It used to be that I would simply lean back at bedtime and fall sweetly into sleep, watching bright cinematic dreams unfurl until daylight touched my face. Not anymore. “A good night’s sleep” has become an elusive sort of fantasy. I slip in and out of watery slumber, acutely aware of the winking face of the clock at various appalling hours-3:23 this morning, as a matter of fact.
I worry, of course. I worry about everything from global warming to health insurance in retirement to the what-was-I-thinking dress I ordered and need to ship back whenever I can get to the post office. I realize these concerns are not even remotely on the same scale, but it all looms large in the night. Ghosts walk through the room, old regrets come and sit upon my chest, a chorus of critics assembles and demands my attention.
Everything conspires to keep me awake. There’s a mouse in the wall scurrying about with quick staccato movements, scratching and scrambling, disturbingly industrious, disturbingly near. The wind blows a watering can across the deck, a train rumbles in the distance, the coyotes gather for one of their yapping fests, and frogs are singing beneath the window. Frogs? I never thought much about frogs before, and now the whole atmosphere seems filled with their sound. I wonder what makes them sing all night. I make a note to myself to Google frogs in the morning.
“Geez, Cyn,” emailed my friend Steve, a fellow insomniac, “frogs sing all night for the same reason single people hang out in bars all night. Do you really need to Google that?”
But frog music is beautiful compared to the soundtrack in my head. I am frequently infected by day with the virus of an insipid song that takes hold and plays in my mind all night. Sometimes it’s a melody that has lain dormant since the 1970s and then inexplicably comes to life to torment me. Last night it was “Midnight at the Oasis.” Need I say more? Poet Laureate Billy Collins wrote a poem about this phenomenon, describing the experience as “a tape looping/over the spools of my brain/a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun :” He titled it “More Than a Woman” (the Bee Gees song), but acknowledged there are plenty of other equally cloying possibilities. It’s a form of insanity that often occurs in broad daylight but is particularly excruciating in the night.
My friend Lindsey, who can’t sleep either, sent me a review by William Howarth of a book called At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch that talks about the lost culture of night as experienced before the Industrial Revolution. Night was supposedly a precious time to work for oneself, tell stories, or meditate on new ideas. “Families often took a ‘first sleep’ up to midnight,” Howarth reported in his review, “and, after a wakeful period of one or two hours, a ‘second sleep’ until dawn. During the interval they might read or write diary entries, usually about their dreams :” Then he summarized a central idea of the book: “Night offers an alternate side to life, liberating and renewing forces that daylight represses :”
Liberating and renewing forces? Lindsey thinks we might do well with this perspective. “It’s a new frontier for us to explore,” she suggested optimistically, “Let’s embrace it.” I can’t wait to pass this along to Steve. “Embrace the night!” I urged him. (My husband is convinced Steve’s fitful nights have something to do with the Diet Cokes he drinks all day, but Steve gave them up for a while and didn’t see any difference.)
“So I tried the ‘embrace the night’ stuff last night,” he wrote to me in an email. “I was up at 2 a.m. watching infomercials and eating Cheerios. I found out you can buy a $117,000 house by paying just $246 in unpaid back taxes. Tonight I’m calling that number on my screen. If I can’t sleep I may as well get rich quick.”
As for me, there’s a pile of books by my bedside and I have a fancy new nightlight and sometimes I actually read. Occasionally I give up and get up, admit defeat, and head upstairs to my computer. But most of the time I’m just tangled up in bedclothes, pounding on pillows, slowly losing my mind : shadows painting our faces : traces : of romance in our heads :