We humans are a reflective sort, forced every 24 hours to plunge the depths of our subconscious and dream. The universe opens in these few hours, whispers secrets to us that are forgotten mere moments after waking. Some things survive the light of day, an encounter or memory that our subconscious has chosen to draw our attention to.
In my eagerness to dream, to better understand the previous day, it takes me forever to fall asleep. I have to settle into just the right position, my mind fixing on just the right thought, before sleep takes me. It’s such a conscious effort trying to fall asleep that I’ve wasted hours waiting for it.
Despite my more than 32 years of sleeping experience, well-documented on my CV, I still haven’t quite figured out the secret of catching sleep.
Counting sheep, meditation, reading before bed … I’ve tried it all. While reading makes me feel sleepy, to the point where my mind is no longer able to take in the words on the page, we all know that there is a difference between feeling sleepy and actually getting to the point where sleep comes easily. It rarely if ever comes easily for me.
Finally falling asleep is a battle won, but the war continues. Sleeping through the night is an increasingly rare event. My bladder will awaken me and demand my attention. Do I accede to its demands and repeat the whole “trying to sleep” thing when I return from the bathroom, or do I ignore it in the hope that it will let me sleep through the night?
Other than being mercifully able to keep from wetting myself, I have little control over my body when I’m sleeping. I’ll hit my partner in the face with an out-flung arm, I’ll hog the blanket, I’ll toss and turn so violently that the sheets are in complete disarray the next morning.
I’ll wake up, a finger in my nose, and will quickly look around to see whether there are any conscious witnesses.
An idea, a no-doubt great idea, will reveal itself in a dream but in my second moment of consciousness the details will have already begun fading. From the edges this erosion quickly picks up speed, so that by the time I’ve gotten out of bed to try and stumble towards the desk to record the thought — my mind struggling to issue commands to my body — it will have dissolved so that only an afterimage remains … a vague, incomplete recollection.
Like chasing after a departing train that’s gradually picking up speed, so my dreams flee when I try to catch them.
Some nights I’ll return from the bathroom, trying once again to assume a sleep-friendly position, and my brain will seek to fill the void left by these escaped dreams with new thoughts. Thoughts I have no control over. They come as I lie there — first on my back, then on my side, finally on my stomach — until they’ve multiplied and assembled themselves into battalions, each equipped with little daggers that they stab into me the moment I start to drift off.
In these moments I feel like a soldier caught behind enemy lines whom those enemies are attempting to wring a confession out of.
Alright! I confess! What do you want to know?
The thoughts that come in these small hours are strikingly sharp, and I’m highly sensitive to each remark uttered the previous day, the previous month, last year. I bat each one away, or stuff it back down the throat of the person who uttered it. Doing this makes me feel better, until I realize it’s an illusion, that my mind is just showing me a cruel film reel of events that have already played out, have already been inscribed onto my memory.
The first time I’d listened to those remarks but did the “civil” thing and ignored them. Oh, how I hate civility on these sleepless nights. How I wish I could wind back the clock, dab poison on my tongue, and speak these killing words.
But no, the only way of rewriting the past is to write it down. To heal, to get justice, I need those thoughts written down, at my fingertips, where they can’t hide behind a curtain, leaving me frustrated at my failure to remember. In my frustration I’ll try to follow the train of thoughts that led me here, back down the track, until a new track appears, diverging from the main one, and then another, and another, until I no longer know where I or the thought originated.
Talk of trains and memories has brought to mind my very first train ride.
The first train I ever took was on the wrong train. It was 2007 and I had left America for the first time and found myself, on my own, in Germany. I had arrived the previous evening and booked a room at a hostel across the street from the central train station.
I’d stayed up late chatting with some people I’d met at the hostel and slept past my alarm the next morning. I had booked a train to Koblenz where I would then take a cruise down the Rhine. Now I was at risk of missing it. I hurriedly gathered my things and checked out.
I arrived at Frankfurt’s central station the moment my train was supposed to leave. Not having the time to look, I hopped aboard the train on the very first platform I came to. It was a jump, a literal “leap” of faith, based on nothing more than the fact that it was leaving right then and my train was also due to leave right then.
There was no time to think twice. The whistle blew and I jumped. This train and my train had become the same.
Not a soul was aboard. I walked through each carriage and found no one. Not even a conductor.
When the train finally stopped it did so in a covered train yard. Through the window sat a group of men playing cards. One of them must have said something because a man who’d had his back to me turned and met my gaze. He was clad in blue overalls, a cigarette hanging between his lips. He turned back to his cards and I was forgotten.
I followed the tracks back. It was early still. I returned to the hostel but no one was at the reception desk.
Having already turned over my key, I knocked on the door to the dorm room I’d stayed in. A fellow who’d been learning the secrets of the universe mere moments before opened it. I laid back on the bed where I’d slept the previous night.
That, maybe, was the one time I can remember where sleep really did come easily.
I woke up to the cleaning lady vacuuming the room. It was midday and everyone else had already left. She gave me a hard look. Perhaps she thought I was some bum off the street who’d managed to get a free bed for the night.
That night I was due to take another train, this one an overnighter to Prague. I got to the station an hour early to be sure I didn’t miss it.
I missed that one too.
I went back to the hostel to await the next train to Prague, at 6:22 am. The people I’d stayed up talking to the previous night were there again. Surprised, they nevertheless made room for me at their table. I didn’t sleep that night, but I finally caught the train.
Back in 2018, I’ve gotten up and moved into the kitchen. The night is still black, but I can hear them through the window.
They don’t sing but utter low, terrible squawks, mocking my attempts to assemble something worthy out of my insomnia.