December 4, 2014
The night before I go to the desert, I sleep in our old bed for the last time. I, we … Rae is here beside me, although as usual, or often, she is turned head to foot, Molly Bloom, yes I said yes I will Yes. This is a strategy she developed years ago, reaction to my snoring, when she doesn’t abandon the bed altogether, sleeping on a mattress in Noah’s room to evade the noise. That is where this bed will go, Noah’s room, once the new one is delivered, the remaking of our house in increments, time pursuing its slow passage, its incursions, conditional yet also lasting, small ripples begetting big movements, change upon change… But I digress.
No, the bed, the old one: We have had it for more than twenty years. Our first substantial purchase in California, and if I can’t remember when, exactly, we switched over from our futon, I do remember it as the heart (or, at least, the ventricle) of everything. Both our children were conceived in this bed, and both were nursed here; both climbed into it when they were sick, or couldn’t sleep. In February, on the afternoon we realized Noah’s eating disorder was going to require more help than we alone could offer, he wept (wept? more like: thrashed and wailed and rent his garments) here on this mattress in his mother’s arms. I holed up in this bed, wrote books and essays, read hundreds of novels, hid from the pressing insistence of the world. There is an alternative to war, John Lennon once declared. It’s staying in bed and growing your hair. He’s not talking about disengaging, and neither am I. For me, bed — this bed — is the place where the purest, most engaged life has taken place, where we reveal ourselves, our vulnerabilities and deepest trustings, where we show each other who we are. I think of John and Yoko, in their pajamas, those hotel rooms in Montreal and Amsterdam, singing songs and painting slogans, and what this tells us about how we mean to be. Private and yet also public … or perhaps the point is that in our public lives our private selves are revealed. It is in this bed, after all, our bed, that I have most exposed myself, that I have been both sick and happy: secure, protected, and yet in the next moment, utterly, existentially alone. In a real dark night of the soul, Fitzgerald writes, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.
Three o’clock in the morning … Fitzgerald’s issues were not the same as mine, but this is something we share. I am often awake at this hour, wrested from sleep by my bladder or my conscience, insistence of an anxiety so deep and pervasive it never quiets even in my dreams. I have trouble falling asleep, have for as long as I can remember, find it not only difficult but also treacherous to navigate that boundary between waking and not-waking, between being here and not. Sleep is like a shore — or no, not a shore, more like the water that laps upon it, an ocean in which I must submerge. At times, it feels like drowning, a backwards tumbling, my head, my face, going under, unable to breathe. We’ve all known this: the startle awake, the sensation of having caught yourself in the midst of falling, disquieting certainty that there is no air in your lungs. I gasp, I swallow, I twist and flail, uncertain for the moment whether I am coming back or falling, now and forever, into something deeper, the slipstream that will carry me to the farther shore.
This is a cliché, I know it, framing sleep in terms of death, le petit mort, (which is, of course, a different sort of trope). And yet, there is something, I think, a sense of surrender or loosening, that terrifies me about both. Terrifies? It’s a strong word to describe my relationship with sleeping — not entirely accurate, but more so, perhaps, than I might want to let on. Some nights, it captures precisely the way sleeplessness metastasizes, as a rising pressure, heightened by the ticking of the clock. My insomnia — if we can call it that; I always get to sleep eventually, always feel the water fold over me like a pair of hands — is at its worst when I have a commitment the next morning, some reason I have to be up and out of the house. It’s not as if I sleep in most other days; usually, I’m awake by 6:30 and writing, trying to take advantage of the quiet hours. But the knowledge that I could were I to need to do so is like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Those other nights … I go through a series of rites and rituals to allay my anxieties. I avoid caffeine, make sure to have a drink, sometimes smoke a little weed. I try to avoid screens, the stimulation of their light, their electricity, their promise that there is something out there that requires my attention, some connection that I need to make. Sleep is about severing connection, from yourself, from the world. Once, a decade and a half ago, I wrote a long piece about dream research, tracing the dynamics of the mind at rest. This was before I began to dread, or worry about, my own sleep, back when I could still routinely slumber the whole night through. This was, in other words, before I created (or exacerbated) the problem by naming it, by giving it a shape and presence in my psyche. Dreams are either meaningless or they aren’t, random expressions of neurons firing or the manifestations of a deeper set of longings and desires. The same might be said about the waking world. I suppose this could be reassuring, the notion that the line between waking and sleeping is indistinct, blurry, but for me, it only makes the apprehension worse. At times, I can hardly tell the difference, slipping into sleep so shallow, I never quite lose sight of myself as a body tossing in a bed.
