Sleepers, Awake

As a child, I never slept through a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Whether the tale was light and playful (“The Princess and the Pea”) or darker, more complex, and just a little disturbing (“The Tinderbox” or “The Child in the Grave”)  I loved them all. Sometimes I longed to live in such magical worlds. Just as often, I laughed at the silliness they contained. Occasionally, I responded to the poverty, rejection, illness and death woven into the stories with puzzlement and fear.

Eventually, the darkness lurking around the edges of Andersen’s tales became more understandable. His own life had been difficult. Born to poverty, he was ridiculed in school, and experienced terrible unhappiness there.

Even after he achieved success and a degree of fame later in life, he remained socially awkward, often irritating those who wished to serve him as benefactors. Invited to stay at the home of Charles Dickens for two weeks, he stayed five, even after some gentle and not-so-gentle attempts to dislodge him. Eventually, he was sent packing by his out-of-sorts host. Dickens never replied to another of Andersen’s letters, and by all accounts, Andersen never understood why.

Clearly his story-telling skills were rivaled by his quirkiness, but his neuroticism may have trumped both. He wasn’t only obsessed with death, he feared being buried alive. Some say he carried a hand-written note in his pocket. From time to time, he would take it out and read the reassuring words: “I am not dead.”  There’s no question he slept each night with a similar note by his bedside, one meant to reassure other members of the household and prevent his premature burial. “I am only sleeping,” said the note. “I only appear to be dead.”

In a remarkable twist of fate, Andersen fell out of his bed in 1872, at the age of 67. He never recovered from his injuries, which were complicated by cancer, and he died at the home of a friend near Copenhagen on August 4, 1875.

Reading about Andersen’s bedside note brought to mind another favorite childhood story: the raising of Jairus’s daughter. As Luke records it in his gospel, the young girl had become gravely ill. Aware of Jesus’s developing reputation as a healer and hopeful that he might be able to help, Jairus sought him out, asking him to come to their home.

Unfortunately, while the men still were speaking, a messenger arrived with news that the girl had died. Undeterred, Jesus went on to the house, where he found a good-sized crowd already engaged in mourning. Loosely paraphrased, Jesus said, “Enough, already. Stop your wailing. She’s not dead, but sleeping.” 

Ignoring the ridicule of the crowd, he took the child’s hand and said, “Little girl, get up.” And that’s exactly what she did. I like to imagine that her first words echoed those on Andersen’s note. “I was only sleeping,” I hear her say. “I only appeared to be dead.”

In this season of resurrection, both the famous author and the anonymous daughter serve as reminders that those paralyzed by the rigors of apparent death still live among us.

Steeled against life’s pain, cocooned in layers of grief, twisted by anger, or fearful of ridicule and rejection by others, they live out their lives in solitude and silence.

In some, the capacity for full and joyous living has atrophied. In others, it’s been beaten out. Even those of us who count ourselves among the blessed or the lucky can find a certain narrowness of vision, a creeping ennui or nagging insecurities leaving us burdened or exhausted, dead to the world around us.

And then, something happens. A writer touches our hearts with the tale of a tiny, dying girl. A rising minor chord brings tears, or a falling slant of sunlight stops us with its brilliance. Unexpected kindness from a stranger brings a smile. We experience a sudden rush of empathy and compassion, and in the midst of our unexpected joy we realize the truth.

We have not been dead. We only have been sleeping, and the time to arise has come.

Having stumbled from our beds into the light of a new day, what then? What responsibility might we bear toward those still living in deadly isolation, paralyzing fear or corrosive bitterness?

Gabriel García Márquez , author of the incomparable One Hundred Years of Solitude,  has left us an answer fully as magical as Andersen’s fairy tales, just as realistic as Jesus’s understanding of humanity. In the days before his death, Márquez wrote a letter to the world. Near the end, he said:

Tomorrow is never guaranteed to anyone, young or old. Today could be the last time to see your loved ones, which is why you mustn’t wait; do it today, in case tomorrow never arrives. I am sure you will be sorry you wasted the opportunity today to give a smile, a hug, a kiss, and that you were too busy to grant them their last wish.
Keep your loved ones near you; tell them in their ears and to their faces how much you need them and love them. Love them and treat them well; take your time to tell them “I am sorry,” “forgive me, “please,” “thank you,” and all those loving words you know.

