(to the tune of “the old gray mare”) sing: a good night’s sleep just ain’t what it used to be, ain’t what it used to be, ain’t what it used to be. a good night’s sleep just ain’t what it used to be…many long years ago.”
yiiiikes. no kidding. a whole night of sleeping – like from late evening when you lay your head down on your sweet pillow all the way through the wee hours of the night to sunny morning when you wake blissfully rested and dreaming of a hot mug of coffee in your hand and zero aches and pains – is elusive. how utterly annoying. and a repeated pattern. over and over.
middle age, hormones (or the lack thereof), medications, angsts, the world, too little water, too much water, d snoring, me snoring, leg cramps, foot cramps, shoulder twinges, a pillow too flat, a pillow too puffy like one that makes you feel like your head is on top of the empire state building and your body is in the lobby, a full moon, the neighbor’s motion light, the wind, a skunk somewhere out the window in the ‘hood, sirens, the trains idling on the tracks for hours on end, wishing for midnight pancakes…the list is endless…reasons to be awake.
and we had a conversation most of the night – the waning moon and i.
right outside my pillow window it invited me as it moved from one glass panel to the next to the next. it wasn’t full wolf anymore; its pull was less intense. but it was present and bright and we were both awake, the moon and i.
we talked about time and life and breakfast. we talked about children and moving and empty nests and career. we talked about friendships and family and my parents and loss. we talked about being 19 and being almost-63 and meaning. we talked about legacy and dust and snack-time and happy lights. we talked about winter and the fireplace and the bathroom faucet. we talked about this town and decades and northport harbor and beaches. we talked about dogdog and sleep-running and we talked about babycat and empty space on the quilt. we talked about the pandemic and quiet and distancing and confusing questions. we talked about filling in the moments between spending time with others. we talked about horses and donkeys and lakes and cantering-land. we talked about mountains and porches and houses-we-know-well and courage and change. we talked about pianos and blogs and cartoons and value. we talked about grey hairs and jowls and pounds and wrinkles. we talked about gluten and dairy and glasses of wine and achy mornings. we talked about hiking and dreams and the pacific crest trail. we talked about decisions and successes and regrets and things-that-won’t-ever-make-sense. we talked about people and betrayal and forgiveness and remorse and sadness. we talked about plans and intentions and indecision. we talked about how laughter feels. we talked about gratitude and random texts and the littlest things.
and, again, we talked about time and life and breakfast.
and then we both slipped off into sleep…me – into my pillow, and the moon – sliding past the last windowpane.
we can see the shadows getting longer. earlier in the day, the sun is lower in the sky and fall is on the rise. the wistful-autumn-thing is starting. picking apples and going to the pumpkin farm are on our list-of-things-to-do and i’m pulling out soup recipes, planning ahead. i’m hoping the cherry tomato plants will sustain longer. and the valentino basil has rejuvenated; dinner last night was red pesto pasta – thanks to this very plant. we need to order some wood and i’m keeping my eye out for the perfect mums. and socks made a cameo appearance the other day. blue jeans and boots, the stuff of happiness, are itching their way back into our world, having been buried under summer and no-airconditioning wear. i love fall. and nothing stops the melancholy.
we didn’t sleep again. i’m writing this on wednesday, so last night – tuesday night – was a long wakefulness with a smidge of dozing around 6am. i was aware that i was feeling anxious, worried. no amount of tossing and turning helped. once you are traveling down that road, there are no u-turns. i watched the shadows change in the room, listened to the rain, rearranged my pillows a time or a hundred times. insomnia is a resolute challenger. and, in the middle of the night, every question you have ever perseverated over, ever pondered, that has ever even remotely teased you for an answer is present and accounted for, lined up, waiting for answers or action plans. meanwhile, any even breathing of your spouse, and even the dog, wreak havoc with your impulse control.
the coffee this morning tasted especially good. the day is grey, though the sun is supposed to appear this afternoon. i wrote in my calendar, as i do each day, and was, once again, flabbergasted that it’s just shy of the end of september. equinox as i write and tomorrow we fall deeper into fall. equal parts of darkness and light on this day. that might explain my lack of sleep – equal parts of dark and light – the chiaroscuro of the wee hours – when we would rather languish in light, literally and metaphorically.
a year ago today my daughter facetimed me from the top of a 14’er. it was a scramble to the top, rocky and treacherous. and then, there she was. 14,000 feet up, in the sun, sunlight bathing her radiant face. she panned the camera around so i could see the vastness of it all. mountains and canyon and brilliant uninterrupted light and deep shadow. an equinox perhaps by calendar, but overtaken in any soul-sense by the gleaming luminescence of arriving at the summit.
