Sunday, September 20, 2009

The shifting nightscape of my insomnia

I sometimes have insomnia, the kind where you find yourself wide awake at 2 am, mind racing.
The river of thoughts that rushes through me at these hours used to be frightening. I would torture myself with a full spectrum of what-ifs, which spun my nerves more tightly with each round, until it was all I could do to lie flat on the mattress. During the first years of our marriage, my poor husband would sigh as I slid out of bed and fled toward the study. There, I would turn on a light and read or write, and wait for a feeling of "normal" to pull me back into my life.

This habit of getting up and doing something became an easy habit for me, and one that only made my insomnia worse. If I could grab a last hour or two of sleep before I showered for work, I felt like I had "slept." To my surprise, I managed; in fact, I thrived during the day. The light itself was a tonic, a revelation that everything was okay. And in the middle of the daylight I marveled at how clean and safe everything seemed. It felt impossible that the shadowy loneliness of my wee hours could coexist with the happy days I experienced. I look back at that time, and I know that I must have propelled myself through the world on sheer nervous energy.

The funny thing is, I never dreaded going to sleep. I loved our room, our home, our cozy life. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, and my dreams were mostly rich and sweet. It was the slow, dark hours I hated, while I worried myself into a frenzy, my mind buzzing at the low frequency of the traffic on the interstate outside our loft.

In college, years before I had my own sleepless nights, I shared a dorm room with a girl who had chronic insomnia. She was the first person I'd ever met who talked about it and accepted it as a part of her life. When I woke to use the bathroom at the end of the hall, the half-light from our window revealed Lisa in the bed across the room, her eyes wide open and fixed on some spot on the ceiling. Almost always, she would roll over on her bed to greet me in strangely chipper yet sotto voice, "Hi Kirie!" Amazingly, sometimes she would start to engage me in conversation, as though I had just returned to the room after a class.
Lisa was probably only 20 years old, but she was as sensible as a real grownup. She never complained, but instead just took her insomnia on her own terms. Her solution: the radio on her Walkman. During those post-midnight hours, she tuned her radio to AM talk radio hosts, and they lulled her off to sleep just before light each day.

Knowing what I know now, I probably would have made a point to waken just to talk to her. The hardest part of my own insomnia was the loneliness. The otherworldly feeling of the wee hours comes not from the darkness so much as the absence of other people. No wonder Lisa welcomed my waking so eagerly. How I would have loved to wake my husband to talk with me on those interminable nights in the loft!

My insomnia pursued me through several moves, the arrival of our oldest daughter, and some practice with meditation. But, by some stroke of grace, once I got into my mid-thirties, the river of thoughts started bringing fewer and fewer anxieties with it as it coursed through my 2am bedroom. The darkness started feeling less oppressive, the dusky forms of our dresser or the curtains less threatening.

I stopped retreating to a lighted room, and resolved to instead feel the night settle around me each time I woke at odd hours. And on many of those nights, something resembling a calm came to me. Sometimes, I would even find that I could get myself back to sleep. By some small miracle, more and more of my nights were spent sleeping. Insomnia has now become only a sometime companion for me, and for that I am grateful.

When the formula in my life is right, the river of thoughts resumes its path through my night room. But bobbing along with it now are ideas, plans, things to puzzle through. When I wake up at 2 am these days, I am not buzzing with what-ifs. I am dreaming of projects, I am mind-writing, I am hearing music in my head. A few weeks ago I even caught myself practicing the fingerings for a song I'm learning on the piano. It is still otherworldly at night, but now the world feels charged with possibility instead of dread.

When I was younger, waking to the knowledge that I was the only one conscious left me gasping. And far from comforting, my husband's rhythmic breathing made me only all the more aware of how far away he was when sleeping, as though he had receded from me and into his dreams. My panic was practically tangible, like a whispered, frantic mantra of "I'm alone! I'm alone! I'm alone!"

Something has shifted since then, certainly. And perhaps it's because I'm distracted by my burgeoning list of projects, but I no longer feel so lonely when I'm up with my thoughts. Or perhaps I feel more secure in my marriage; fifteen years with my soulmate has taught me something more about trust, and I no longer feel he has fled from me in his sleep. The house itself offers its companionship. Far from frightening, the house at night envelops me, welcomes me, and nurtures some excellent ideas for all the things I enjoy making.