It’s worse, of course, when I am not in my own bed, when I am in a hotel or a guest room, when I can’t allow myself the consolations of what let’s frame as safety, or at least the comfort of familiar space. I never sleep well the first or last night in a new location: the one a matter of acclimatization, the other of its inverse. I turn off the lights, arrange the pillows — one between my knees, one in my arms, one underneath my head — kick out the covers so they are not tucked in. I push my feet through, leave them uncovered, an emblem of freedom or escape. I am in bed right now, feet crossed in the open air, blanket clustered around my waist. I am tired but it doesn’t matter; were I to roll over, get comfortable, shut my eyes and wait for drift, I would be wide awake in a moment’s time. Awake as in: alert, mind moving, tracing, scanning, seeking an idea on which to settle, a worry to work over like the rough edge of a stone. Awake, as in: aware of the minutes as they pass, slow collapse of distance until morning, the darkness of the night looming like a blank space, an expanse I cannot get across. Partly, I suppose, this has to do with getting older; we sleep less as we age. Still, it is not sleep that concerns me, so much as the moment consciousness lets go. Lets go? No, not this either, for sleeping, dreaming, is a form of consciousness. In that sense, it is utterly unlike death, which I cannot imagine because there is nothing there, I think (fear), to imagine, not a space to traverse but rather an endless emptiness.
On the one hand, it is about control, this back-and-forth of sleeping, not unlike my unwillingness to be put under by anesthesia. Control, control, control — this is the great deception, and how to give it up? How do we fall asleep? What is the mechanism? I lay in bed and wonder, even as I know that this will keep me from my rest. The paradox: The more I worry about sleeping, the more it eludes me, the more I toss and turn and slip into anxiety, as midnight yields to one am. I remember my father, when I was a teenager and would come home late, or wander into the kitchen at three or four in the morning, sitting in a wing chair by the window in the study, reading by a kind of hooded half-light, wide awake in his underwear. Sometimes you just have to give in, he told me one night when I asked what he was doing out of bed. He was right, of course, although this giving in, it cuts both ways. Sometimes, you have to give in to not sleeping, sometimes to allowing sleep to come. I want to say that it’s a matter of comfort, shelter, and it is true that I (almost) always sleep better at home. In bed with Rae, even head to toe, steady whisper of her respiration, warmth of her back, her breath, yeasty smell of her at rest, I feel protected, even from my dreaming, know she will save me (for the moment, anyway) from myself. In a hotel, or someone else’s house, I am alone, but even more than that I am unguarded, left to reveal myself in ways I don’t intend. Sleep is among the most intimate of gestures; it is where we let down our guard. No wonder, then, that I feel most secure in my own bed, girded by the solace of familiars: on the mattress where, in all the ways that matter most, the essence of my adult life has been imagined into being.
And yet, that bed is gone now, moved into Noah’s room (he has moved into his own apartment) while I’ve been away. When I return, it will be to a new mattress, new box spring — higher off the ground, Rae says, and firmer: a new adjustment, familiar and unfamiliar at once. I don’t mean to make too much of physical things, since they, I know, desert us. What else, however, is the physical if not a manifestation of our memories? I feel safe in my bed because it is my bed. Even when I cannot sleep, I feel a touch of (no other way to put it) certainty. That this is an illusion goes without saying, but then, so is everything. It is why I have such trouble letting go.
David L. Ulin is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay; the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award; and The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Tom and Mary Gallagher Fellowship from Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship. He teaches at the University of Southern California.