Sunday, September 22, 2013

Troubled Sleep

What's Supposed to Happen

It has come to my attention through various recent news stories about the mass consumption of sleep aids and my own informal studies among friends and family that no one sleeps well anymore. As with so many other things wrong with us, we may just be more likely to admit sleep deprivation than we used to, and seek help for it, or just seek sympathy through the many social media channels that remove the shame factor from all sorts of confessions and complaints. But the fact remains that, conversationally speaking, whether online or off, a day doesn’t go by that I am not made aware of someone suffering the ill effects of having spent the previous night staring at the ceiling.
Are we all really that overstimulated and overanxious that we can’t shut our overworked brains off at night, or just more forthcoming about it? Now that I can be entirely honest in the comfortable albeit miserable company of my fellow bad sleepers, I admit that good sleeping is a mere fraction of my total lifetime sleep experience, and not just because bad sleeping tends to weigh more heavily on and loom larger in memory. I know this because when I fall asleep quickly and easily and wake up in the morning eight hours later with a refreshed body and mind my first waking thought is “what the hell just happened??” But in reality, what happened was absolutely nothing, which is what’s supposed to happen. Nights like that, I don’t even remember dreaming. 

 Eyes Wide Shut

Ah dreaming. With the exception of artificial interference like a late afternoon cup of coffee or the kind of large multi-course holiday meals my mother used to make which left us all lying in bed after midnight feeling like a pot bellied stove stuffed with three days’ worth of logs to burn, my sleep issues fall into two categories, plus an especially pernicious hybrid of the two, which is to say that what keeps me awake is either my conscious thoughts run wild, or my subconscious conjurings run even wilder, or on really bad nights all essential barriers between the two broken down, leading to vivid dreams that feel real and muddled reality that feels dreamlike and eventually getting out of bed so I can figure out definitively which state I am indeed occupying. 

Which is sometimes exactly what I do within the most insidious of these dreams. I have sometimes been left in such a lingering state of uncertainty, I would not be surprised to discover I am actually in a dream while writing this, or that my dream life is my real life. But that is, in more ways than one, neither here nor there. Both my dream life and my real life have each had their share of the wonderful and the horrible, the dull and the brilliant, and each holds memories and possibilities that are ultimately mine to create, so it doesn’t really matter which is which. They are like two cities I split my time between and can both call home. Maybe the reason I am okay with troubled sleep is that if it originates from the same subconscious responsible for such a rich dream life, it’s a price I am more than willing to pay.


Dreams aside, having just spent eight hours in a state of self-generated unrest gives you a weird perspective on the daytime outside world and its people. First of all, you’re just plain tired. Second of all, your body and mind have not had the opportunity to repair or resolve whatever yesterday did to you, so you feel as if everything you take on is doubled, like your day is twice as long and burdensome as everybody else’s because at least they got a break halfway through, which sets you apart, and not in a good way. That is assuming five out of ten people you deal with did not also just have a bad sleep. If you hang out in my kind of circles, that number goes up to nine. My friends are the type whose brains are working overtime all the time, day and night, and feeling weird is pretty much business as usual, well-slept or not. If we all got a good night sleep on the same night, the world would end. Thoughts like that are common among people who see 3am on the clock as often as they see 3pm.

But maybe it’s like high school, where everyone is trying to be cool and thinks they are the only one who feels uncool, and it turns out 25 years later at the reunion that nearly everyone considered himself a misfit. Is anyone a perfect fit? Is anyone sleeping well? Or are some of us just better at faking it – or blaming it on someone else, the kids, the cat, the neighbors, the neighborhood, the snoring spouse - than others? My theory is that just as in high school where everyone was walking around trying to hide feeling uncool, we are all walking around trying to hide being failures at something so natural and simple a child can do it. 

 The Nocturnal World
Not that I slept any better as a child. I think I sleep better now because my standards have dropped and there is less of a struggle against or harsh judgment of my irregular patterns. Four hours of motionless unconsciousness is a triumph. If I manage to pull two of those in one night with a break of any duration, there is a good chance the next day will be experienced in a state close to what I consider normal, that is to say, anything better than feeling like someone just pulled me from my grave or dropped me from an alien planet. 

