DARKER MORNINGS

Good morning.

It’s 6:07, and summer is truly gone, because the sky as is dark as ink and the birds are silent and will remain so for a while longer.

 

It’s such a drastic turnaround. A couple of months ago, it rose two hours earlier; just after five o’clock. You may not even have noticed this if you’re a later sleeper. But I’m an early riser, and though I adored waking to birdsong and even an occasional squawking racket, I prefer these darker mornings.

 

I’ve noticed that my husband and Christian tend to sleep longer in the lingering darkness, and this means that these hours are truly mine. Not wanting to move around too much in the house and bother either of them, I stay put at the dining room table on an uncomfortable creaky chair and open up my laptop.

 

I’ve already told you that I struggle to stay asleep and that my nights are often interrupted by cycles of wakefulness and of spotting the lit-up time on the clock radio: 1:15…3:21…4:10…And so I’ve grown to love 5 am, because anything after five o’clock means that it’s a decent time to be up, it’s legitimately morning (or close to it), and, especially in the darker months, I have a small island of time all to myself.

I know that my son Simon, in his apartment just a few kilometers away, is up early too: usually by 5:30 on most weekday mornings. And we often connect then, each in the glow of our Macs, messaging each other. Our pre-dawn banter is such a sweet thing.

This morning, I found my father in the half-light.

In fact, he’s been gone for 27 years. Gone at sixty-one and taken by lung cancer. But he was with me in my morning solitude.

For as long as I can remember, my dad set his alarm clock at 5:30. It tormented my sisters and me because it was a mechanical (dependable!) clock that ticked so annoyingly that he eventually relegated it to the upstairs hallway of our small house (maybe my mum forced him to) where it tic-toc-ticked until 5:30 when its tinny and shrill mechanical ring invaded everyone’s sleep.

Early winter morning in Pointe-Claire

My dad was a chain smoker, and once he was up, the next sequence in his morning ritual was a shower, a shave and a gruesome period of clearing his lungs, during which he’d hack and choke and then spit up into the bathroom sink. Loudly. So loud, in fact, that there were days when I was sure he was turning his innards inside out.

What followed was always very discreet. He made his way downstairs, made himself some toast and a cup of instant coffee, took a look at the newspapers (The Montreal Star—long since defunct—and the Montreal Gazette), and sat contentedly in the kitchen. After that, he grabbed his Samsonite briefcase and his lunch and set off on his twenty-five-minute walk to the train station. I think he usually caught the 7:10 or the 7:20.

These are some of the clearest memories I have of my father because during the last eight years or so that I lived in my parents’ house, they had taken on the weight of a ritual and because inevitably, his morning habits clashed with his daughters’ need to be up and fed and out the door to go to high school and CEGEP (my daily commute to Collège André Grasset was double the distance of his).

These memories are also deeply etched because they are the set piece of our painful and confusing relationship with our father. None of us—especially as we grew into adolescence and young adulthood— ever seemed to be able to find our footing with this man that we loved and even admired in many ways, and who had such power over us and exerted such influence in the house. None of us were ever able to create a space in which we could co-exist with him without struggle.

From the Rodin exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

In the light of what I know today, it’s clear that my father suffered from anxiety which manifested itself in part by obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

I also understand that he was a complex and complicated man with a good heart who battled hard with his inner demons.

Most of the story I share with my dad belongs only to him and me and my mum and sisters. But this morning, I was reminded of another part of our shared narrative.

Before dawn, as I moved quietly in the kitchen to make myself my first cup of tea, I found my father in the peacefulness of brief solitude, and I thought again that I love this time of day as much as he did. Much like he did. And I realized that I need it as much as he did.

Betty Acquah, Breaking of Dawn

A few years ago, I did the Myers-Briggs personality test. I answered all of the questions for the fun of it, with no expectations. So did my sons, husband, other family members and friends. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon because the results were so startling and distinct and insightful.

