|Helena Fitzgerald||Mar 2, 2018|
Like so many things, sleeping in is something I always think I should be able to enjoy, and never fully can. Most everything good, the little fingernail and shirt-seam level things, the stuff we really crave, has some grime on it, some reason it’s disallowed. A lot of ideas of self care paint laziness as crucial or even heroic, but the problem is that, inside of it, it still feels like laziness, and it is almost impossible to do enough to make sleeping in feel earned. Which is not to say that I don’t sleep in ever, or often.
In “Mr November,” Matt Berninger sings I wish that I believed in fate, I wish I didn’t sleep so late, and the single, simple rhymed phrase is so accurate that it jars me out of place every time I hear it. The pair of lines is about wanting to be like normal people, wanting to be doing life correctly like everybody else does, to get up in the morning like real people do. It soars up out of the rest of the song, bridging from verse to chorus, and it sounds like the thing it means, reaching for something and then giving up. We all have ideas of better, brighter, cleaner selves that we carry around, partially expecting to achieve them one day. When I fail, I feel guilty for disappointing this future self, and when I succeed her absence leaves me confused at my failure to transform. This better self gets up early in the morning, each morning, sleeps easily when she intends to sleep, and sleeps in when she deserves it. Everything always feels clean, the lines between one thing and another, striving and achievement, wanting and having, sleeping and waking, one day and the next, are always strong and clear. The sticky rhymed couplet in the song is about the desire to lift up out of ourselves and our failure to complete the attempt. Wanting to be better does not translate to being better despite all the wanting in the world, and sometimes all of one’s knowledge and hope and planning does not add up to enough motivation to get up off the bed and walk to the bathroom. Our intentions are so often incapable of carrying us further than ourselves. I wish I did things on time; I wish I didn’t put things off; I wish I had never learned to procrastinate, to push at the limits of the last minute, to create small crises against which to feel important. I wish I were writing this in the mid-morning a few days before I meant to send it. I wish that I believed in fate, I wish I didn’t sleep so late.
I know so many people who claim they no longer know how to sleep in, and when I have a run of a few good days or even weeks, I pretend to be one of them, too. It’s a comforting herd to join. Imagine being so utterly competent that that competence becomes a burden, a thing to wish away. I also have friends who are highly ambitious and successful and sleep until unbelievably late on weekends, texting at 2pm to explain that they just woke up, and I envy them, too, imagining that their lives must be so full-speed and entirely engaged, so exhaustingly efficient and abundantly productive that when they drop at the end of a workweek into twelve hours of sleep or more the sleep is guiltless and welcoming. It is so easy to assume that every situation is better and more virtuous than one’s own.
In college, I used to sleep roughly every two to three days, and usually for fewer than four hours. After weeks of this, when I’d either finished or given up on whatever I was trying to get done, I would sleep embarrassingly late some Saturday, sweatily waking up and going back to sleep until morning brightly turned over into afternoon, nagging in through the windows.
When I taught high school students, I would warn them not to do this. I would explain about diminishing returns and the brain’s inability to function without rest and how going without sleep is like willfully driving the car on fumes. Our culture loves prodigies and boy geniuses (a term that can apply to a person of any gender, to be clear), people who have overcome their bodies and surpassed their humanness, another new form of the old holy martyr, elevated into sainthood by their suffering. In every educational institution I’ve known, students competed viciously over who was sleeping the least, whose habits were the worst, who was the most miserable. It is one of the few things that remained standard through my entire time involved with the private education system in several different countries, and that did not change across languages and systems and cultures. Taking the worst care of yourself was a badge of honor, it was how you proved yourself deserving. Everyone was anxious to be the most tired, to have been awake longest.
So I would tell my students, and will continue to tell anyone who will listen, that this is both a trap and a lie, that not only does never sleeping eat away at your joy and your abilities and your body’s protections, it also quite simply doesn’t work. Our brains short-circuit when we overwhelm them and our bodies eventually rebel and refuse when we deny their needs. Gutting efficiency out of a system destroys the system faster, refuses it durability and makes it unsustainable. When we break ourselves down, the end result is that we are broken, not that we are forged anew.
This advice is all correct but my giving it has always been wildly hypocritical because I have never gotten over the promise of an all-nighter. I have never stopped finding my best self at the bottom of three am. The middle of the night is the ship so far out in the ocean that no land is visible. It is a place where nothing exists and so everything is blameless, a return to the pure potential of earliest youth when nothing had yet happened and everything shimmered in the future tense. The here there be monsters part of the map isn’t the edges but the center, getting so far out beyond the familiar that nothing counts and nothing is recorded.
On a good night, when it all works, Thomas goes to bed and I stay up with just one light on, so that the relatively small living room feels large and cavernous, looming shadows. The streetlights pour in, the neighbors’ bright windows buzz with stories moving from room to room and then go dark one by one. Someone else always stays up, though. Nighttime is when people leave their lives unguarded, and there are always a few other windows still awake trying to do more of life, work or love or fights or sex or worry. People will tell you that cities are the loneliest places and it’s true, but the loneliness comes from the abundance of proximity, people everywhere around you and up against your life and yet you have not managed to be close to or even know any of them. Over time, though, it changes. I feel less alone now because there are countless people to whom I’ll never speak all visibly doing their lives right next to mine, all of us trying and failing, all of us talking ourselves into things and avoiding things we should face and staying at parties after we’re too tired, trying to make up for our mistakes and trying to navigate between staying up and sleeping in, trying to bargain for more time.
None of us want to be reminded of our finiteness, of how little we have and how few chances we get. The fear of this time limit looms so large that we have had to build it into our culture in the form of some sort of heroics, running up to the edge of the monster’s cage to show it we aren’t afraid. All motivational catchphrases are pretty much based around the idea that we have limited time and are going to die. The reminder of death becomes an achievement poster on an office wall. You have as many hours in the day as Beyonce, and eventually you’ll both be dead. Staying up all night is just one more way of trying to stretch out what we are given like a piece of gum, fraying thin but going on forever. Even when I was very young and staying up simply because a paper was due in the next few hours, the silent-humming, blue-rustle and streetlamp hours at the center of the night still felt this way, like I was getting away with something, cheating the time limit to which I was supposed to be loyal.
All-nighters are a fundamentally immature habit and one I always assumed I would eventually outgrow. I never yet have. This woozy impulse to drive forward through the hours that nobody else claims is a longing I have never gotten over. It is a way I recognize myself. As I get older, I feel more and more embarrassed that age has not transformed me. I figured the ways I locate myself would at least become less profoundly embarrassing. None of this so far is true. I am another year older and still happiest awake at three am in a silent room, still dreaming my own made-up future best when no one is here to get in the way of it. Getting older means that thinking of oneself as having a future, in a future tense, is embarrassing, too -- we are meant to glide elegantly at correct intervals from future to present to past. But I still think of myself as waiting ahead for myself. By stealing the extra hours of the night that nobody is using, I am getting closer to something just up ahead. Any day now I will transform into the person who doesn’t sleep too late, the person getting up in the morning able to believe in forward motion. I will at last arrive at being a person for whom sleeping in, through drenched and greedy late morning hours, is not a luxury but an earned reward, as though anything could ever be earned, as though anyone ever arrives anywhere.