I don’t sleep much anymore. 

Used to be I kept a strict bedtime; 9:45 would roll around and, like clockwork, my eyes would start to droop. At 10 p.m., my friends would chuckle as I yawned and they knew the evening was drawing to a close. Nearly every night for the past two years, I was tucked snug in bed by 10:30. 

I have never been a night owl, preferring quiet mornings to late nights since I was a kid. Sleeping out in the yard after midnight was a time to see the Milky Way and hear the coyotes howl, but otherwise mostly to sleep. I relish being up with the sun and ready to start the day, though my bedtime has often been the subject of the friendly ribbing that’s the expected side effect of keeping the sleep schedule of an old lady.

But in the past four months, I can’t remember a night that I fell asleep by midnight, and I’ve rarely slept through the night at all. It doesn’t help that we got a new dog over the summer, who is pretty much guaranteed to bark every time she wakes up in the night, or that one of my housemates (an eighth-grade English teacher) is up and bustling about at 4 a.m. most mornings. 

When I started replying to the group chat (full of 2 a.m. conversations that I usually ignored) after midnight, my friends were suspicious, and then concerned: 

Have you tried tea? Yes. 

What about a shower before bed, instead of in the morning? Sure. 

Meditation, melatonin? It’s stress, it’s just stress. 

Sometimes I just stare at my ceiling for hours, restless but exhausted. I message my friends who are up working on homework or, like me, just sleepless. We send memes and talk about mental health, take personality quizzes with titles like Which Tudor Wife Are You?

I’ve become an expert at filling the time with late-night books, knitting, the occasional Netflix binge, and lots of podcasts turned down low so they don’t wake the rest of the house. Recently, I was catching up on my RadioLab episodes, and was … comforted (maybe that’s the word I’m looking for) to know that insomnia has been on the rise around the world since March. 

The episode from September 25 is titled Insomnia Line, and it shares stories of insomnia from around the world. RadioLab staff opened their phone lines from 2 to 6 a.m. and heard a range of explanations and reactions to sleeplessness. Some were anguished, missing loved ones. Others felt lonely or helpless, angry or afraid or uncertain. Many reflected on the big, scary things that keep people up at night: thoughts of COVID, systemic racism, or the climate crisis.

For me, I often find myself tossing around my fears in the silence of the night. Shedding a few tears when I think of  my family far away, lamenting all the milestones that I had wished for but have come and gone without proper recognition in the last seven months: graduation, birthdays, funerals, seasons slipping away. My heart aches with quiet loneliness. 

I keep a candle on my nightstand, a gift from an old friend, that holds a tea light. Often I light the candle and watch it burn until the tea light flickers into darkness and the faint scent of smoke tells me the candle has reached the end of its life. Sometimes I pray. Once, feeling trite, I laid in bed for hours listening to Paul Simon’s Insomniac’s Lullaby; I hoped to bore myself to sleep with the same song on repeat, an idea which actually worked—eventually. 

But the other group of people who called RadioLab in the wee hours of the morning were almost giddy to be awake after midnight. Glad for the sound of birds or the sight of stars. Seizing their time, when the rest of the world is sleeping. Reflecting on their blessings and looking forward to the next day. 

I find myself in that category too—relishing the end of a great book, sipping a glass of red wine late into the night. When I’m awake and bored, especially when I want to feel busy, I really like to cook: I’ve pulled cinnamon rolls out of the oven at 3 a.m., whipped up batches of cookies and biscotti and baked countless loaves of bread. Once, I spent the night delighting in the tactile joy of making pasta from scratch, because why the heck not?

I often write—this post is the product of an after midnight inspiration—or journal. Once, while housesitting in August, I blasted Dolly Parton through the house and had my own personal, clandestine-feeling dance party. I breathe deeply and write snail-mail letters to second graders I used to teach in Sunday school, back when we had Sunday school, and make secret lists of hopes and dreams behind my sleepless eyelids. 

The RadioLab episode ended with lullabies and a meditation from a five-year-old, without an answer to the insomnia and exhaustion that plague so many, but trying to recognize the beauty of the darkest hours of the night. It’s an episode worth listening to, whether you sleep well or (like me) are starting to look like a racoon from the dark circles under your eyes. 

Almost despite myself, I’m finding that I do enjoy the quiet, the darkness. That’s always been why I liked the early morning, especially living with roommates: the solitude. And perhaps after spending so many years certain that after midnight was a time for sleep and secrets, the thick veil of darkness is becoming less murky and more magical. 

3 Comments

  1. Courtney Zonnefeld

    This is really lovely, Lillie! You capture the atmosphere of sleepless nights so well— both loud and quiet, meaningful and dull. And I enjoy how you’ve woven in the Radiolab episode, too.

    Reply
  2. Geneva Langeland

    I listened to that Radiolab episode at the opposite end of 3am insomnia: while laying on my porch in the sunshine of a gorgeous autumn noon. I closed my eyes and drifted along with the meditation, imagining traveling beside a 5-year-old astronaut. It was lovely, and so is this post.

    Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    This is one of those posts that I have difficulty relating too. I’ve always been able to sleep on command. Anytime, anywhere. And I love staying up past midnight. I’ve stayed awake until 5 a.m. some nights, then slept.

    But I do find it beautiful trying to come to terms with your struggle. Trying to find meaning and beauty. That I can totally get behind.

    Reply

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