I came up with INFJ as a personality type (I redid the test a few years later and got the same result), which helped me to realize all kinds of things about myself, including the fact that I’m an introvert.

 

That single word explained so much. The butterflies in my stomach since as long as I can remember, before any kind of party or group gathering. The impulse I often feel in a crowd or large group to withdraw. The exhaustion I feel after a day of teaching, even though I love being with my students and find enormous satisfaction and joy in it. My greater and greater need to stake out pockets of time into which I can escape and be alone. My love of reading. My passion for writing.

Marc Dalessio, Dawn on the marsh (plein air painting in the rain)

Though I wouldn’t dare guess at the other three letters of his personality type, I think—I know—that my dad was also an introvert who needed his solitary mornings and his evenings down in the cocoon he set up for himself in his workshop/office in the basement (effectively taking over that floor); and who loved to sit and read undisturbed.

I think he suffered in the smallness of our house, in the company of his wife and three daughters. I think he would have been happiest out in nature, listening to the birds or just sitting in contemplation. That he needed to be away more. Alone more.

I sense that he may never have succeeded in articulating his malaise; that he never understood this about himself.

I found this in the dark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somnum Interruptum

Not too long ago, I went through a strange period when two of my molars abscessed in quick succession and had to be «devitalized»—an alarming term, but the official dental euphemism for killing a tooth by performing a root canal. It was pretty disturbing. And painful!

I remember the dentist saying that our teeth are peculiar body parts because basically, they’re supposed to do their job unnoticed and we resent anything different.

Mine were clamouring for attention (and payed for it!).

Sleep is like that too. It’s effortless and predictable and restorative…until it isn’t. And then it has our attention.

My granddaughter Penelope, losing her fight to stay awake.
My granddaughter Penelope, losing her fight to stay awake.

My son Jeremy and his wife Anne are in that predicament. Sleep—or the lack of it—is devitalizing them. They’re the parents of two young children.

Ah.

The block of battery-recharging time they once called sleep has morphed into a hit and miss latticework of nightly «naplets». The golden standard of 8 or 9 hours of peaceful rest hovers out there like a promise and a torment.

But things should eventually sort themselves out. After all, the causes of their sleep deprivation are external. If my grandchildren can just cooperate, their parents will soon rediscover what it means to lay your head down on a pillow, close your eyes and gently drift off for hours and hours…

Oh God.

What do you do when the causes of sleep deprivation are internal?

That’s where I’m at.

I can’t say with precision when things started to go awry. It must have been incremental.

I’m not an insomniac and haven’t yet asked my physician for a sleep aid, though there are times when I feel like banging down his office door in desperation (usually at 2 in the morning).

Poor sleep, like anemia or migraines or bad knees, is something you learn to live with until you can no longer remember what it was like to feel great.

All men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own. – Plutarch

I wonder if there are as many understandings of sleep as there are people.

My grandson Graeme, napping on me.
My grandson Graeme, napping on me.

For my husband, sleep is escape. He discovered this when he was just a small child, running to his bed and falling asleep under the covers—no matter the time of day— when something had gone wrong or he had misbehaved. And as long as I’ve known him, he’s been able to cat nap several times during a lazy day or even a stressful one, and relishes the thought of bedtime at day’s end, when the comforter (really, that word says it all, doesn’t it?) is like some sort of thick curtain he can pull up over his head to shut out the worrying world.

 

“Sleep is my lover now, my forgetting, my opiate, my oblivion.”
― Audrey NiffeneggerThe Time Traveler’s Wife

 

A couple of friends and family members, who are on anti-depressants, have told me that the medication has turned their sleep into an unpredictable ride through a dreamscape that sometimes borrows from Lovecraft, sometimes from Tarantino—or both—with flashes of Lars Von Trier occasionally thrown into the mix. They tell me that everyday life looks great after such hallucinations.

