October 18, 2005

The Smiling Alarm Clock

This morning as I stood numbly in the bathroom trying to wake up, I noticed the illustration on a box of children’s allergy medicine: a smiling alarm clock with two eyes, two arms, and two legs. Why is it that children live in an animated world, and I don’t? To a child, a stuffed animal is a living creature with a name and a personality. Paint two dots on a rock you’ve found in the backyard, and it becomes a friend and a fortuneteller and a character in any drama you like. Children have an instinctively animistic view of existence: every object is an individual with a spirit. But to me, a rock is just a rock and a stuffed animal is just a hunk of sewn cloth.

I know a child who’s afraid of the dark. It’s been bothering his sleep for most of his years. To him, the night itself is an animated spirit, and it holds within it other spirits that are ready to burst out of places which the daylight pretends are uninhabited. Monsters are ready to come out of his dresser drawers, and burglars are hiding in his closet, and his life is threatened in his dreams. His parents have consulted a doctor and have taught the child strategies for turning the animated, wild, living, fluid nighttime into something tame and solid and inanimate. It’s bound to work. As time goes on, they report, he’s gradually reaching new stages of maturity, taking care of himself when he’s up at night rather than running into their room crying.

I have my share of fears, but the dark has never been one of them. I don’t play favorites between night and day: to me the night is just daytime with less light in it. To the extent I think about it at all, I like the night; it’s romantic, and it hides things that are better unseen. It hides me, too, if I want it to: in the night I can lurk unseen, listening and looking. Maybe I like the night, too, because I’ve learned that bad things are just as likely to happen in daylight. I love sleep – I have a fifteen-year sleep deficit I’m constantly trying to catch up on, because of a sleep disorder – and above all I love dreams, because in dreams I have no responsibilities, in dreams my mistakes have no consequences.

Is it more realistic of me to think that the night is uninhabited by spirits? Or is it just the flattening that occurs with age? Is it something I acquired as I grew in adulthood, or was it always a kink of my personality, an obstruction keeping me from seeing the soul of things? Adults certainly deceive themselves about enough things so that I don’t assume they see the world more truly than children.

Some religions populate the world with spirits, and perhaps thus recapture a childlike animism, but I’m more drawn to religions, like Zen, that clean out the unseen world and leave only what is there before my eyes.

Maybe I'm afraid to be afraid of the dark. Have I turned the nighttime into a false daylight, a world of rational explanations, of brightly lit corners, of appearances with nothing behind them?

I look at the smiling alarm clock on the box of children’s medicine. If it suddenly winked at me and waved its mittened hands, would I know enough to be glad?