I sent an email to a friend several weeks ago at three in the morning. It seemed reasonable enough to me. In fact, it was necessary. I had been talking with Dr. K for a couple of days about how a friend’s husband had undergone surgery on his right arm. Dr. K suggested it would be nice to reach out to her and see how he was doing. Particularly since my friend’s husband’s surgery had spanned two days.
I had been berating myself because I had forgotten to send the email. “How thoughtless!,” I told myself. “You should have sent that email yesterday!”
So I sent it right there and then, at three in the morning, from the darkness of my bed. An arm, seemingly disconnected to the rest of me, grasped for my cellphone to send the note. The disembodied fingers typed the phantom thought while I watched in detached amazement: how did the fingers access the cell phone to begin with?
Of course, it was all a dream.
There had been no surgery for two days. There had been no surgery at all. My friend responded several hours later, her confusion evident. Had I perhaps been thinking of another friend?
I replied that I hadn’t. And I said, “Well, that was quite the dream.”
As a lifelong insomniac, it’s a word I don’t want to look at, much less think about. The word is an evil totem, one that, if voiced, can curse nights of sleep going forward. Insomnia, the bane of human reason, defined in the dictionary as the “abnormal inability to get enough sleep,” is a word that can excoriate existence.
There are plenty of warnings about the effects of sleeplessness based on sleep studies, stories of the ills that can afflict the human body when we don’t get enough sleep. Decreased tolerance of pain. Inability to focus on work resulting in reduced productivity. In Japan, workers suffer from chronic overwork, with increasing incidences of karoshi. This doesn’t mean you’re heading to your favorite karaoke bar after knocking off work. It means death from working too much. Americans may not be all that far behind.
Simply reading about the human failure to sleep is frightening because we have failed at doing what nature requires.
But as much as I fear the possibility of insomnia, at times my dreams bring their own concerns.
Consider dogs. We are admonished to let a sleeping dog lie.
You know what happens if you touch a sleeping dog? I’m often tempted to do it. They’re so cute, lying there. Each of our collies have a bed in the kitchen because that’s the place where we live. After spending their day chasing away bunnies, barking at birds who have the nerve to fly over collie territory without requesting security clearance, and maintaining bark patrol over the neighborhood, Flopsy and Mopsy are tired. Relaxed in their somnolence, they have abandoned consciousness. Their paws run, paddling air, in search of that elusive stray sheep. What might happen should they encounter it, carelessly nibbling the grass of the neighbor’s pasture — or today’s lawn?
In real life, when awake, Mopsy is a relatively pleasant dog. It’s true, she barks a lot. But realize, she has an important job to do as neighborhood watchdog.
But when the collies are in this relaxed state of dogdom, that’s when I want to stretch out beside them to cuddle. For the most part, they don’t seem to mind. But when startled out of a particularly deep sleep, Mopsy tends to jump. She gathers herself, jolted from the pastoral place in which she wanders, transforming into a tense and snarling mass of unfriendly fur, snapping at whoever treads unknowingly across her dreams.
As an insomniac, I obsessively scroll through topics while trying to fall asleep.
And like Mopsy, the biggest problem I have when trying to channel sleep is my brain. It refuses to shut down — there are pop-up windows indicating that certain programs and applications are stuck. Word processing is particularly demonic, as are photos. They are tied in to each other, and invariably as I sort through stories, I have to engage the manual Force-Quit.
But a most curious thing about your mind is what happens when your brain begins to shut down. At first running in circles, your brain caches data while grasping at meaning. It analyzes, sorts, and categorizes what it knows must be processed before the next step can be taken. It seeks answers to questions you surely should have tackled before preparing dinner — answers which you should have filed away by the time you’ve consumed two glasses of wine.
In sleep, one might think the human brain is the equal of a dog’s. And as you settle into sleep, paws paddling air, your brain is in search of that elusive sheep. On any given night, you may find yourself settling into a close-eyed planning session with a staff of one with intermittent breaks spent in the bathroom, acknowledging how futile it is to seek the glory of sleep. Because we all know just how important it is to save Timmy from the well. Those nights are when insomnia reigns.
Except there are those elusive nights when the dream magic happens.
There are the nights when the words which have failed me by day miraculously writ themselves large across my sleeping brain. They are the nights when impressions, inscrutable in daylight, are illuminated when censorship falls away. Those are the nights when you make movies, write books, and concoct myths.
At times, those are the nights when you send phantom emails to friends who are confused by your abstraction.
And yet, ever in search of creativity, the little missteps are worth it. Even when they occur in dreams.