Another day, another nap.
Another day, another nap (in my arms = heaven)

In the writers’ workshop that I belonged to a decade or so ago, I remember a few enthusiasts who had programmed themselves to awaken from their dreams so that they could record them in a special notebook. At the time, it seemed as futile as trying to catch a cloud; today, it seems more like intentional sleep deprivation.

But maybe that’s because I’ve never set much store in dreams. Besides, the only ones I can remember are the bad ones.

Every dream that anyone ever has is theirs alone and they never manage to share it. And they never manage to remember it either. Not truly or accurately. Not as it was. Our memories and our vocabularies aren’t up to the job. ~Alex Garland

I fall asleep easily. It’s staying asleep that’s so difficult. Every now and then, I sleep like I used to, and wake up feeling so good! But my sleep has become crepe paper thin, and every little sound and movement wakes me up me now. On the worst nights, my eyes spring open and stare, in the dark, at the digital display on the alarm clock: 1:15…2:23…3:10…4:07…

It’s a relief when it finally shows 5:00, because it means that I can slip out of bed and into the shower which, God-bless-it, brings me to life. Though I’ll never again take a good night’s sleep for granted, I’ve also made my peace with my interrupted nights.

Gorgeous autmun moon above our house, August 2015
Gorgeous autumn moon above our house, August 2015

I’ve left behind the quickened pulse, agitation and anxious thoughts swirling in the dark. Instead, I’ve learned to lie quietly, breathe deeply and let my thoughts wander beyond the night sweats, to good things. It’s often in the dark of night that writing ideas—like this one—come to me. Sometimes, I replay in my mind moments or events that gave me joy, until I slip back into fragile sleep.

 

“The night is the hardest time to be alive and 4am knows all my secrets.” 
― 
Poppy Z. Brite

 

 

Before sunrise. A beautiful winter dawn, caught last week.
Before sunrise. A beautiful winter dawn, caught last week.

What I’ve discovered most of all is the quiet solitude of early mornings—those few hours before sunrise (especially in winter).  The life I live before dawn is separate from everything that follows. It’s as though the whole house is mine. I go to the dining room table, where I do most of my work, make a cup of tea or coffee and turn on the computer.

It’s a time of gathering my thoughts, and it’s my favourite time to write. Once everyone else gets going, the bubble bursts and daily life comes flooding in. But until then, I live in the space left behind by fleeing sleep.

 

“Anything seems possible at night when the rest of the world has gone to sleep.” 
― David AlmondMy Name Is Mina

 

I’ve read that insomnia is associated with weight gain, depression and a shortened life span; I hope that my subpar 5-6 hour attempts at sleep won’t cost me that much.

 

There’s a thread that runs through literature which links sleep with death. Edgar Allen Poe lamented: “Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.”

 

And in the late 20th century, J.M. Coetzee wrote: « “Sleep is no longer a healing bath, a recuperation of vital forces, but an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation.” 

 

People who have experienced deep, restful sleep often say I was dead to the world.

 And then there’s Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

 

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: 
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.

 

I’ve never perceived sleep this way, but I know, from having experienced it twice, that being put under a general anaesthetic is a rehearsal for death. One moment you are, and the next, you are not. I’ve made my peace with that.

Rather, as most of it is experienced in the dark, our sleep connects us to our most primitive, essential selves. Our cave dwelling ancestors sought the safety of cover, and of each other, before closing their eyes to sleep. Young children, who still rely on this instinct, resist our attempts to leave them alone and isolated in their impeccably decorated bedrooms. I was lucky, I always shared a room with my older sister.

Penelope naps with me on her first day in her new home.
Penelope naps with me on her first day in her new home,  summer 2013.

When all is said and done, at day’s end, laying down to sleep is an act of faith and trust in the world and in each other. When we close our eyes, it’s with the belief that no harm will come to us, and that tomorrow will always be…another day.

 

 “Sometimes at night I would sleep open-eyed underneath a sky dripping with stars. I was alive then.” 
― Albert Camus

Night owls
Night owls