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The Elves and The Shoemakers:
Magic Lost and Recovered in Midlife
Larry Reimer
February 20, 2000
Ezekiel: 37:1-11

The Elves and the Shoemakers
From Germany, the Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time, a shoemaker and his wife fell upon hard times. No matter what they did, things went from bad to worse. One day the cobbler found he had only a small piece of leather left in his shop. The cobbler did not despair, but sad down, cut the leather carefully, and started to sew a par of shoes.

When evening fell, the shoemaker left his work unfinished and went home to bed with his wife.

The next morning the cobbler found a pair of shoes in his shop! Someone had come in during the night and finished his work.

The shoemaker sold the shoes and used the money to buy more leather. He spent the day cutting the new material. When evening arrived again put his work away and returned home to his wife.

The next morning the cobbler found several more pairs of shoes in his shop. The mysterious helper had come again. And the new shoes were even prettier than the first ones. The shoemaker sold the shoes, bought more leather, cut it carefully, and left the pieces in the workshop overnight.

Early the next morning he found more pairs of shoes in his shop. This went on for some time. Each night the cobbler left pieces of leather out in his workshop. Each morning, he found beautiful shoes in his shop. The cobbler’s reputation for marvelous shoes spread far and wide. One night, just before Christmas, the cobbler said to his wife, "We must find out who is helping us, so we can thank them!"

His wife agreed and set a candle to burn as they hid in the workshop behind the coats and waited anxiously.

Right around midnight, they heard singing in the distance, and saw two elves leap through the window. The elves were naked as the dawn, barefoot and carefree. They did somersaults and sang. Then they sat down, started making shoes and boots.

In no time they had finished their work, jumped down off the table and vanished on a moonbeam.

The next morning the shoemaker’s wife said to her husband. "Those elves have been helping us, and we must give them a gift." Since the elves were naked and it was winter, the shoemaker and his wife decided to give them clothes.

The shoemaker stitched two tiny pairs of boots, lined with fur, while his wife sewed two jackets and two pairs of pants, warm and fleecy. On Christmas Eve they set their presents in the workshop, hid, and watched.

At the stroke of midnight, the elves leaped through the window ready for work. They looked around in bewilderment. There was no leather for them to sew. Then they saw the gifts.

"Ooh!" one elf exclaimed, as he picked up a tiny shoe and tried it on. "Ahh!" the other cried as he squirmed into a tiny shirt and coat.

The elves admired each other as they danced with glee, then vanished into the moonlight. The shoemaker and his wife were delighted and went to bed as happy as could be.

The next evening the elves did not return. Nor the night after, or ever again. "What have we done?" the shoemaker and his wife asked themselves. But they were practical people, so the cobbler started working once again. With a little practice, he made shoes as beautiful as the elves had made. The shoemaker and his wife were wealthy and happy for many good years.

We all know the patterns of fairy tales for children and youth. The hero and heroine meet, defeat the common enemy, marry and live happily ever after. We love those stories. But when we grow up the story runs a little thin. By middle age, the story pretty much runs out.

Alan Chinen, a Jungian psychiatrist from San Francisco (now there’s a label that’ll get you in the door at this church at least) began researching fairy tales and discovered that about 10% of the 5000 fairy tales he read deal with mid life. About 5% are elder tales.

In middle tales the main characters are neither young nor old, and they are earning a living. They deal with issues of personal failure, marital conflict, and tragedy. And while these issues seem most prominent at mid life, they are not limited to this time period. Middle tales are rather ageless.

Middle tales emphasize universal themes and ignore the specific problems such as trouble with a boss, parent, child, or spouse. The goal in middle tales is not the resolution of a particular problem, but becoming fully human.

One Middle Tale with which we are all familiar is that of the Elves and the Shoemakers. We know it is a middle tale because the protagonists have learned a trade and are married, unlike, for example, Hansel and Gretel.

The cobblers fall on hard times and find help from magic elves. Now this is much like youth tales where a young man and woman find magic help and live happily ever after. So it is rather surprising that when the cobblers make clothes for the elves, the elves never return.

The theme of this story is the loss of magic, which is quite common in middle tales. In youth tales the characters lose magic only if they do something greedy or wicked. In this tale the cobblers are good and generous. So what does the loss mean?

The elves symbolize innocence. They are naked and playful. Gifts of clothes represent the imposition of social decorum and order. Like Adam and Eve, who realize someone is watching them, the elves now realize they have been seen. They must leave their place of innocence.

When children become conscious of their surroundings and gain knowledge, they lose their innocence. But unlike Adam and Eve, there is no indication that their loss of innocence is punishment. It is simply the result of growing up.

When the elves leave, the cobblers’ lives are not ruined. The shoemakers return to work and prosper. Thus the story tells us an important truth: After magic comes work. The shoemakers don’t lose the elves’ magic. They transform it into their own skill and take it into their lives.

It is significant that this story is about making shoes. In fairy tales, shoes are a symbol of being grounded. Unlike children’s tales where shoes are magic, like Dorothy’s in the Wizard of Oz or Cinderella’s glass slipper, in adult tales shoes relate to good work and solid foundation.

Let me take you through three ways that I understand this story.

First is the coming and going of children. Children bring magic into our lives when we are losing the magic of our own childhood. There is nothing like a naked baby to melt even the hardest heart. The naked, delightful, dancing elves are symbols of childhood’s innocence.

