“You just made friends with the night, that’s what you did.”
Philip Glass described the old overnight B&O train between Baltimore and Chicago. He traveled the route as a young student, long before an ever-accessible interconnected cyberworld arrived–before even the minimal distraction of being able to traverse the train for a snack or see fellow travelers. The lights went off at night.
In some of his music you still can hear his soundtrack for those long hours of darkness: the rhythmic contact of wheels on tracks, the metallic clacking and shusshing exhale. After decades as a composer and musician Glass still hears it: “It’s built into the way I listened then and it’s still there.”
I had developed insomnia by the age of ten, plagued by ruminations about the world and its troubles.
I only fitfully slept through my husband’s Jim illness and for long after his death. I would awaken suddenly to vivid nightmares–though certainly no more nightmarish than what Jim faced during his last weeks. As terrible and numbing as were the days, I remained unable or unwilling to surrender my thoughts to the black river of night.
Jim never had any issue with sleep.
When still fighting the dark, it is difficult to overstate the envy with which life-long insomniacs regard those who can simply close their eyes and welcome refreshing sleep. My envy extends even to animals–beagles who curl their warm bodies against each other and slumber in patches of sun, cats snuggling into any available nook, cranny, or human appendage and conking out. I’ve never seen an animal wake up in a panic.
“How do you do that?” I asked Jim, not infrequently.
His trademark smile: “I sleep the sleep of the just.”
Now, finally, when I can’t get to sleep or I wake up long before dawn, I’ve learned to listen. Night is never completely silent any more than it is pure black. Sometimes it has gradations of blue and violet and gold long before a sliver of sunrise appears on the horizon. A brilliant white moon can lighten night’s dark silhouettes into a milky gray-white.
When the lights are off and others sleep, night has its own melodies and rhythms–none of which I’d know if I weren’t awake in the dark in the place where my husband’s death left me.
Bird calls signal the season and the weather. In my new neighborhood, two unusually melodic wind chimes ring in even a light breeze. My own ceramic Noah’s ark chimes tap against the clapboards outside my window only when the wind moves Northeast at a thunderous clip.
The soundtrack is no longer asphalt silence and the vista is not impenetrably black. I realize that it never was.
I’m learning to make friends with the dark.