“You know, don’t you, that Cleo chewed on your hair while you were sleeping last night.”
Kent, my beloved, is speaking to me from across the kitchen counter about the irascible pandemic Bernedoodle puppy we adopted together six months ago.
And no, I didn’t know that.
“Yeah,” he continues. “I took her out to pee because she was barking frantically at 2 a.m. and when we got back to the bedroom, she jumped up on the bed and went straight for you.”
I never heard the barks. I never felt the chews. I am a 56-year-old menopausal woman and I was sleeping as if I were dead.
It wasn’t always this way.
For as long as I can remember, I have been an incurable insomniac.
As an anxious 23 year old who felt inadequate to the task of grownup life, in lieu of sleep, I’d stand by the stove late at night cooking the only thing I knew how to make — — tapioca pudding — and eating it warm right out of the pot, calling it dinner. A decade later I was on high-alert for toddler children — mine — calling out for pre-dawn comfort and cuddles. In another life chapter I chalked my insomnia up to being the only adult in a post-marriage household that now needed keen protection against middle-of-the-night home invaders who never materialized.
One phase of sleeplessness always folded into another. And no amount of flaxseed eye masks, lavender oil bubble baths, silicone ear plugs, pre-slumber cups of golden milk and white-noise machine sounds of falling rain ever seemed to help.
Under the covers in the darkness, my mid-life sweetheart snoring softly beside me and the brightness on my phone turned down as low as it will go so as not to disturb him, I’ve been known to google:
“Where is Kristy McNichol now?”
“Orlando Bloom Miranda Kerr what went wrong”
By my phone’s faint glow, I’ve checked my bank accounts, read the first few paragraphs of a dozen New York Times stories, deleted emails, scanned Facebook, indulged my Zillow obsession, and blocked yet another self-professed military general seeking to follow me on Instagram. “Keeping the night company” all these years has brought deep exhaustion, yes — and a strange fellowship with solitude when blanketed by darkness.
I’ve given myself the freedom to go quiet, to let go of ambition, to experiment, to not know.
And then this past spring, COVID-19 turned the world as we all knew it on its head. In mid-March, I found myself standing in line at Trader Joe’s as wild-eyed shoppers swept entire categories of food into their carts. The rental income I’d long used to support myself — earned from welcoming international travelers to my Prospect Heights garden apartment — dropped to zero in a matter of days. The stock market cratered, my 24-year-old daughter moved back home from her apartment in nearby Crown Heights to shelter with us, her 21-year-old sister drove out to Los Angeles with her girlfriend and an unknown date of return and my parents, both in their mid-80’s were down in Florida all by themselves. I worried daily about whether I’d ever see them again, about whether my unsteady-of-gait father might take a fall while walking the dog or fetching the paper, and what my siblings and I would do if such an event were to occur.
By day, I was quaking in my boots. And — what do ya know? — by night I was sleeping like a baby, maybe for the first time since I was a baby.
Night after night, within six seconds of my head hitting the pillow, I was practically unconscious. Like I was drugged. Like a puppy could eat my hair and I’d never know it.
Why sleep now, and finally?
For starters, there’s less — literally — to keep me up at night. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to call New York City home for 34 years, and/but its 24/7 dazzle means that no matter how fast one dances, it’s been all but impossible to not to feel an vague and ephemeral sense of missing out.
Now there’s nothing and no one to be jealous of. My travels to the fridge to fetch a mid-afternoon snack, to my feet to tie my sneakers, to my front door at 7 pm to cheer on essential workers, to my bathroom to stare in the mirror at my uncut hair, to wherever it is in the next room that I’ve left my facemask — why, they’re pretty much the same trips you’ve been taking.
Also: as the world continues to implode, I’ve also come to realize that ambivalence and self-doubt can be the strange result of an abundance of choices. When the lens is narrowed and survival is in the balance, it lends focus. I’ve given myself the freedom to go quiet, to let go of ambition, to experiment, to not know.
There’s a quote I’ve long loved by Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you have, with what you can, where you are.”
With so much I — and we — can’t do now, and so much we can’t control, what I can do feels clearer. These days, I make dinner without rushing, chop vegetables slowly, clean the kitchen counter with care. I read actual books. I think of Anne Frank, and Nelson Mandela and the hard things that humans before us have had to endure. When birds call out in my little backyard, I give them notice. I’ve never appreciated the sky so much.
“When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” So said the Zen master.
I think I may finally be getting it.
What will the world look like when this is behind us?
I hope what’s ahead for us is a world made kinder, fairer and more just for the gross inequities this time is laying bare for us — and I’ll be rolling up my shirtsleeves and getting to work in the service of that hope.
In the meantime, we’re in a bit of a free-fall. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some sleep to catch up on.