We marvel at our children, their bouncing baby joy, the gifts they bring us, and the wonder they create in our lives. We care for them, nurture them, feed and clothe them. Unfortunately, it is when we have completely clothed and fed our children and they are ready to become decent companions that they leave.

Sandy and I promised each other from the day we got married that we would not abandon our identities to our children to such a degree that when they left we would have nothing left in our lives. We worked hard to be ready for the empty nest. But by golly, wouldn’t you know it, when our kids left, they took their magic with them.

We ultimately discovered, however, that we also learned a lot over the years our children made their magic in our home. We had the tools to make magic ourselves. And we put all those learnings to use as the tools to make the shoes that would give our lives both grounding and magic. Adulthood is not about living happily ever after. It is about a process of losing and recovering magic over and over again.

But let’s not let the elves get too literal as children. The second symbol of the elves is that of our own creativity. Some people find the creativity of their lives when they’re young. Mozart, it is said, heard whole symphonies in his head and just wrote them down, even as a teenager. For him, creativity was about 99% inspiration and 1% perspiration. As young people we often have great dreams of what we will accomplish. Our pure voices, our ease at dance, the power we feel when we play our musical instrument, our skill on the athletic field, the writing that stuns our English teacher, or the project that wows the science fair all stir visions of fame and fortune.

But there comes a time in mid life when we wake up like the cobblers feeling that we have left all that creative talent locked away with old tap shoes, battered baseball cleats, dusty debate trophies, and a clarinet that now seems to be made into a lamp.

The elves of the story arrive in night times of our lives. When we’re feeling stuck, looking for the magic that seems to have escaped us, "sleeping on the problem" often gives us insight. In dreams and night time visions, the spark of creativity often returns.

But adult creativity is different from youthful creativity. Rather than Mozart’s 1% perspiration and 99% inspiration, adult creativity follows Thomas Edison’s model of 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. The fitful explosive creativity of youth merges with the work habits and skills of adulthood to become a much more consistent part of life. My own magic happens, but it involves lots of hard work.

In adulthood magical elves translate into steadily working cobblers.

Take the story of the elves and the shoemakers with you to think of how magic leaves and reappears in your life. Realizes that answers most often come to us in adulthood when we bump into what appears to be a complete dead end.

Let me share one more example. When Sandy’s dad was in his fifties, the U.S. experienced one of its cycles of recession, and the brick company in Washington, DC where he had worked for twenty years as a purchasing agent closed. Sandy’s mom was an assistant in a nursery school. Sandy’s Mom and Dad they had a mortgage. Sandy and I were married and on our own, but Sandy’s brother was just starting at Gettysburg College. Sandy’s dad always had a little bookkeeping business he ran out of the basement. He did taxes and payrolls for small businesses. He truly loved that work. That basement business had been like magic elves to his soul over the years. But he never had the courage to make it his full time job. Now he summoned up the faith to take his dreams of the night into the day. He put all his energy into making that accounting business go. He had no college degree and was not a CPA, so he hired a CPA and put together a business which enabled him to live with comfort and happiness.

I read the story of Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones as this morning’s scripture. There come times for all of us when either our lives, or our dreams, or our jobs, or even our church seems to have no more life in it than a valley of, dead, dry, bones.

Often it is when we are at the end of our resources, wondering, "Can these bones live?" that we hear the wind of the spirit blowing. It is when we finally pray to God because all our ideas have run their course, that we feel the breath of God blowing life back into our tired bodies. It is when everything about our life feels broken and disconnected, that we sense those bones reconnecting and our lives rising to dance again.

Adulthood is a time when magic disappears, and then returns, like God reconnecting the dry bones, like elves in the bankrupt workshop that the shoemaker couple has finally abandoned. We often have to stop, rest, pray, and wait for the coming of such magic. And when it comes, we have to take that magic, work it into our lives and rise with it.

There’s no lifetime guarantee of "happily ever after" tagged on to this or other mid life tales. The shoemakers’ success will have its own ups and downs. Biblical miracles don’t last forever either. Hopes brought back to life like dry bones suffer again. The gift of adulthood is to know that magic found is never completely lost when we learn from it and blend it to the journeys of night and day.

Prayers – I offer these prayers in the first person for all of us.

O God I open myself to you in my hour of need. There are troubles that overwhelm me and thoughts that terrify me. Cover me with your mercy. Rock me to sleep in the dark, that I may awaken to the magical light of your face…

Choral Response: Confitemini Domino quoni am bonus,
Confitemini Domino, alleluia.
(Come and fill our hearts with your peace. You alone are holy.
Come and fill our hearts with your peace, alleluia.)

O God, I open my place of pain to you. How long will my anguish grip me? Teach me to be patient. Let me trust that your love enfolds me when my heart feels desolate and dry. Let me feel your love in my bones.

Choral Response:
O God, I also have wonderful dreams – music to play, words to write, places to see, people to love, new life to live. I pray for dreams come true.

Choral Response:
Finally, God, I pray for others. I hold dear people I love, surrounded by your light, trusting that you hold them, keep them, and heal them. I pray for those I am at odds with, asking for your wise and healing grace in places I cannot fathom on my own. And I pray for this church. Give us a brain, a heart, courage, and the path to our spiritual home. All this we pray and offer as we close these prayers together in song.

Choral Response: