“But life is wakings-up, all unexpected, all surprising. On a certain November afternoon, twelve years ago, from a certain nap (why that day? Why that nap?) she had awakened from sleeping: eyes-closed, blankets-up-to-chin, pillow-sleep Sophie awakened, or had been awakened, for good.”
Little, Big pg. 254Sleep is every sentience’s fellow-traveler, and so, naturally, we’ve all cultivated very personal relationships with her.
For some, it’s affection, even to self-indulgence: a full embrace of the co-dependence, a love that won’t be ashamed when it dozes off at a dinner party or starts its day at twilight.
For others, it’s more of a disciplined respect. Sleep is a solid partner, a trusted support, and neglecting her is unwise. She has time slots and minimum commitments. We can’t make this work without her.
For me, and others like me (though I don’t hear from us very often), it’s another thing entirely. Where others have affection and codependence, we have resentment. Where others have respect, we have defiance. When she lurks in our bedrooms, we try to ignore her, or step outside. If we could cut ties with her, we would do it at a moment. As it is, we are stuck with her.
We are the Citizens Against Slumber, the odd hour keepers, the midnight oil burners. We know Sleeping is a Sucker’s Game, and we only play it because biology bullies us into it.
“You still up?” she said, and at the same moment he asked the same of her.
“It’s awful,” she said, coming in. She wore a long white nightgown which gave her even more the air of an unlaid ghost. “Tossing and turning. Do you know that feeling? As though your mind’s asleep but your body’s awake—and won’t give in—and has to keep jumping from one position to another…”
“Awful.” He felt, but would never admit to, a sense of fitness that Sophie, long the champion sleeper, had come in recent years to be a fair insomniac, and knew now even better than Smoky, a chancy sleeper at the best of times, the pursuit of fleeing oblivion.
Little, Big pg 289
What makes sleep so interesting, for me, is how it unhitches my consciousness from continuity.
What is my brain doing, that it has to forget where I am, how old I am, and what’s happened in my life since high school? How does sleep, for a few hours each night, manage to persuade my consciousness to let go of those anchors and drift off into this oneiric ocean?
You’ve seen that moment on-screen… most recently in The Night Of, for instance, but also in The Hangover: where am I? What happened last night? Cinema is the best medium to simulate the sudden break, the jump cut, and the resulting scramble for context. Editing is the art of (dis)continuity.
It happens so fast, too. One serviceable definition of “dozing off” is losing continuity without really losing time: blinking stupidly in your driver’s seat, having to remember why you’re at this light, why you’re on this road, and panicking for a moment, checking to ensure your foot is still on the brake.
This example is especially salient for me, because on a few occasions, I’ve stupidly dozed off while driving. I never hurt myself, or anyone else — dents in cars, maybe, and some calls from insurance companies — but it significantly heightened my awareness of my own mortality. I seem to have outgrown the danger, but I still wonder about those occasions and their counterfactual universe where I veered off the road, collided with the end of a guardrail, or crumpled into the space between a semi’s front and back tires.
It didn’t take many incidents to really amplify this anxiety, and it’s been with me ever since. I don’t grow out of it. I generally trust myself behind a wheel now, but I still don’t really trust myself to sleep.
How does this manifest? It happens when I’m sitting in my car in the driveway, listening to the end of a song before I head inside. It’s warm, and I’m not in a rush, so of course my consciousness drifts a little bit.
I should know I’m safe, shouldn’t I? Isn’t that why I’m so relaxed in the first place?
But when I come out of that doze… when my eyes snap open and my ears recognize the same song, still playing… it’s always accompanied by a moment of panic, feeling like I’ve fallen asleep at the wheel, expecting to see a car’s headlights as it collides with my little Nissan.
That’s one of the little offenses that Sleep has for me. I don’t blame her — it’s self-inflicted — just a little prick of karmic retaliation for my tendency to fight her, belittle her, act like I don’t need her.
She also likes to interrupt Netflix movies, and sometimes she smothers me on train rides, or when I’m trying to write essays.
“Now, child,” she said. “What was it you learned from the bears?”
“Sleep,” Lilac said, looking doubtful.
“Sleep, indeed,” said Mrs. Underhill. “Now…”
“I don’t want to sleep,” Lilac said. “Please.”
“Well, how do you know till you’ve tried it? The bears were comfortable enough.”
Little, Big pg 268Sleep has a stronger hand to play, now that I’m getting older. She visits me with more regularity — the end of work, the last hour on the edge of normal-person bedtime — and she usually wins.
I remember, with bitter nostalgia, my time as the dominant party in this rivalry.
From my teens until my late twenties, I was assertive with sleep, stern in guarding my boundaries. In a week, I could get by on 30 hours of sleep… several short, productive nights, followed by a low-key “catch up” night, and then back into the fray. I don’t know whether it affected my life expectancy, but it gave me a feeling of control over my time, and I got a lot of writing and gaming and movie-watching and exploring done.
I have a kid now… a toddler, a fucking dream come true of a little girl… and I’ve lost a lot of leverage in these negotiations with Sleep. Even when the little one’s not waking up for comfort in the scarce morning hours, she gets up at 6:30 AM — always, like a milk-crazy alarm clock — so I can’t have those short Saturdays and Sundays any more, where I lose a whole half-day to the blissful, achy shame of daytime slumber.
You know how parents always seem to have these uptight, early-bedtime, high maintenance sleep habits? Well, there’s a reason for that: having a child changes your whole economy of time and energy. It’s such a humbling, such a paradigm shift, it’s hard to imagine it could possibly be worth it, unless you’ve actually had the experience (where you suddenly realize it’s “worth” pretty much anything).
She looks so peaceful in her crib, and she’s so happy when she’s sleeping well, it’s easy to forget that Sleep and I haven’t resolved our antagonism. It’s up to me to mediate that Daughter/Sleep relationship, after all… creating a “good relationship” with Sleep, i.e. creating good sleep habits, is a imperative parenting role.
But I need to remind myself: Sleep isn’t always a friend. We foster these good sleep habits so the little girl has an opportunity to be on good terms with Sleep, so Sleep is ready to help us take care of her. But we are not here to force it on her. And seeing her and admiring her peaceful breathing when she’s asleep? That “Ah, she’s so perfect” moment? That’s for my own satisfaction, not purely for her well-being.
The girl might love Sleep, like her mommy. That would be fine with me. But she also might fight with it, resent it, keep her distance from it. She deserves that chance, too.
So I’m not going to surrender to Sleep. I’m not going to bow down, promise her my Witching Hours in return for comfort and consistency. I will keep resisting her, at my own discretion, until the day when she wins that final battle and my eyes close forever. I think, after this lifetime of short nights, I’ll be able to appreciate that restful eternity even more.