I was asleep from 1975 to 1985. It took me ten years to recover from my African experiences. When I came back from Zambia in 1974, though I didn’t entirely realize it at the time, I was broken. I didn’t read much in my lost years, or write much, or even think much.
My friend Marilyn Gear Pilling says she slept for about 20 years, most of her working life. She woke up near the time of her retirement as a librarian and was reborn as a writer.
When I say the word awakenings in my title, perhaps you think of the movie starring Robin Williams about nearly comatose patients who suddenly awaken. The author of the book on which the movie is based is Oliver Sacks, a good-humoured Englishman and a compassionate doctor. Sacks, in an interview available on the Internet, speaks of his own awakening.
“I had something of an orthodox religious upbringing. I remember that as a child that I used to have an odd mystical feeling about the Sabbath. Whenever Sabbath came, I saw my mother light the candles. I would think this was an astronomical event. I would think that the peace of God was descending on remote star systems everywhere… Reading was very important to me, in particular Dickens and H.G. Wells, and novelists who talked about the wholeness of life. Although my parents were both doctors, they had met at the Ibsen Society in London, and so that was also an influence very early on. Since you mention Awakenings, I named it after Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken.”
We sometimes associate the word awakening with eastern spiritual traditions. The Buddha, for example, wakes up under a Bodhi tree. He sees the world anew from his awakening. He constructs his groundbreaking insight that desire and suffering are frequently linked in life so that in reducing the former, the latter is sometimes eased. Throughout his ministry, the Buddha frequently uses metaphors of sleep and wakefulness in his discourses on the human.
Awakening is perhaps not as widely associated with Christianity as it is with other traditions. And yet to me, the word seems central to the Gospel message. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado is not far wrong when he writes:
Love? Forgiveness? Affection?
All your words were
one word: Wakeup.
What are the parables, but wake-up calls? What are the miracles, but reminders that we need to begin again, to see anew, to understand afresh? Aren’t The Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes calls to wakefulness?
Awakening does not need to be a singular act. Sometimes we experience awakenings. The life of Thomas Merton, for instance, may be humorously regarded as a dialectic of falling asleep, waking up, falling asleep and reawakening. So, it’s very possible to wake up for a time and then go back to sleep. I’ve done it many times myself.
Awakening can also apply to more than individuals. It can apply to communities and societies, to whole cultures as well. Sometimes the community, the society and the world need to wake up too. David Suzuki in Canada and Thomas Berry in the United States have tried for many years to awaken their societies to the needs of nature and all living things. The philosopher Heidegger spent a lifetime calling us to stewardship of the earth.
On the theme of awakening, I often think of Raymond Carver, a working-class writer whose parents never went beyond high school. As a boy, one of his part-time jobs was to deliver pharmaceutical products to needy households. On one particular occasion he came into a house where an old man had a library and books and magazines scattered across his coffee table. Carver had never seen a personal library before.
In looking around, Carver’s eyes rested on a magazine called Poetry. The old man noticed where his eyes had wandered and told Carver to take it home and maybe one day he would write for it. Carver did end up writing for the journal, which is still going strong today. The journal became home to one of his first published poems.
That day in an old man’s house a life got changed. But who would believe that? It’s much easier to picture a youngster going into the house, dropping off the purchase and going home—or, going in, getting bored, and running home. What’s so hot about a library or a poetry journal? Most of us, I suspect, would have gone into the house, had things happen to us, and not have been changed by any of them.
I like to think of this little episode in Carver’s life as a moment of awakening. He woke up in an old man’s living room. He began to dream, to imagine possibilities that he had never considered before. The old man through kindness and thoughtfulness opened up a new world for Carver. A library and a journal on a table changed a man’s life.
It’s not surprising, then, that a writer who was transformed by a brief encounter, who awoke because of a small incident, should end up writing one of literature’s great stories of awakening. The story is called Cathedral. I place it with Tolstoy’s story of awakening called Master and Man in which a rich man lays down his life for a poor man.
I can never read Carver’s story—or Tolstoy’s either— without a tingle in the spine or a catch in the throat. It remains for me one of the miracles of modern writing: how a man with a boarded up soul, with locked windows and sealed doors, should suddenly open, suddenly awaken.