A dream come true! Les Misérables the musical is coming to movie theatres on Christmas Day! My long obsession with this musical dates back almost 20 years when I was a kid going to see the touring company as they came through Fort Worth, Texas. Right from the start I latched on to the tragic heroine, Eponine, not only because she had the most beautiful solo, but because she was so often unnoticed and unappreciated by those she loved. She essentially lived in two worlds: the world as it was and the world as she longed for it to be.
No doubt Les Misérables played a role in my decision to learn French, study abroad, and eventually earn my bachelors in French. Victor Hugo and I crossed paths when I read the English translation of Notre-Dame de Paris as a teenager as well. And who would have imagined I’d one day learn that Victor Hugo and I were born on the same day? I can’t tell you the whys and the wherefores for such bizarre coincidences, but to me there must be a reason – there must be.
It was October 2002 and at last I could walk through the streets of Paris, alone, pretending to be Eponine dreaming hopelessly about her sweet Marius. The temptation to sing “On My Own” aloud was difficult to resist. There was the Seine, right beside me, singing softly and mournfully. I could feel the emotional weight baring down on me again. I could’ve been with my friends. I didn’t have to be alone. But I changed my mind at the last minute for the same reason I’d recently bought those new, long-sleeved shirts. I didn’t want my friends to see the cuts on my wrists. I wanted to prove to them I was strong. I didn’t want to disappoint them.
Of course Les Misérables sounds prettier than “The Miserable People” as one might say in English. Like many people do when they realize they can’t control the circumstances surrounding them, Eponine retreated into her imagination.
“On my own, pretending he’s beside me / All alone, I walk with him ‘till morning / Without him, I feel his arms around me / And when I lose my way I close my eyes and he has found me.”
Imagination is one way to escape from a world we can’t control. Sometimes, when I’ve had to take a walk to find peace away from crowded dormitories and chatty housemates, I’ve taken a walk with my grandmother who died when I was a baby or imagined long conversations with friends I hadn’t seen in ages. And with all my might I’d try and imagine someone holding me and whispering in my ears the simple phrase “everything’s going to be all right.” But my imagination can only take me so far.
Prayer requires imagination as well. I’m not saying I have to imagine the existence of God (although to some extent that may be true). But God is not physically tangible (as you probably already know). All the way back to the ancient Hebrew texts, God is too sacred and too powerful for our human eyes to see. Moses was told not to look at God on the mountain top, for he would surely die.
But when I am walking alone at night, I sometimes imagine God walking with me. I have conversations with him in my head. Sometimes I smile at what I imagine him saying. Most of the time I try and imagine him reminding me that I’m still important and I still have a purpose in life. My story isn’t over yet.
Eponine dies in the arms of Marius, the friend she loves who is not in love with her. Still, she masks her pain to make him happy. It is what she’s always done from the first time he set eyes on his bride, Cossette, until her fall at the barricades.
This is the strange thing about human relationships. We don’t want to burden our friends with our troubles and yet we feel sad when our friends withhold their troubles from us.
We all know how the France chapter of my story ended. I tried so hard not to let the people I most cared about see me when my pain had become too difficult to bare that my mind could no longer distinguish between what was my imagination and what was real. And yet even when I woke up in a psychiatric hospital and a couple of my friends took time to call, I didn’t tell them anything was wrong.
I will note it’s much easier to hide your pain from your friends when your friends live far away. People like me have trouble regulating their emotions. I can’t stop the tears once they’ve been triggered and it’s often made for awkward situations. But I can weep silently while listening to a friend’s voice on the phone and they never have to know.
As Eponine died in the arms of her Marius, she sang a kind of lullaby with him.
“Don’t you fret Monsieur Marius I don’t feel any pain / A little fall of rain could hardly hurt me now / You’re here that’s all I need to know / And you will keep me safe / And you will keep me close / And rain will make the flowers grow”