Tossing and Turning

‘While pensive poets painful vigils keep
Sleepless, to give their readers sleep.’

J.S. Porter

I can’t sleep.

And if I can’t handle the daily little sleeps, how am I going to handle the big sleep that’s coming? These little sleeps are but a foretelling of that, and a preparation.

Mother says I have a guilty conscience. Maybe I’ve committed a crime somewhere, some time, for which there is no expiation.

Wife says I don’t work hard enough during the day.

Son says I’ve got too much on my mind.

Daughter says I’m a control freak and have to stay up half the night to make sure she gets home okay.

I don’t know.

Maybe I still harbour the child’s fear that, if he closes his eyelids, the lids may not open again. Maybe I have an agitated mind. Maybe in the wiring of the electric city, no one sleeps any more. I just know that, on too many nights, sleep is as hard come by as apples in the Congo.

I’ve tried hot baths, sheep counting, soft music, gentle sex, light reading — all to no avail. Somewhere around 4 in the morning, whether I’ve been active or sedentary, my eyes close, as immune to my will as growing grass.

One side benefit of sleeplessness, though, is an ever-expanding sympathy for all those with problematic eyelids, those who greet the dawn red-eyed and bagged, those whose turbulent psyches will not allow them prolonged rest. I’ve learned to look with kindness on tossers and turners, and on all those in 24-hour coffee shops still defying dawn.

My Irish mother has an obsession with sleep, as the Irish generally do. “Did you sleep?” is that island’s favourite question next to, “It’s not going to rain, is it?” Years ago, I remember babysitting my nephew and my mother inquiring every few hours by phone, “Has he gone over yet?” as if he were leaving this planet for a better one. Ma and I share a love of sleeping children, sleeping dogs: all so relaxed, so trusting, so totally abandoned to the mercy of restorative sleep.

I love looking at paintings of the sleeping. Two paintings in particular haunt me. The first, by Henri Rousseau, is called The Sleeping Gypsy. A man with staff in hand, shrouded in a Joseph coat-of-many-colours, lies on smooth-stone ground with his head on a rainbow pillow. A lion is on one side of him, a vase and a lute on the other. Behind him are water and mountain. Above him, a blue sky and a white moon. He sleeps serenely in the surround of benign spirits.

The second painting is called Sun and Moon, by Paul Klee. It features a whimsical angel looking up into a black sky incongruously spotted with a red sun and a yellow moon. Despite the blackness of the sky, the painting telle me not to worry. Everything is okay.

The angel and the gypsy have no trouble sleeping; they’ve successfully “gone over.” Why can’t I?

I’ve been a long-time collector of insomniac literature, seeking out the sleepless wherever they lay their restless heads. Ernest Hemingway’s Now I Lay Me is one of the classics. Like Signor Tenente, insomniacs everywhere lie awake all night listening to silkworms gnawing on mulberry leaves.

Raymond Carver’s stories are also full of the sleep-deprived. The wife in The Student’s Wife, for instance, tries reading and being read to, snacks, conversation, prayer, begging, looking out the window. Nothing works.

On the other hand, Jerome Weidman’s My Father Sits in the Dark makes the act of not going to sleep a contemplative epiphany. The somnolent dad doesn’t want to go to bed; he enjoys the quiet and the dark, his dreamtime. Like Hemingway’s compassionate waiter in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, he chooses wakefulness over sleep.

Sometimes I, too, sit drowsily alone at night in a dark room, sipping wine, just me and my retriever, thinking, reading, dreaming, avoiding bed, thinking of my sleepless brothers and sisters thumbing Gideon Bibles on wrinkled sheets.

There’s a kind of brotherhood of the sleepless, a fraternity not based on merit or crime, but on a shared affliction. There’s a special kingdom for those, like fish, whose eyes seldom close, who want to keep on seeing even when the lights have gone out.

The kingdom resides somewhere between dusk and dawn; it holds in its arms all those who seek night’s mercy.

J.S. Porter is one of Hamilton’s insomniacs.


  • Originally printed in The Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments, Friday, October 22, 1999.

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