Snorkeling in the Night Sky

Night comes swiftly like “a great, dark, soft thing,” and for most of my life I’ve greeted it reluctantly, as if behind the darkness lurked terror and shattered hearts. My mother says, “You were a fast napper from the day you were born. Other kids went down for two hours. You slept for twenty minutes and were up for the rest of the day.” Even as an infant, I didn’t want to surrender to that dark, soft thing. 

After an early menopause I started waking up three, four, five times a night. At first I tried natural remedies (melatonin, bio-identical hormones, cortisol adaptogens), then unnatural ones (drugs). But since I have a paradoxical reaction to drugs, Ambien kept me awake, and during the second week I took Ativan (the first week was heavenly) I developed suicidal proclivities and wanted to jump off a bridge. Then I downloaded sleep music, tried brain-balancing techniques, listened to books on tape (Middlemarch, Team of Rivals, and Passage to India are still my favorites; also anything by Bill Bryson, except he makes me cackle, which wakes up my husband, which makes two of us wide awake at three a.m.). Still, night after night, my eyes flew open like clockwork—and with them began the rattling of my mind and the descent into the catastrophic (the pain in my chest is congestive heart failure, I’m sure of it), the ugly (I’ve been married to the wrong person for thirty years), and the uglier (was that noise a rapist? Where’s my gun? Oh, right, I don’t have one).

In her book Marrow, Elizabeth Lesser calls this litany “middle of the nightism,” and she urges us not to believe any thoughts that occur between midnight and six in the morning. To that wise advice I would add, “and stop reading articles that tell you that not getting enough sleep can lead to Alzheimer’s, ALS, and auto-immune disease,” particularly if, like me, you might be a teeny bit prone to hypochondria.

A few months ago, after lying in bed like a pencil in a drawer for hours each night, trying desperately to be peaceful and instead feeling insane and judgmental (“After forty years meditating, you still can’t quiet your mind?”), I decided that if I couldn’t sleep, I shouldn’t sleep, and that there must be something I could do that didn’t require putting on lights (because as every insomniac knows, you’re supposed to turn down all sights at dusk, and keep your bedroom cool and dark to facilitate ongoing melatonin release). I remembered an article in the New Yorker in which the author says that before the advent of electricity and artificial light, people didn’t sleep through the night; they’d sleep when it got dark—Sleep One—and after a few hours, they’d wake up, congregate in small groups and chat convivially. Then, they’d trundle off to their stacks of hay and revive themselves with more sleep, which was called Sleep Two.

Visiting friends in the middle of the night, having tea, biscuits, and a chat in flannel pajamas sounds quite civilized to me. Like these newly emergent death cafes where “strangers gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death . . . to help [them] make the most of their finite lives,” in a sleepless cafe strangers could huddle together and discuss being awake in the middle of the night. But since I live in the forest, half an hour away from any place where insomniacs might huddle, I decided to start my own nighttime ritual.

Now when my eyes fly open at three, I follow my breath from my toes to the top of my head and back again a few times, then I do the four-seven-eight sleep breath count (four on the in breath, seven on the top of the breath, eight on the out breath). Sometimes I listen to the elegiac writing of George Eliot and if Mr. Casaubon doesn’t aggravate me too much, I might fall asleep. But if I’m still awake after fifteen minutes, I say in a purposefully cheerful whisper: “Time to go visiting!” (The cheerful part is necessary to drown out and reprogram the doleful lament at not being able to sleep.) I slip into my bright pink slippers with the floppy felt turquoise flowers, pad into the dark hall with my arms outstretched like a zombie so that I don’t bang into walls and trip over chairs, inch my way to the back door, exchange the slippers for my black knee-high Wellingtons (which I placed by the door the night before), put on my husband’s puffy pumpkin-colored Antarctica coat, and grope for the door.

Creak, door opens.
Creak, door closes.
Step down.
Look up.

And just like that, I am in another world.

The glittering bowl of the sky is so vast that it seems as if I am upside down, like the first time I went snorkeling and saw that the ocean had an underneath: undulating anemones, knobs of rutilant coral, neon purple and green rainbow fish that must have been here all along but because I never looked below the surface, I never knew.

In the middle of the night, with the very first step, I feel as if I am snorkeling in the night sky, gliding around the stars, letting the consummate darkness penetrate my fevered mind. I can’t believe that this “underneath” has been waiting for me all along, and if not exactly terrified of it, I’ve been highly suspicious of its secrets and vast mystery.

An owl hoots; the sound ricochets against the trees, between my thoughts. A mockingbird sings and the notes feel as if they are rising from my sternum. The wind chimes—the ones that, according to the salesperson from whom we bought them, have been tuned to “Amazing Grace”—rustle against each other like tiny monastery bells. As my eyes adjust to the dark I start walking, which feels like swimming.

Outside is in, upside is down, the vastness in the sky and the space between my ribs, in my chest, and inside every cell is hollow and full, nothing and everything.cI open my arms as wide as I can, as if I can scoop the stars like liquid manna into my throat, chest, legs. Once, twice, three times, the arms open, scoop, take in the stars and the darkness that makes them visible while the trees, noble and immense, bear witness to this exchange of liquid light. Drenched in stillness now, my body moves back to the house, swims down the hallway, moves into bed, and dissolves like the space inside an anemone when it closes. Like the deathless beauty of no me, no you, no world.

From This Messy Magnificent Life: A Field Guide for Mind, Body, and Soul © 2017 Geneen Roth 

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