 Márquez’s words ring true. In the midst of all the apparent death which surrounds us — rigid, insensate and stuporous as it is — we still have the power, by our own actions, to reveal it as temporary sleep.

“I am not dead, I am only sleeping,” says Anderson.

“I would awake while others sleep,” says Marquez.

“Awake, O sleeper, and rise,” sings out the Easter proclamation. “The seal of the grave is broken, and the morning of a new creation breaks forth out of night.”

Reach out with your actions. Reach out with your words.  Take the hand of the one next to you, whether stranger or friend. There is life here among us, waiting to be lived. It’s time for the sleepers to awake.

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Taught by a Heron’s Heart

In 1950′s small town Iowa, Mardi Gras was barely a rumor. We’d read now and then of the bead-tossing, the parades, the exotic French Quarter celebrations with their hints of unspeakable, masked misbehavior.  But we were midwesterners, with midwestern sensibilities, and gave little thought to those far-away customs.

Even neighbors who traveled to New Orleans seemed to consider Mardi Gras a purely native ritual, disconnected from their experience of the city.  Their souvenirs – long, gray-green sweeps of Spanish moss, Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s,  recordings of Sweet Emma Barrett’s piano and Willie Humphrey’s exquisite clarinet – were the stuff of any vacation.  As we listened to their jazz and looked at their photos, New Orleans’ life seemed normal enough, recognizable despite its differences.  On the other hand, Mardi Gras seemed odd, slightly degenerate, part of a world of drunkenness and debauchery best avoided by reasonable people. (more…)


Now that we have baked our cookies and trimmed our trees,
now that we have wrapped our gifts and planned our dinners,
now that we have hung stockings, sent greetings and set tables,
assembled toys, trimmed wicks, written Santa and hung wreaths,
the time has come to abandon it all,
if only for a moment.
Even as we anticipate our day of celebration,
Wisdom turns to extinguish the colorful strings of lights and dim the gleaming star.
Pinching out her candles
Wisdom sighs the music away, then brushes laughter off to rest in deepening drifts of silence.
Standing in stillness before her window,
Wisdom gazes toward the mystery of Christmas
And smiles at this truth – Christmas needs us not at all. (more…)
Published in: on December 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm  Comments (79)  
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An Equality of Joy

Only hours after the passage of Hurricane Ike, every survivor left standing in the rubble understood that far more than houses had been leveled by the storm.  The body of belief about what Ike would or would not do had been dismembered.  Spirits scoured clean of emotion lay empty and desolate as Bolivar beaches.  With possessions ravaged and dreams laid waste, incomprehension was rampant.  Victims stared toward the horizon with thoughts as scattered and broken as the plywood debris fields that seemed to stretch into infinity.

Even at the time, there were victims willing to acknowledge that human factors played a role in the devastation.  Pride kept boats at unsound moorings and families in homes that were certain to be inundated.  Unfounded trust in a last-minute turn of the storm’s path led some to reject advice from wiser and more experienced folk to pack their cars and leave.  Occasionally, simple recklessness chose to gamble on the final outcome, continuing to count cards of wind and surge as though pushing back from the table would be an option if the game seemed to be getting out of hand.

But in the end, as entire communities stood looking out across the  stunning collage of broken boards,  shattered lives and shards of memory, I heard not a word of anger or recrimination directed toward another human being.   There was astonishment, stunned silence, wounded grief and despair at the depth and the breadth of  loss.  There was frustration and anxiety that could surge into panic at the slightest provocation.   From time to time there were flashes of rage against the unfairness of life, the arbitrary nature of institutional decisions and the glacial slowness of response.  But although it probably happened, I never saw one person rage directly against another.  Viewing the carnage, everyone appeared to be in agreement: there may have been wrong decisions, inadequate preparation and less than helpful responses, but in the end it was nature which had done the damage.  Before that overwhelming power, everyone was equal. (more…)


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