Nowadays, as part of my general campaign to give myself a colossal break, my approach to sleep has changed. I tell myself that I would much rather have thoughts that can keep me awake at night than thoughts I can nod off in the middle of, like a bad movie. There are some amazing aspects to the nocturnal world that sleepers will never experience, and face it, a lot of what happens by day you really don’t need to be all that alert for. I no longer believe in chasing after the perfect sleep, any more than I believe in trying to squeeze myself into some perfect one size fits all success in other areas of life. Rest for the mind and body is essential, but no one ever said we all need to get it in the same amounts, on the same schedule or in the same manner. Naps have never really worked for me – I’m either going for as good and long a sleep as I can or going without. Naps to me feel just as bad as waking up in the middle of the night after only an hour asleep. It’s just the middle of the day instead, which feels even more of a rude and disorienting awakening.


What does work for me is meditation for the mind and relaxation techniques for the body.  I’ve had sleepless nights during which I had the good sense and focus to use these methods and ended up feeling more rested and refreshed than I would have following a traditional eight hour sleep. Of course the sleepless nighttime mind doesn’t always know what’s best for it or feel like doing it.  The wakeful daytime mind is not much better, as I know for a fact that my sleeping improves on a parallel course with better exercise and eating habits, which won’t necessarily keep me from skipping my workout and eating something that has no resemblance to anything found in nature. 

But at least now I know what to expect. I know not to increase my own uneasiness by worrying about or resisting wakefulness, however inconvenient and unfair and uncool it may seem. When I wake up at 3am, or when I am pretty sure by the sound of the gears grinding in my brain that it will take until 3am to fall asleep, I’ll give up the quest for the perfect sleep and read a book, or check Facebook to see who else is not sleeping. And some nights I’ll just lie in bed releasing the tension from each of my muscles in turn, then clear my mind of whatever I’m thinking and tell myself a story that, if I am lucky, will turn into a beautiful dream, and if I am very lucky, will really happen.  

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


courtesy of

I know my life is in a state of profound uncertainty when I start checking horoscopes with increasing urgency and reading them with a lot more serious attention than they deserve. Fortunately I only follow a few select astrologers and they are more about providing responsible spiritual and psychological advice applicable in just about any situation than predicting specific events I will then anxiously await. But in desperate times, afloat in the sea of life, any flotsam and jetsam will do, and I will reach out and grab whatever I can, even though what looked like a raft approaching was just a piece of driftwood unable to bear the full weight of my unfulfilled and utterly undirected desires.

 autumn around the corner

Granted, I have just survived the shipwreck of a relationship, and relocation to a new home, and for things to be less than settled in all ways is a perfectly natural albeit uncomfortable circumstance. But I am not the most patient person on the planet, and now that I have spent the entire summer of 2013 in the process of mentally, emotionally and physically dismantling the life I was leading the past 18 months, a life that itself required dismantling to exist, and actually, for the past 4 years, putting so much effort into understanding, attempting to improve, accommodating and then extricating myself from a situation that was unhappy and unhealthy, and finally installing myself in a new life designed specifically to contain and cultivate only happy and healthy things, part of me now wants to just get on with it. And having been in my new place for a month now, and autumn around the corner, I feel I am still treading water and getting nowhere.

 two weeks in France, September 1995

The price you pay for a life in which amazing things happen out of the blue, and you often do more living in one intense life altering week than most people experience in whole decades, is you have to put up with the dead times in between. I am accustomed to the unexpected and incredible, the intense and the exhilarating. So many times, in so many areas of my life, just when it seemed all was lost, something, or someone, amazing arrived and changed everything. Maybe I was built for and attract moments of wonder, or maybe I have grown into it, but in so many cases I have looked back at those magic crossroads and humbly, gratefully acknowledged that it could have been otherwise, that the smallest of circumstances could have pushed me into oblivion. It’s an extreme pattern to be sure, but after decades of being on this rollercoaster, I have faith that the terrifying descents are always followed by exhilarating ascents. The only trouble I have is with the seemingly endless flat stretches, because I never know until the last second whether I am headed for a rise or fall.

 the ride of my life

By the way, I hate amusement parks. Love the atmosphere and appearance but hate the rides. I live those rides in my everyday life, why pay to simulate them? And I hate those flat stretches, because for all my adaptation to a life of the unexpected, I also hate surprises. In general, I would rather know what’s coming and prepare for it.  If I am to play a waiting game for the rest of 2013, until my destiny is revealed to me, at least let me know what I am waiting for and I can work towards it, or let me know that this is it, that there will be no more ups and downs to this particular ride, and I can adjust accordingly. It might actually be nice for nothing amazing to happen, just roll along secure in my modest routines and engagements. A girl could get used to that.

