Precarious Kites
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About Fear > The Only One Awake
The Only One Awake

Grace-Note # 16- for Sunday 4/23/06
The Only One Awake

It starts with the fear. I remember it distinctly – it was focused and clear: I didn’t want to be the only one awake.

I’d call to my Mom through the dark of the house, “You still awake?” She’d answer, groggy and drifting “Yes. Go to sleep now…” I’d count to a hundred, and then go into her room to trade pillows – my way of checking that she was indeed still awake. I didn’t want to be the only one.

My son has the same reel in his head. His brother is a head-hit-the-pillow-eyes-go-shut sleeper. This leaves one child in the room awake. If he spots me walking down the hall his voice will rise: “You and Daddy aren’t going to bed, are you?” He doesn’t want to be the only one awake.

When you are grown, and it has been a good day, and there are no fears or anxieties lurking behind mind-doors, there can be something comfortable and peaceful about being the only one awake in a house full of sleepers. The puttering that goes on in the dark, avoiding the creaks on the stairs, pulling up blankets and straightening sheets under chins, the refrigerator motor kicking on, the heater knocking on, the cracks of the eaves tightening in the night air – all of this can be night-balm. There can be peace in the hums of the house, peace in lowering yourself back to a bed gently so as not to stir the one you left sound asleep there. Peace in the dark familiar.

But not all days are good days.

There are times when we all need cover in the night. Watch over me while I sleep is unspoken and centuries old. It floats to the surface…. sometimes. And again. You don’t want to be the only one awake.

Children have an almost natural fear of the dark. We soothe their fears with our presence and with night lights, hall lights, bathroom lights.

But when it happens to us, grown now – on nights when we just can’t sleep – a candle in the room doesn’t do it. When the darkness is metaphorical and answers and peace are seemingly far away nothing looks familiar.

A birds-eye view from high on a branch would show us that next-door-down, or up-the-street, others are awake and trying to find ways to cope though the dark. But when it is you late-up and sleepless, when it is you money-worrying, or health-afraid, or prodded by loss, or fearing tomorrow, knowing that far away, someone else is awake doesn’t help much.

People rarely turn to faith, of any sort, on the really good days.
We are too busy, and fluttering, and full on such days, to give much wake-time to thoughts of sustenance.

But what helps when we are day-weary and seeking escape, when we are bone-dragging and rooting toward sleep, when we want to close our eyes and fall, but find ourselves wide-eyed, find ourselves struck breathless, anxious, afraid, alone?

What then? We are the only ones awake. No night light will help breech this kind of dark.

I believe it is at these moments that each one of us touches someplace near to what we call God.

It takes work. It’s a long haul toward morning.

We lay prone, hands clasped and curled below our chin, staring into the dark. We are blinkless, straining to catch any light at all in the wash of dark around us, straining for even a pinprick, a blip, a dot. We can’t find it readily.

But we will find it eventually.

And when we do, we glom on, zero-in, razor-gaze at it until we begin to define its shape, and then slowly, other shapes around it -- darkness visible.

Slowly, we make out the scene, we add lines and definition, we see more clearly and maybe we eventually sleep, wake to light, another day.

There is indeed a night-watcher, a guardian, something utterly inexplicable and inexplicably there as light beside us. It can be a strain, a reach, a core, a monumental holding-on and hoping-hard-effort to spot it. It is hard work to feel the power of what is already right there brightly beside us even in the pitch dark. We aren’t the only ones awake. We are never the only ones awake.