So I’ve been sleeping bad again.
I don’t know quite what it is with this brain I’ve got …
When I was a kid, I lived for my dreams, for bedtime. I used to have the most magnificent dreams. Dreams where the whole world was made of candy, or money, or clouds, or zippers. Where monkeys and lions came tearing through my house and brought me with them to live in the pine trees out back. Just like in “The Jungle Book.”
And I kept on sleeping so crazy hard and long throughout my teenage and early-adult years. It was sort of my hobby, and went particularly well with my other primary hobby, which was Pot Smoking. When I got mono freshman year of college, I clocked 12 hours of sleep a night for months and months on end. It was like a drug. Books and sleep, every day. My senior year, thanks to a quirk in scheduling that intersected very neatly with a bout of profound, post-semester-abroad laziness, I was able to sleep until 1 p.m. every single day, and I did so with gusto. The sleeping became so excessive, in fact, that I started to have bizarre lucid dreams from which I was unable to rouse myself, much to my ire and occasional panic. It was as if the Dream State had become my Modus operandi. The place where I felt more real, and life, merely the interlude. As a young adult, I reined in that copious slumbering, but I must admit I did turn my nose up at several perfectly viable career options solely because they would have required me to rise before 8 a.m.
In my mid-20s, though, it all went to hell. A few crap Life Lessons knocked me on my ass while I was living in Asia, and sleep deserted me. I grew to dread the nighttime. The windows of my apartment in Korea had bars on them and looked out onto a brick wall, with just the smallest sliver of sky visible way up at the top of the frame, if I craned my head just right. Late, late, late those nights, I’d set my eyes on that little patch of flinty gray as I wrestled with my monsters. The nights became interminable. Unending.
I was able, eventually, through sheer stubbornness and the prodding of friends and the assistance of some Korean-strength sleeping pills, to foist myself back into the company of the sentient and the mostly sane, but although I got on with the mess of living, that blissed out, somnolent girl I used to be did not accompany me into my brave new future.
‘Which, I might add, has been an invariably good one. Because I know how this is sounding. It’s not that I’m unhappy. It’s not that I’m plagued by anxiety and unease. Life feels, more and more each year for me, so unbelievably upshot and worth it. It’s just that no matter what I try, I sit up and I blink at the ceiling and I kick my legs and I search endlessly for a cool spot on the pillow, and I toss and turn so wildly that I’ve given up completely on even using a top sheet. If I am sharing my bed with someone, I’ll sometimes listen to them sleep instead of doing it myself. Because this brain of mine just will not shut up.
I heard this story once about a man who had a completely photographic memory. That is, he remembered every single thing he ever heard or did or saw or said. Ever ever. As a young adult, he became a popular traveling sideshow act for his feats of memorization. They’d prop him up on stage and let the audiences have at him. People would call out strings of numbers to him and marvel at his ability to repeat them flawlessly. He’d learn each one of their names in a single go. They’d read him a passage out of some novel or other and listen, stunned, as he parroted pages and pages back at them. He could go on forever, without a single mistake.
But as years passed and all those crystalline memories piled one atop the other, each distinct and noisy and scissor-sharp, this guy started to lose it. There were just too many thoughts arguing for primacy in that brain of his, each second at a time, every one so undeniably corporeal and just right there. Just the name of a gone-away person or a place, or maybe a certain look or a whisper of a smell on the wind, would set that mental hurricane a’blowing inside of him and he’d find himself paralyzed by the rush of memories, over and over. He didn’t know which thing to recall when, with all that Is-ness grabbing away so clamorously. It became too much and so this man gave up his traveling and his showboating and his crack at fame, and opted instead for a life of chaotic obscurity.
Sometimes, when it’s late and I can’t sleep and the clock starts banging out those shivery, single-digit hours and I find myself groping in the darkness for an existential life preserver, I’ll think about that man, and how he must have felt.
I do not, even by the most generous definitions, have a photographic memory. But I sure do remember a lot. If I’ve known you long, chances are, I could repeat to you, word-for-word, conversations we had 15 or 20 years ago. I might remember what you wore, too, and where we were standing, and what the weather looked like. And if you ever embarrassed or dissed me, I definitely remember it very well, and am probably still sore about it. I also have this terrible habit of memorizing movies and books and songs after a few times through, whether I like it or not, and sometimes late at night I’ll find myself running through these totally inane and meaningless reels of dialogue, over and over. Just to see. When I was a kid, my siblings hated watching movies with me because I would recite all the lines along with the actors, or, worse, call them out just a few seconds ahead.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I suspect I can’t sleep because I’m too busy remembering. Whether I want to or not.
There’s an old Counting Crows song (yeah, shut up) that goes: “The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings.”
That’s the thing, isn’t it? You can’t remember something without also being forced to reckon with the sea of meaning in which that thing is contained. With how you explained it to yourself then, or how you explain it to yourself now. With the Why of it, and the What Came Next. Every comet’s got a tail dragging along behind it. Sometimes a rather long and prickly one.
Perhaps the strongest argument for the universality of this niggling truth is how frequently it’s used as a plot device in movies and books. Think “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The way we remember unendingly, how it pains us mightily to have to do so. And that big, hard question left congealing on your plate at the very end: what would you trade for absolute peace of mind? Would I rather be that serene and stupefied 21-year-old me, so in love with my dreams I can barely wake up? The Great Unwashed, with so many things good and bad still to happen?
Instead, as I’ve grown, I’ve come to view the waking world in perhaps its truer configurations: It is beautiful, but also sometimes baleful, and full of inconceivable possibility. It aggregates ceaselessly, so much that you can’t help but amass a psychic tail as the miles gather behind you. So many stories, and good or bad, for that I sleep like shit.