One a.m., my slumbering brain rousing itself in what was once considered merely a temporary interruption between the first sleep and the second (and summarily outmoded by modernity, clocks, industrialization and a work ethic that neatly compartmentalized our lives into cubbyholes), ears pricked to the sounds of a nocturnal house, Lori beside me breathing with a regularity that defines deep sleep or, as is often the case, Lori off to work and the house empty except for me and the sounds, the popping of ductwork after the air conditioner shuts off, the hum of the refrigerator, assorted creaks and groans that may or may not mean anything but always bring a sense of menace, the red numerals of the digital clock faintly pulsing, electronic intrusions leading me up from the morbid nightmares that plague me as if surfacing from a dark and troublesome pond, but only into another form of somnolence, a purgatory midway between heaven and hell, and on upward until whatever lingering shreds or tatters of sleep are stripped away and I am compelled to rise, one a.m., but there’s hope there, too, time enough to get my bearings before returning to bed for a few more hours of sleep, or the attempt thereof. At one a.m. there are no guarantees, but there are possibilities.
Two a.m. dulls the shine on one a.m.’s possibilities. An hour’s difference unbalances the equilibrium of night. Two a.m. is one a.m. multiplied, amplified, magnified. If I wake at 2 a.m. only sheer stubbornness keeps me anchored to the mattress. But the damage is done: the mind unfolds, no matter the leaden weight dragging down the physical body so that it seems more dead than alive. I imagine deep within the most secretive labyrinths of my brain a small dark cavern with some slithery beast, almost reptilian, slumbering restlessly and fitfully like Smaug in the halls of the Lonely Mountain, and along comes two a.m. firing up neurons and synapses like the throwing of circuit breakers, vast banks of electrical conductors surging to life, pulses of energy arcing through miles of nerves and tendons and muscles and blood vessels, the current surging ever downward to the cavern where the creature stirs and snorts, wakened and none too happy about it, its great singular eye snapping open. And so the doom came upon us... Two a.m. is a monstrous time. But all is not lost. It’s early but not that early. Two a.m. is all about potential.
Three a.m. is Fitzgerald’s dark night of the soul. It’s the halfway point, midway between midnight and six when the day should ideally begin, the point of no return. “At three a.m. everything is overwhelming, against you, doomed, arduous,” Rebecca Solnit writes in the August issue of Harper’s. “Obstacles that look surmountable in the daylight loom like boulders waiting to crush an enfeebled, despondent version of yourself. At that hour you could probably contemplate pancake recipes with terror.” There were so many three a.m. moments during the latter part of the Way We Worked Project that they became ingrained within my circadian rhythms, instilled within my DNA, insistent tocsins impossible to reset, reengineer, refuse. Small, nagging worries blossomed into malignant travesties or perversions of reality capable of eclipsing the most obvious concerns, and yet for all that there were revelatory moments when the emergent mind pierced through clouds of incomprehension to achieve a sort of enlightenment, epiphanic and euphoric. During those all-too fleeting moments my creativity was practically limitless. They were grace notes on the road to oblivion. But they exacted a toll; by mid-afternoon or early evening an inescapable exhaustion would hammer me flat. No matter. The deed is done. Wake at three a.m. and I’m up for the day.
Four a.m. is genteel without being ostentatious. A blessing, on occasion, for the times when nightmares jolt me from bed. Enough broken teeth and bloody gums, or dark alleys swarming with maleficent shadows, or riot shotguns and Stygian midnights wiped blank of stars, and one by necessity reconsiders the purported merits of sleep. Better to stumble through life in a state of torpidity than to claw and scream your way through endless permutations of damnation. And, really, of what use are the shotguns? Motifs or icons for some unnameable wound. I track half-seen movements glueing the front bead on whatever being rises from the void but my fingers turn wooden and stiff no matter the effort expended. Shotguns represent a form of sleep: comforting, imperative, even ineluctable, but ultimately futile. To wake from dreams at four a.m. is redemption. A second chance. Unlike three a.m. when the wakening is reluctant, four a.m. is contentment. I roll from bed with no regrets. Every day should have a four a.m. wakeup.
The funny thing is: every night I set the alarm clock for five-thirty. More a symbolic gesture or suggestion, a target to shoot for in the unlikely case that sleep finally snatches me away, I see it as one of those annoying habits that are so difficult to break, like buying books I’ll never read or sweets I’ll regret eating. I rarely hear the alarm go off. If I do, when I do, I feel cheated somehow, as if I’ve squandered an irreplaceable measure of my time left on earth, and the remainder of the morning is spent trying to catch up. Good grief, life isn’t a race, I keep telling myself, but the words fall on deaf ears. Or, more specifically, ears ringing like brass bells. I’d be more accepting of hearing loss if it were just that and no more, not this continual electric whine that drowns out high notes and some middle notes, extinguishes birds and crickets and coyotes and the best parts of the natural world. It’s not silence I fear but a perpetual submersion into unbearable noise. Sleep dysfunction is no different. It’s not the paucity of sleep I fear but the futility of it. Sometimes I think I’m on the verge of deciphering the meaning or the reasons for the nightmares, but the rest of it makes no sense. Nor do I know where to turn for enlightenment. At three a.m. you ask a lot of questions, but you rarely find answers.
I suppose I’m fortunate that I’m more or less self-employed, other than for the poverty wages. If I had a real eight-to-five I don’t know how I’d manage with my warped nocturnal patterns. Some nights I’m in bed by eight but it usually ranges between ten and midnight; other nights, when Lori’s gone and the house pops and groans and raccoons raid the trashcan and three-inch wood roaches skitter and scritch across the window screens trying to get in and mysterious little noises filter through the incessant buzz to keep me preternaturally alert, it’s not unusual for two a.m. to find me awake. I can’t say I’m at my most productive during those bouts. Usually I can’t read without the words blurring into a tangled mess, and I can’t write without the words becoming an indictment or a belabored whinge. Concentrating on anything is a challenge. Sometimes I wash dishes or clean the kitchen, organize photographs in my Lightroom catalogue, surf the Web, fold clothes, mundane and mindless chores meant to dull my brain into insensibility. That it never accomplishes its goal doesn’t prevent me from doing it over and over and over again. If nothing else, I tell myself, I’m productive; I’m getting things done in spite of being no more than a somnambulant marionette sleepwalking through what passes for a life.
It’s not all bad. There’s an odd sort of freedom associated with living by one’s biological clock, however skewed from the norm. I sleep when I’m tired and rise when I’m not, and in general need only about five hours of sleep per day. Afternoon naps are bonuses when I can fit them in.
Obviously some days are better than others, and I sense a reduction in my ability to think clearly, to reason, make logical connections, that might indicate the stirrings of a greater disability. I increasingly make poor choices especially when alcohol, sweets or processed foods are involved. Midnight snacks become midnight meals. And for the first time in my life I can’t recognize the man staring back at me in the mirror. He’s older, grayer, more fatigued, but more importantly he’s bloated and overweight. He’s missing a tooth and others are broken and filed down. It’s no wonder I have nightmares. Somewhere along the way to my rendezvous with sixty I lost myself, and now I have to find my way back. I need to reconnect. And I think I can do it if I can keep the dragon at bay. Smaug needs his dreams of gold. Me, I just need sleep.