we each have our own personal night-shadows, building blocks of angst and anxiety, dark caverns filled with life events and life decisions and being wronged and wronging. morning usually helps. it’s when what is real-now shows itself in three-dimension and that which is shadow fades just a bit. the existential questions of the night shrink ever-so-slightly. we look at our to-do lists and pencil in time to take a walk, to hike, to feel the sun on our faces.
we know – despite the neverending pondering of the night – that the questions matter less than the moments. we have learned it time and again – watching the cycle of life, sand running through our fingers, holding mica in our hands. we will, undoubtedly, learn it again.
we know we can make it to the top of each mountain. the equal or unequal division of darkness and light will not stop us. and neither will the shadows. each step counts. we put our faces to the sun and get on with it.
to sit in the dark. to watch the flicker of flame on the yard torches. to stare into the bonfire. to listen to the crickets. to feel cool air brush your face. to walk barefoot in dewy-damp grass. to slowly swirl, in time to music, in time to your heartbeat, in time to deep breaths.
we all need a break.
instead of a mind racing-against-itself in the middle of the night, we need a dance with slow. we need a dance of hope. we need a dance of release.
do you remember how to slow dance…in the middle of the night?
even in the bleakest of times, even in the dark. the tiniest pinprick of light through an inky sky will remind us of the trillions of stars that are always there.
in the last year of my sweet momma’s life, at not quite 94, she would say astonished things like, “i looked in the mirror and i look like an old woman!” we would laugh together when we mentioned her age and that she had earned every last wrinkle, every age spot, every grey hair. never have i seen a more beautiful old woman. in a life that spanned from 1921 to 2015 her hazel eyes saw vast changes, world hurdles, family loss and strife, wild technological advances. and love.
barney was born around the same time as my momma. i wonder about the life he had before he arrived in the basement boiler room. was he a honkytonk piano, a barroom upright, a sunday school accompaniment, the instrument in someone’s drawing room? he was headed to the scrap guy when we met him and we intervened. i suppose as he has lingered in our backyard these last five years he would wonder about the reflection in the mirror, his outer shell, those wrinkles, that peeling laminate, the keys that no longer play. does he realize that chipmunks perch on his brow and snack on acorns? does he realize that birds land, patiently in wait for their respective and restrained turns at the birdfeeder? does he realize that his soul remains rich, his exterior beautiful in its aging?
i laid awake for hours in the middle of the night last night. i looked in the virtual mirror in my mind and saw wooden stages and boom mics, big pianos and blue jeans. i realized, suddenly, that i am older. despite everything that would suggest to me, try to convince me of, the contrary, i have gotten older.
scrolling through social media during this time of distancing it is stunning to see all the ways people are incorporating posting with streaming, youtube, visiting with google hangout, facetime, videoconferencing with zoom, webex, as they try to be there without being there. it’s exhausting.
my 1970s-lingering-self puts on readers and starts to read the directions. the chipmunks are perched on my brow and i resource apps to stay in the loop and do my part to help keep people connected in a time where connection could easily fall away.
i take a deep breath and remember the day that my sweet momma’s iphone facebook status read (from her assisted living facility in tampa) that she was checked in at a miami dolphins game in miami. i quickly and quietly fixed it for her.
and then i giggle and think, ‘heck. if she can do it, i can do it.’
it is the symbiosis of peeling back the layers, honoring the wrinkles, relying on each other’s strengths in the mirror and working together, the virtual birdfeeder our community.
i write this with a sound-asleep babycat tucked up next to me. he is snoring, deeply sleeping, curled up, his paws tucked in, one under his little head. it is sweet and i savor this moment of his complete trust. he is obviously in bliss.
i envy his blissful slumber. i am not as good a sleeper as he. this middle-age-menopause thing wakes me every night. and every night, despite my urging to the contrary, my brain, clearly wildly uncontrolled, starts to think. lists accumulate, calendars form in my mind, my worry starts. and that’s it. i am lost in the weeds of insomnia.
after we had spoken about it a day or so prior, dan told me one morning that he had been awake thinking of our under-the-sink plumbing problem at 2am (!) and had, at that hour, come up with a solution. truth be told, he didn’t really have to wait under the next day; i’m quite sure i was awake and could have had a plumbing-solution-guru-text chat in the wee hours. wendy and 20 have both teased about texting me in the middle of the night when they are awake. i am not alone in sleep deprivation.