 Henry when he was Rascal waiting for me before he met me

Perfect apartment, check. Perfect cat companion, check. Both came into my life by means fully within the patterns of incredible timing and coincidence and luck and fate that my life follows, as if both were already waiting for me. But job I have none. Man in my life I have none. Historically, I have done a lot better finding good places to live and good cats to live with than I ever have finding jobs or relationships. Most of the places I’ve lived, I had no quarrel with and left only because the relationship with the man I shared them with ended. My longest happy cohabiting relationship was with my cat Marlowe, who shared my life for 14 years, most of those when it was just us two. He saw me through 2 jobs, 3 apartments, 2 cities of residence, and a lot of men who didn’t last long enough for him to bother to befriend or defend against them, in all that time, my one constant. The only thing he ever did to hurt me was to get old and sick and leave a hole in my heart by dying.  

 Marlowe and Me in NYC, ca. 1998 (look ma, no tattoos!)

Jobs and men also come into my life in encouragingly fated ways, but unlike apartments and cats, they tend to reveal all sorts of hidden liabilities over time and what once seemed a perfect match turns out to be something I can only tolerate by secretly plotting my escape. It is a cycle that goes from wondering what is wrong with me that everything good always goes bad, then wondering what is wrong with this place or person, and then wondering what is wrong with me for sticking around so long.  By the time I have decided to leave, I am over the disappointment, and over the self-blame, but no wiser as to why this cycle persists.

Better choices perhaps? And yet all my choices have been based on available, promising information and a great deal of reinforcement from the man or the job in question. And of course, when one is in need of income or companionship, waiting forever for the perfect situation is not an option, so maybe you start altering your standards and overlooking whatever wisdom you have acquired. Which brings me to now. There are two big missing pieces in my life. A steady means of income which will not only not suppress, depress or interfere with but actually encourage and enrich and reward who I am and what makes me happy, and a man that pretty much answers that same description.

  in the wonderfully fake land of Las Vegas, 2009

I guess a modern woman is not supposed to admit that she places a good man right up there with,  maybe even higher than, a good job on her list of priorities. I am supposed to be complete as long as I have fulfilling pursuits, friends, a cat, a nice place to live, and my health. Having lived without a man in my life way longer than I have lived with one, I can tell you, it is possible to lead a full and fulfilling existence alone. I have had some of my best adventures, discoveries, triumphs and joys not only in spite of being alone, but because of it. There are many liberating factors to argue for a life alone; there are many limiting factors to argue against a life shared. I’ve lived both, I know. 

 Mystic, with bird friends, ca. 2007
But it comes down to love. I love being in love. I love giving and receiving and thereby increasing the general universal levels of love. I love meeting someone I feel I already know and having a first conversation that feels like it’s been going on like a brilliant crackling fire for centuries, and flirting irrepressibly and shamelessly with everything to gain and nothing to lose, and observing someone from across a room knowing that I have knowledge of them no one else recognizes or imagines, and sharing a glance that speaks without words, and the electricity that travels my whole body when he first takes my hand and I finally know for certain what the very air around us, and probably everybody we know already knew, that we are more than just friends. Maybe this isn’t how everyone is made, but I am and will ever be thus.  Blame it on my Mediterranean blood. Blame it on too many 19th century novels. There is no lukewarm love for me, only lukewarm lovers. 

 creating a stir

I love my friends and family, and my perfect cat Henry, and making beautiful creations that make people happy, and crossing the finish line of a marathon, and taking a train to a new city, and music that stirs the soul, and the kindness of strangers, and the gift of having the senses and intellect to appreciate all the natural and manmade awesomeness that life has to offer. But I am the first to admit, unapologetically, that I am fifty years old, deeply cynical, fiercely self-reliant, and nobody’s fool, and still nothing compares to a show of interest from a man I like so much I am actually enjoying the sweet torment of not knowing how he feels because it is just so good even to know him at all. I might as well be a kid again. It’s like a fresh start for the heart, every time. Decades of disappointment and hurt erased with one “I was just thinking of you.”

I just read a horoscope today that said all that I am seeking is also seeking me, that it has been waiting for me for a long time, and if I sit still it will find me. I am not good at sitting still, but here I sit. Find me.