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If you enjoy hearing Kathryn Eastburn’s column “The Middle Distance” on KRCC and The Big Something each week, please consider becoming a member, renewing or inviting a friend who has yet to join. Thank you!
Sit across the table with any woman over 55 and mention the word ‘sleep.’ Now watch her eyes glaze over and her expression go flat.
The woman in question remembers sleep, that pre-menopausal luxury, the delicious feeling of fading away from consciousness, entering dream land and awaking refreshed, eight hours later. But the memory grows faint as the years go by and sleep becomes as elusive as the possibility of learning Russian or Chinese.
Out here in the middle distance, my sleep life consists of fitful entry, abrupt premature awakening at the ghostly hour of 3 a.m., and a few hours of thin rest that feel like an interminable silent conversation with myself: Yes, the dog has had his shots. No, I have not started working on my taxes. Yes, the children all seem relatively happy. No, I haven’t written thank you notes. Oh, the sun is up. No, I’m not ready to get up. It’s too cold. I’m too warm. Water the plants. Is there a God? You haven’t exercised in three days. This is the senseless chatter of the insomnolent mind.
I have tried Valerian and oral doses of melatonin. I’ve tried herbs and tonics and teas and warm milk and eye masks. I have invoked prayer and meditation, breathing and counting techniques, and there have been times of high psychological stress when I have turned to Ambien and have slept the punch-drunk sleep of the medicated. But natural, easy sleep, the sleep that I crave, has eluded me for nearly ten years and, frankly my dear, I’m getting tired of it.
Last night at 3 a.m. when my eyes flew open and I jerked awake, I tried to come up with a strategy. I have a friend, a writer, who works every night from midnight till 6 a.m., then sleeps until 2 in the afternoon. He rarely sees a morning but hikes high in the mountains nearly every afternoon. I consider his strategy and decide it won’t work for me.
I read and doze, read and doze, then finally give up on the book and close my eyes, trying to remember the best sleep of my life. The sleep of pregnancy, heavy as an anvil. Afternoon naps when the kids were small and the house grew quiet for two glorious hours. Adolescent sleep, desperate sleep stretching past noon to one, two o’clock. As my eyes grow heavy, I remember the best sleep ever, the summer of the paper route.
My friend David has a morning paper route and a borrowed convertible. He picks me up every night around 9 and we go and hit golf balls on the lighted night course in Memphis, the trees and grass abuzz with crickets and cicadas and frogs. We go midnight bowling at the Summer Avenue lanes with night-owls and speed freaks, chain-smokers and beer drinkers knocking back six packs between crashing strikes and spares.
Finally, at 3 a.m. we go and pick up our banded stacks of papers, The Commercial Appeal. We fold and rubber-band them, and head for the neighborhood of David’s route. The night is cool and I sit perched like a beauty queen atop the passenger seat. David drives slowly and hands me papers, and I fling them onto the dew-drenched lawns. Occasionally I throw one in the bushes and have to get out and retrieve it. Except for the distant baying of an occasional backyard dog, our voices, and soft R&B on the radio, the world is perfectly silent. The sun comes up just as we are finishing and we drive home as housewives in cotton robes and businessmen adjusting their ties emerge from their kitchen doors to retrieve their newspapers.
I go to bed at 6 and sleep the sleep of youth, the sleep of the dead. The day heats up and my room grows warm and I sleep. Toilets flush and doors slam and the television drones, and I sleep. I sleep until I am stiff and sore with sleep, and finally drag myself out of bed sometime in the late afternoon.
The sun is up and I am dreaming of sleep, remembering that free-fall into darkness. But it is 7:30 and the dog needs letting out. I pull on socks and a sweater and we tread down the creaky stairs. I open the front door to the chilly blast of morning and he bounds toward a blue plastic bag on the front walk. He picks up the morning paper and brings it to me. Time to face the day.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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