this painting is like looking at babycat. a sleep that is uninterrupted, peaceful. it evokes younger images of small children on mats during naptime. it is serene.
babycat stretches and rolls onto his back. he is tucked under the computer cord, laying on top of papers. but he is content. and back to sleep. sweet sleep.
in the middle of the night when i wake up – which happens every night thanks to the keeps-on-giving gift of menopause – i can hear them.
dogdog is gently breathing, sometimes punctuated by his paws running in a dream where he is doing laps around our pond, excitedly barking. his even breaths, a dog in mostly-quiet slumber, reassure me, and my heart and i listen as he peacefully sleeps.
the peaceful-sleep bar is different for babycat. he is not a stealth-sleeper. well, actually nothing that babycat does is stealthy. he’s not that kind of cat. instead, his sleep on the end of the bed (he picks the side and you definitely know early-in-the-night if you have drawn the short straw) is noisy, fraught with snoring. i’ve never heard a cat snore as loudly as he does; it is absolutely necessary to nudge him a little so that he steps it down a tad bit. even with the snoring and the give-him-an-inch-he’ll-take-a-mile-bed-hogging, babycat’s presence sleeping on the bed is reassuring and i lay awake in wonder at how peaceful he seems, how content.
these two are buddies. i was concerned at the beginning, having never had both a dog and cat simultaneously. i needn’t have worried though. they will lay napping on the raft back to back, with their people nearby. perhaps at those times it is the two of them tuning in and listening – to our voices, our laughter, the rhythm of our day. and perhaps it is those times that they are reassured.
while i laid awake, i tried to picture how i would react to someone literally placing me – without ropes – several hundred feet up a sheer granite wall, my hands gripping a crack and small outcropping, my feet perched on a slight deviation in the granite face. it made my hands sweat and my heart race thinking about how paralyzed by fear i would be, unable to move either hand or foot. THIS is out of my comfort zone. far out. and i couldn’t get the image out of my mind.
the wind was gusting about 35mph and there were tiny snow squalls on the way to madison. we were on our way to a movie theatre for a national geographic release of the movie FREE SOLO, the documentary capturing alex honnold’s successful free solo scaling of el capitan in yosemite. free solo. without benefit of any ropes or safety gear. just his hands, his feet, climbing chalk, and memorization, no – absolute physical retention – of the precise moves he would make on the way up this 3000′ beautiful monster.
alex doesn’t talk about his fear much. he, instead, speaks of enlarging his comfort zone, little by little. his somewhat unemotional approach to this challenge is daunting. one of his support team said words to the effect that alex had this challenge: like an olympic athlete he needed to win the gold. no ifs, ands or buts. it was the gold or he would fall to his death. who does that?!! the black and white of that makes my breathing pause. but alex pressed on. clearly his comfort zone is huge, that bubble around him. at least when it comes to mountains.
i know, as fascinated as i am with mountains and climbing stories of all sorts, that this is not something i could or would do. my mountains are different than that and my comfort zone bubble has more to do with my artistry, music, writing. not necessarily less scary, but certainly less physically demanding and clearly, without a doubt, less treacherous. but we are not limited to one mountain at a time.
each of us has this bubble and i picture pushing on the walls of the chrysalis, little by little conquering the fear of the outside – whatever the challenge or challenges – making our way, without ropes or safety equipment, into the next step of our lives. we try to “dream big.” we “go after it.” we “just do it.” but in reality, with no protective membrane around us, we first have to gear up, face fear vs comfort, garner courage and climb. yes. we free solo every day.
i am writing this ahead of time…in anticipation of a so-much-looked-forward-to trip to the high mountains to spend time with The Girl and our new granddog lumi. when you read this, we will be almost home. and there are a few things i know for sure.
that i will -for sure- awake at night, as i often do, and i will relive the time we spent in those mountains. i will relish the time i will now have in my memory bank, the visions in my mind’s eye. i will cherish the bits and pieces i will have brought back for our special box. i will hold dear the photographs i will have taken.
when the moon wakes me, i will be endlessly grateful for any and all moments in the little town she calls home. i will run conversations and laughter through the middle-of-the-night quiet. i will catch a hint of the cool midnight colorado air on the breeze through the window. i will feel what it feels like to, once again, hug my beautiful daughter. and i will store it all away. so that in the night – any night – i can recall all of it.