Madonna of the Midnight Hour

Madonna of the Midnight Hour
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Clark Strand has written a book that is at once beautiful, challenging, hectoring, and stupid.

Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age has a simple premise: electricity has altered the sleep pattern of the human species. This change has separated us from a deep, holy, and healthy form of sleep. The light bulb has severed our connection to God, meaningful sex, deep prayer, and real happiness.

Strand also claims to have had several visitations from the Virgin Mary. But I'll get to that.

About half of Waking Up to the Dark is insightful and poetic work. Strand, the author of several books about Buddhism, describes how in the 1990s Dr. Thomas Wehr conducted experiments on human sleep at the National Institute of Mental Health. Wehr found that when artificial light was removed, humans reverted to prehistoric rhythms of sleep. Before, as Strand puts it, we compressed sleep "into convenient eight-hour blocks," sleep was divided into two blocks. People began sleep shortly after dusk, and after four hours would wake up for two hours of what Dr. Wehr called "quiet rest," then return to sleep until dawn. This is a state between sleeping and waking, when the mind and soul are serene, peaceful, and open to mystical feelings, making love, prayer, and communicating with nature.

Strand calls this period between the two sleeps the Holy Hour. He has a simple writing style that, at least for the first part of the book, works well with his subject matter. Here he describes the in-between time that comes after the first four hours of sleep but before dawn:

In popular idiom, the waking period between dark and daybreak is called the "Hour of the Wolf," an image evoking the eerie, predatory fatalism that tends to come in the small hours of the night. It is believed to be the hour when most people die and when the nightmares we wake from are likeliest to seem real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by secret fears -- when the ghosts and demons they scarcely believe in by daylight suddenly come to life. Supposedly, it is also the hour when most babies are born.

Strand might be onto something here. I've experienced exactly what he describes in Waking Up to the Dark. I once had to cope with a serious but treatable illness, and my doctor told me that one of the positives was that I was "allowed to be a sleep hog." If I felt like sleeping, I could just sleep -- no obligations, no forcing yourself to stay awake through a boring cocktail party, no half-awake mornings at the bus stop. Free of the extended day dictated by the light bulb, I began to go to bed soon after the sun went down. But I would not sleep through the night. I would awake around midnight or later, the "Wolf Hour" that Strand describes. It is indeed a time of rich mysticism. Prayer comes easier. Sounds carry further; the sound of a train in the distance, unnoticed during the day, would give me heart a strange jolt of happiness and wonder.

What I did not experience was an encounter with the Virgin Mary.

Strand dedicates an entire section of Waking Up to the Dark -- a book that's less than 150 pages -- to "the Black Madonna." He describes one Holy Hour when, before going for his walk, he was visited by a mysterious seventeen year-old girl. She has two strips of tape in the shape of an X over her mouth. Turns out it is the Virgin Mary -- although, as Strand puts is, "if this was the Virgin, it was the Virgin as I had never seen or even imagined her before."

Strand calls Mary a goddess and claims that her real power is found in her manifestations as the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Hindu goddess Kali, the Benghali mother goddess Ma Kali, the Jewish Sabbath bride Shekhinah, and Gloria Steinem. Strand holds her in his arms, and tells her that he wants her milk. She allows him to remove the X on her mouth, thus freeing her to speak.

Yes, it's all as creepy and weird as it sounds.

What does all this have to do with an interesting book about sleep patterns? According to Strand, the world of the dark is not a thing -- it's a person.

That person is feminine; however, her power has been corseted by capitalism, GE, Republicans and the Catholic Church. It turns out that the X on Mary's mouth is actually a cross, put there to silence her by the patriarchal Christianity of the establishment churches. Mary was stifled by old white men who interfere with "women's reproductive choices." Luckily, Strand is there to peel the tape off of her mouth. He even goes so far as to call his Mary Our Lady of Climate Change, thus sending his once-lovely prose into the land of politically-correct parody.

Waking Up to the Dark, which began as such a pleasant dream, ends as a nightmare.

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