16 March 2010

Waiting in Line

I watched a child today at the funeral of her great-grandmother clutch onto a copy of Harry Potter during the burial. The girl was 9 or 10 years old and since I'm currently reading through the series with one of my own kids, I was momentarily transfixed by the idea that this book, this series, and this author has developed a narrative construct that builds a world of fantasy and imagination in the minds of children at a time when their developing souls are facing for the first time the two most terrifying aspects of existence: sleep and death.

Sleep and death.

Two sides of the same coin, as it were, that evoke, depending upon the circumstances in which they are faced, a great fear, awe and at times, an odd sense of comfort and rootedness.

"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me. Your rod and staff--they comfort me."

The valley of sleep--long, seemingly endless. Dark. But the lulling narrative of a parent's voice, of an author's slow, steady, dramatic descriptions of prose that transports from one world to another--this is a lesson of early sleep habits that we are meant to develop. Sleep is actually a journey from one place to another, then back again. And the miniature death that occurs each night is two-fold: one, the death of the day released the moment we drift into sleep; and two, the death of the dream, experienced but unrealized, obliterated by the return to consciousness (whether in the dark of night or at dawn--gone, never to be return.)

The valley of death--eternal, endless. When falling asleep as a child, I used to focus on sinking. And what first alarmed me was that the sinking seemed without end, as one imagines Wile E. Coyote felt descending from the side of a cliff. I feared greatly the cartoonish POOF! at the bottom and a too soon relegation to oblivion. But by ages 7, 8 & 9, I imagined a buoyancy to the fall, like a brief sinking followed by floating and thus the 'death of sleep' felt somewhat conquered. Around that time, however, I first encountered the black earth of my first grave, a cold, wet deep cut into the winter ground in the near south side of Milwaukee in one of the city's older Jewish burial sites. I knew that hold stopped and at about six foot deep there was a bed of earth, but it seemed to me at the time, it would descend forever.

I didn't have a book in my hand at that moment--it just wasn't something that would have been. But there was the matter of all that Hebrew. The rabbi's chanting of Psalms; the mourners reciting Kaddish; my family's tears and anguish--though not linguistically decipherable, they were 'Jewish' cries. These became my Book of Death, my Transporter Bridge, the crossing apparatus from here to there and back again.

And there was an accompanying silence--that nearly 40 years later I can still conjure with ease. A looming, instructive silence. Like cars crawling in a line at the cemetery. One after the other, moving along, dutiful carriers of grief. Today, waiting in one such line, the sun shot through my windshield and in an odd moment of angular illumination, I saw my reflection.

A face of 47. A brown-gray beard. Glasses. But behind them my eyes looked nine, or at least like I imagined they looked when I first glanced down into the earth, to the place where we lay my grandpa down. I wasn't afraid then, in that cold winter past; I wasn't afraid today, as the sun broke forth. And I'm not afraid now, writing these words, hearing those words ('my cup overflows') and waiting in line.

Waiting in line. Not sinking. Floating. Somewhere between here and there.

'Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the House of the Eternal forever."

Right? Right?

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