I had wanted to write about the moon in the water of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. I was running with the dog at dawn when I saw, trapped on the surface of the water among the reflected branches of the trees, the image of the moon. Maybe it’s the Hebrew word sihara, the rarer, more poetic term for ‘moon’, which makes me think of the adjective ‘serene’, but there was a silence, a beauty and a mystery to this scene, the cream moon-shadow floating on the blue-black water among the trees.
I wanted to write about how such images sustain me in the torn-edged rush of life. I like to say my prayers in such places, in woodlands, beside small streams, in a garden. It’s different, praying amid such company. It’s not so much about me saying words of prayer, as letting the noise inside my head yield to the stillness, quieted by the call of a bird, the semi-silent movement of a sheep in the neighbouring field. Then reverence and prayer enter me. I do not know the language of the oak trees, blackbirds, or of the slowly flowing water but I am content to be articulated by their wordless liturgy.
I just now read that the Israeli novelist and short-story writer Aharon Appelfeld died yesterday. I met him several times in Jerusalem, a peaceful, wise and quiet man. I met his son Meir also, on one searing occasion when his wife was very ill. I’ve taken down from the shelves and placed next to me his books A Table for One, illustrated by Meir, in which he writes of his love for Jerusalem’s cafes, and his autobiography, The Story of a Life.
I find Appelfeld’s fiction hard, as no doubt it is intended to be. Often it depicts a world of waiting and not knowing, a bewilderment as threatening as Kafka’s, but with its castles, courtrooms and transformations, its deadly geography concealed. His characters often seemed trapped in the ordinariness behind which we know hides waiting a most unordinary death, which, like so many millions of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s, they cannot escape.
Appelfeld himself survived, hiding in the forests of the Ukraine for over two years. One learnt to keep quiet, to distrust fluent speech: ‘War is a hothouse for listening and for keeping silent…I’ve carried with me my mistrust of words from those years’.
Moments of trust came from elsewhere:
In the forest I was surrounded by trees, bushes, birds and small animals. I was not afraid of them. I was sure they would do nothing harmful to me…Sometimes it seemed to me that what saved me were the animals I encountered along the way, not the human beings.
From the moment I first read them, I have stored those sentences in my mind. I think of them often. We humans are creatures of politics and history, unable for the most part to escape the lethal battlefields of identity and ideology. They are shaping up their armies across the globe even now and whether we like it or not it is almost impossible to escape being enlisted.
That is why I savour a moment by a canal, the moon shadow on the water. They are evanescent; the rising day will lot them out. But they are also redemption, partaking of the slow, trustworthy rhythms of ancient time, by which all life is nurtured and sustained.