room sofa. When travelling with the Machvaia, I often found myself relegated to the hard floor. But, more often than not, we were a dozen women in one motel room, mattresses and pillows on the carpeting as the party continued around us.
I am also partial to the hypnogogic state, the edge of sleep that melds into wakefulness. I think of this condition as my CEO. Amenable to suggestion, I get up and make a list of whatever come to mind, the tasks that must be done, and then go back to bed. Sometimes my thoughts verge on the imaginary and surreal. Occasionally I am blessed with an apt suggestion for my writing. I think of this half-awake condition as rich in directives from my unconscious mind, a most important resource. I also review whatever dream of the night I might recall.
Long ago, while living in post-hippie San Francisco, I found myself in need of help. Having enlisted a free-at-that-time psychotherapist, I described my passionate, if not impossible, romance with a married Rom. Not yet realizing that my problems went considerably deeper, after several half-hour interviews during which I talked and he was silent, he pointed out what I knew at some level, but didn’t entirely comprehend . . . that I was not a Machvanka and could never become one. In trying to understand the beliefs and customs of the people I was studying, I had developed a split identity, one American, one Machvaia. A series of accidents suggested I had become somewhat suicidal. Exceedingly grateful for the therapist’s insight, I made my therapist’s advice into a mantra.
Before our next session, however, I found myself at a popular record shop and in a moving line directly behind my therapist. Delighted to see him, I smiled warmly. He looked shocked, however, if not annoyed to find himself in such intimacy with a client. Without even hello, he left. Abandoned, confused, and totally pissed, I never went back to see him.
Thinking I might become my own therapist, I began collecting my dreams. My first instructor was Patricia Garfield. To collect dreams, she said, set an alarm clock to ring every two hours, immediately write or tape the recollected dream, and you will have an abundance, at least four or five, by morning. As I was jobless, devoting the night and much of the day to dreams was a possibility. After following her directions for a time, I tired of the alarm and told my Dream Self that I only wanted to be awakened for important dreams. (The Dream Self is available in the hypnogogic state, just before falling asleep.) After that, I woke to fewer dreams. I took more classes about dreams from a variety of instructors. I advertised in the Bay Guardian and gave my own classes.
I also began eating vegetarian, running in the park for exercise, stopped smoking, and enlisted a positive health plan. Then, shortly after throwing my carton of cigarettes into the garbage, I had an amazing dream. My upper body had transformed into enormous lungs. Giant puffs of the purest air circulated through the open portals. Oceans of air pumped back and forth, one side to the other, in and out, promoting a feeling of wellness and wellbeing. When I woke up, my sore throat was gone. Thereafter, whenever I found myself fighting the longing for nicotine, I would recall the affirmation of my lung-ballooning dream.
In those days, Machvaia families wouldn’t give their daughters as brides to a Rom who wasn’t primarily concerned with his family. As my lover’s many sons, six in all, reached the age of marriage, Todoro became less available. When friend Dolly called to ask if I had seen Todoro recently, I admitted that we hadn’t been together for some months. My dreams portrayed us as a pitifully shipwrecked couple at the bottom of an ocean, which pretty much described the way I felt . . . like the two of us were dumped into an alien and hostile dimension.
Then I had a happy dream of my lover on a cruise ship with Latin music, dancing, and everyone having a good time. The ship was like the ones I often saw a few blocks from my Marina apartment, huge hotels floating on the Bay and dwarfing the shore’s three-story houses. The next night I asked my Dream Self to put me aboard that vacationing cruise ship. But instead, I dreamed that I had been forsaken on the shore in a little oarless and paint-peeling rowboat.
Having been warned by my disappointing dream, I wasn’t entirely surprised when, a week later, my lover came to say goodbye . . . like the cruise ship, Todoro was moving on. His difficult son Larry had run away with the wife and three children of a Mexican Roma family. Although Todoro had pleaded with his son to at least return the children, Larry refused to give them up. Then, Larry and company disappeared. The Mexicans were known to be vengeful and violent; in retaliation for their considerable loss and the further anguish of dishonor, they had threatened to kill Todoro’s entire family. My lover was on the run; his family was hiding in a motel outside the city. For a few precious moments before he left, my lover Todoro held me tight against his chest, and hummed. But he never said goodbye; many years earlier, the word “goodbye” had proved to be our bad luck. Instead, he told me to take care of myself and that he didn’t know when we would meet again. We didn’t for some time.
Since the mid-fifties, I had been working part-time while studying Gypsies. But life in America had become increasingly costly. In the late-eighties, my rent kept going up and, unable to afford the cost of repair, I sold my aging Volvo. Without money, l could no longer follow my lover, or look for my good luck on the road – a favorite Romani concept. The Machvaia were also having difficulties. They complained that their children were going American and losing the goodness of tradition. The journal articles I had written about their tribal life were, of course, becoming history. After some time with Katy, I went back to my family in Seattle.
I no longer suffer from a split identity. For more than a decade I have had my own apartment and a reliable bed to sleep on. I have outlived most of the Machvaia I knew and have lost contact with their grandchildren. For Roma, nothing is worse than dying alone and, decades ago, several of those I loved promised they would keep me company on my trip to hRaio (The Sky). Family was everything to the people; they believed in a long and sometimes terrifying journey to the Land of the Dead where they would joyfully reunite with their family and ancestors. In those days, the Roma Dead Ones were the fierce Keepers of the tribal moral code and the main defenders against Outsiders. The merit of one’s ancestors defined the nature of status and what was called the luck, the good and bad, of each individual life. As far as I can tell, only a few of the remaining elderly still believe this.
I, on the other hand, think dying may be somewhat like falling asleep. But how could I know?