Now I Lay Me is a short story written in 1927 by Ernest Hemingway and included in his short story collection Men Without Women. It is one of his Nick Adams stories, a character who is a fictional representation of himself.
I last read all of the Nick Adams stories about six years ago, and they in part inspired my coming-of-age novel-in-stories that I’m currently seeking representation for. I recently reread In Our Time and the experience was so different that I want to reread the other Nick Adams stories and so picked up the full compilation of them, which was first released in 1972 and included then unpublished work.
Now I Lay Me tells the story of two WWI soldiers, one of whom is Nick Adams, both of whom apparently have been injured in some way, although it is not made clear. It begins with Nick discussing how he can’t sleep, fearful that if he were to let go his soul would “go out of my body.” From there it details all of the things he thinks about while lying awake, beginning with visualizing fishing in great detail, going over the entire process, hitting on every sense memory possible. When he can’t visualize fishing, one of the things he does is pray the Hail Mary and the Our Father for everyone that he’s ever known. He remembers his family, including incidents with his parents in conflict, after which he prays for them both.
When prayer becomes difficult he says, “on some nights I would try to remember all the animals in the world by name and then the birds and then fishes and then countries and cities and then kinds of food and the names of all the streets I could remember in Chicago, and when I could not remember anything at all more I would just listen. And I do not remember a night in which you could not hear things. If I could have a light I was not afraid to sleep, because I knew my soul would go only out of me if it were dark.”
Wow. I could not believe what an impact the story had on me this time around. I am sure that I’ve read it a number of times, but not since my own traumatic incidents, which I’m still trying to recover from.
Over the last several years there have been many nights where, due to my hypervigilance, I only slept a few hours, and then only due to complete exhaustion. In trying to deal with those empty sleepless hours, I did a number of the same things that Adams does in this story. I was never a fisherman, but felt most at ease when I was either in my childhood home, or my grandmother’s home, and seeking any sort of comfort no matter how small, I would often visualize one or the other of these, beginning with the front door, and then proceeding room to room, remembering every detail in as much detail as I possibly could. When I was really bad off, I began to pray the same prayers that Adams did, even though I had been removed from the church for decades. In complete desperation, exhausting everything else I could think of, I prayed these childhood prayers as best as I could remember, over and over and over.
It’s not something that I have publicly acknowledged until I read this story, and realized that this was not isolated to me, nor isolated to our current modern time. These are exactly the same strategies Hemingway’s character drew upon in dealing with his trauma some hundred years before. I have found it nearly impossible to talk about the sorts of things and their impact on my physical body with anyone who has not gone through similar things, including doctors, who pretty much across the board dismissed me and my complaints.
Anyone who criticizes Hemingway’s writing as being nothing more than masculine posturing really should go back and read these early stories, ones that have such heart and emotional depth to them. It has been a long time since a short story has had such an impact on me. And perhaps that’s another reason why I write, because as writers we never know the impact that our work will have, whether it’s someone reading it the day it is published or, like this story, nearly 100 years later. So much of human experience is universal, and our desire to label everything and everyone, while occasionally useful, does such a disservice to us all, keeping us from seeing clearly how alike we are, and therefore how much we could connect to each other, could have sympathy for one another, could empathize for one another, all of which would go a long way in making this world a more peaceful place. Whenever you find yourself judging someone negatively, remember that they have the same struggles you do. Their reactions may be extremely different, but those underlying issues are just something that come with being human.