There is still the silence, but it is laced with the sounds from the woods outside our window, the foghorn on the bay, the thrum of the cats as the sleep on the bed. When I do want for a facsimile of human interaction, I find I crave voices. Last year, I realized I could, like my old college roommate, listen to stories through headphones, and I started using my ipod during my night wakings.

Hearing the whisper of a storyteller is intoxicating. I've found that with these voices in my ears, I'm soothed to sleep, but at the same time, inspired by the stories themselves. I've been discovering an unexpected energy in the spoken word, an energy that carries over into my perceptions of the next day. And, most surprising, I have actually started relishing my sleepless hours as quiet opportunities to just listen and dream my waking dreams.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Repost: The sky was blue on September 12th, too...

Like so many other people this week, I found myself lost in thoughts of eight years ago, remembering. Indulge me as I take a detour from the tone of my normal postings, and reflect on where I was this week in 2001...

Do you remember how blue the sky was? All along the east coast, it was a stunningly clear day, bright and clean, and a welcome reprieve from the summer. A perfect fall day. Normal, everyday, happy. Until. Until the phone call from my husband that sent me to the television, and we saw the second plane hit.

You know the story from there. We all do. The phone lines were jammed; the news, stammered by reporters as stunned as we were, became an instant addiction. The world tilted for me as the pentagon was hit, then as the impossible happened--the towers fell. I was convinced then that more terrible things really could happen, and would keep happening. Anxiety, not a stranger to me on any day, was overwhelming that afternoon. The day was wrongly beautiful. The sky, eerily silent and empty of any planes, was sharp with blue and cloudless, yet the birds and crickets continued to sing, the sun continued blithely across the sky.
Lines from Auden's poem, Funeral Blues, kept popping into my mind:
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

The sky was perfectly clear on September 12th, too. And I was, admittedly, at a safe remove. I was near Washington DC at the time, but not in it. But "safe" was something I wouldn't feel for a long time. The low drone of fighter jets crossing the sky all night woke me for weeks, and comfort eluded me for much longer.

2974 people died in those attacks that day, and our world did indeed tilt off its comfortable axis. Peace to their souls and their families...

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Because I am learning to focus

I'm learning to focus on what I like to do, and (at least in terms of art/craft), I am going to start delegating the things I don't truly enjoy.

With some shame, I admit it: I don't really enjoy quilting. Well, to be more exact: it's the the quilting part of making a quilt that I don't like: you know, the part where you stitch the top, batting, and back, together. I love the feel of a finely quilted quilt, and I know lots of talented quilters, but I don't enjoy it enough to put in the time to do it well. There. I said it.

I do love making the quilt top. I seem to always come up with a plan for a quilt design, and I have many quilt tops in the works, but doing the actual quilting has been such a task that I've postponed finishing the pieces I've started.

This summer, in the middle of my frenzied organizing/cleaning/refreshing/repainting, I discovered a beautiful quilt I'd made for Ada with the many of the same fabrics from her baby quilt. Above is a photo of the baby quilt, which I did for her while I was waiting for her as a baby. During that waiting time, I had so much frenetic energy that I made dozens of projects for her room, including the twin-sized quilt I found in the armoire this summer. As I examined it again, I realize had made a good start on it, with putting the layers together, and beginning the quilting, but there was a lot of work left on it.

Ada found me with the newly-found and unfinished quilt, and looked at it with such longing. I wanted to finish it for her, but frankly, the idea of cramming it into my machine to try to quilt it left me feeling overwhelmed. Suddenly it came to me: There are people who do this sort of quilting professionally. What if I found someone to do this for me? And guess what?

Ada's quilt was finished by a lovely lady with a longarm machine and a talent for fixing my assembly boo-boos. Ada and I are both really pleased with it. Ada and I worked with Sharon to pick a design for the edges--Ada chose butterflies--and wow!

Now I'm ready to move on to piecing Esme's baby quilt, which has been on hold for, oh, about three years. My new friend Ms. Sharon will be doing the quilting part, and suddenly I feel the inspired energy to pick up that project right away. I think knowing I don't have to spin my wheels with the quilting has made me feel more free to enjoy the process of sewing the patchwork.

What's funny is that feeling okay with delegating is a huge deal for me. I'm a do-it-yourself kind of girl, and delegating runs counter to that. Or maybe not. Because--especially with artwork--if I can peel off a few things that I don't love or that take more time than reasonable--then I will have more time to do things with my husband and girls, and more time to make things and do things that really make my heart sing. With that in mind, I am going to embrace a little delegation so I can really enjoy the work in my hands as much as possible.

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