Finding balance in the second half of life

Sleepless

In Survival on August 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm

This is what happens when you can’t sleep:

You put the book back on the stack and turn off the light. You curl your arm around Luna, who is conveniently sleeping next to your pillow. When you close your eyes and suddenly aren’t sleepy any more, you find there’s a cat paw right next to your hand. You can squeeze the paw and make the claws come out: squeeze, retract, squeeze, retract. Luna doesn’t even lift up her head. You can feel every bone in her paw, feel the way the joints work.

Luna is so cooperative you pet her, long strokes from head to tail. You compare the feel of her fur to the rabbit fur mitt one of your clients recommends for touch therapy. You think Luna is actually softer than the rabbit fur, and this is not the softest or lushest-furred cat who lives in this house.

You realize you’re contemplating skinning your cats and deliberately redirect your thoughts. You pet the cat once more with, you hope she knows, affection and respect, and not envy or avarice. You realize how bright the moon is. You note the smaller moon reflected in the window. You wonder if you should reconsider window treatments so the room is dark.

While you’re at it you note the amount of light given off by the large-number digital alarm clock, which your husband bought as a convenience for you. As on previous sleepless nights, you wonder whether it’s a good thing to be able to see the minutes popping by.

You pet the cat again, hoping she’ll purr, which is sometimes a soporific. You wonder at the differences in the three cats’ fur, but then realize that you could also tell your three children’s hair apart by touch, even if they had the same haircut.

Because, after all, your three kids are quite distinct, and have been from conception. Which reminds you of the book you were reading before turning out the light. It was a gift from your daughter, a book about mother/daughter travel—both physical and emotional. If you knew whether she’d read the jacket or the book before giving it to you, you’d know how seriously to take the tensions between the characters and the daughter’s depression. You wonder if you should be a more perceptive mother.

You think you could read another chapter or two, but your book light is on the other side of the bed, left there when you asked your husband to switch bed-sides for a few weeks to see if sleeping on your other side would lessen the pressure in your surgically damaged ear. You debate various acrobatics that would net the book light, but, especially since Finnegan has now curled up by your knees, you’d probably disturb your husband and two cats: Is it worth it?

Because why, after all, are you still awake? Are you stressing about your work? Your daughter? Your volunteer project that has grown tentacles? The sheer number of things left undone? Your fear that you’ve passed this part of your nature along to your daughter?

Now you feel a little cramped, and you don’t think it’s just the cats. You’re pretty sure that your husband has encroached on your side of the bed. Knowing all the time that it’s petty, you still count the slats in the headboard to see just where the centerline is. When you prove that, indeed, one shoulder and one leg are over the line, you realize how pointless the exercise is. You nestle.

You wonder if you could read your book by the moonlight, because it seems just that bright.

You’re too hot, so you maneuver to poke your feet out from under the blanket. This involves sliding your legs under Finnegan, who turns to concrete when he sleeps and is otherwise imperturbable. You think there must be a haiku about sleeping with cats, but you can’t get beyond the first line: Kittens sleep in heaps.

It’s a dangerous slide into thinking about the other things you should be writing, so you redouble your efforts to get Luna to purr. She doesn’t lift her head, still. You put your nose into her fur, and can’t quite decide whether she smells like anything at all. Maybe a little like dust.

Dust. Dust. Dust makes you think about the discussion at book group earlier in the evening, where books with big themes frequently lead to discussion about the state of the world. You think about whether you can really follow through on your advice to stay engaged with the world, to resist turning off NPR in favor of Vivaldi because the news is just too painful. We saw in The Handmaid’s Tale what happens when people aren’t vigilant—especially women. You have to admit that you’ve been listening to music instead of news for the last five days, since the Iowa straw poll.

You wander into thoughts about what’s happened to women in the last three decades, how much is different for your daughter from what you experienced. You’re afraid it’s not enough: She may not be asked to bring a man coffee in the office, if she happens to take an office job. But choices in relationships are still determinant of options for her in ways they aren’t for men, you think.

Because you’ve been listening to music instead of NPR, there are lines from Joni Mitchell songs accessible in your head. “I am as constant as a northern star” | And I said “Constantly in the darkness | Where’s that at?” Or Crown and anchor me |
Or let me sail away…. Or When you dig down deep | You lose good sleep | And it makes you | Heavy company….

You feel less and less secure in your ability to give good advice to your daughter, should she ask, because not all of the choices you made were smart ones. You’re not sure whether you should have listened to less Joni—whose favorite theme has been disappointed love—or your daughter should listen to more, but you know this for sure: You want her to be happy, to live in some proximation to her dreams, to have a relationship with someone who will cherish her. You want her to know what it means to have a real partner, but you’re not sure you can describe how you know for sure when you’ve found one, since you feel just plain lucky yourself.

After seeing the giant luminous 3:44 on the too-bright clock and being abandoned by Luna, who seeks solitude in the linen closet, you stop.

In the morning, after sleeping through two alarms, you’re awakened by your husband from a dream in which you’re looking for the flip charts from a series of meetings. One of your former bosses assures you that they’re all taken care of, that they’ve been automatically uploaded to the web. You think the notes should have been synthesized and edited before they were made public; the former boss doesn’t think that’s a problem because no one knows where to find them on the web, anyway. You can’t find them, either.

The sun streams into the bedroom and you are stupefied with sleep.

–Lois Maassen

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  1. Beautifully, honestly, humorously expressed. Thank you so much for writing this.

  2. Just wonderful, revealing and made me laugh (first), smile knowingly(several times) and then cry with respect and love.

  3. I can relate in many ways, especially this week….the clock, the cats, the heat, and, of course, the lack of sleep. Thanks for writing about it; I feel more normal now!

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