Lost in the Stars

Lost in the Stars May 21, 2023

Fate handed me a gift

With time to spare I am standing by a bookstore looking for something to read.  The store is closed but there are $1 books on tables with a box for dollar bills.  The one I chose took me back to a song my mother used to play on the Hi Fi: “Lost in the Stars.”

I am in Claremont California for a day, to see two of my oldest friends, but until the afternoon.  Rather than pace around my generic hotel room, I drive to the center of this college town, where no less than seven schools live together.  My friends have nothing to do with the colleges, though he is a lifelong academic.  They live in a contining care community full of academics, though, which is located here.

If you remember that Pilgrim Life is to live as if every day has an adventure available, then my decision to stroll the town makes sense.   My further decision to pluck a cheap book to read while nursing a coffee is where fate handed me a gift, the kind that only the wanderer will receive.

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” – Jhumpa Lahiri

I needed something small; carrying a heavy book in a backpack is no pleasure.  Used book piles are loaded with self help, business expertise, romance novels, and political screeds.  But there, slim and green, lay “July’s People” by Nadine Gordimer.  I knew the name but not her work.  “Nobel winner,” the cover said.  “South African” the bio said.  Ecstatic praise from Athol Fugard and Anne Tyler.  “Perfect” as we now say.

I order a tall cafe americano in the cafe inside an old factory that is now a galleria, where young people stare at their phones.  The cover tells says is the fictional tale of South Africa during the final stages of apartheid.  A black servant takes his white employer and family into the bush to protect them from civil war.  Gordimer wrote it in around 1980, when that was very possible.

As I was in South Africa in 2019, a vivid and troubling journey even then, I am now intrigued.  Turning the cover I was grabbed by the scruff of the neck with this quote from Antonio Gramsci,

“The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.”

And we’re off.

Summarizing the story makes no sense here, but it was an adventure for sure.  I read it in the cafe, on the airplane, and when I got home.  Nordimer pushed aside Kazantzakis, which is saying something because he lacks for nothing when it comes to adventure.  Six days later I am done, and nearly breathless with the experience.  It had the same effect as Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country,” only more visceral than his quasi parable.  No criticism intended, though.  That was also a great read, but similar to

with its deliberatel cadence and primary coloring.

Gordimer lurches, spills, spins, giving the reader a feeling for the contortions and confusions of this bleak ‘fish out of water’ story.  While Paton indicts his culture and nation, Gordimer shows how that culture and nation enslaved this white family.  I winced oftenThat is already too much review.  What needs be said is that I was taken on a moral and spiritual journey that embodied those quotes above.

Fortunately, South Africa did not devolve as she imagined, but my own country feels that way right now, and fellow citizens who feel most uneasy seem to me very like the family transported from their world into one they do not and in a sense cannot know.

“Lost in the Stars”

Paton’s book was turned into a musical, which sounds odd, but it had impeccable authors in Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill, with the title coming from the closing song of Act One.  I knew the song simply as a song, one that bespoke the sense of being lost in a world you thought you knew.  Pilgrim Life is to invite that lostness, of being lost in the stars that beguile us.

I shall return to my journey to the Middle East, but the shrines we seek are not the only ones we find.


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