When I was writing a book eight years ago, I engaged in a temporary mode of living that was hyper focused and backwoods boring. I would rise every day at about 5:30 am, work in a determined fashion until noon, eat, exercise, see an old movie at a nearby theater or meet a friend, eat, and then be in bed by 8:45 pm. I’d listen to an old radio story while I read a blog or two, then fall asleep by 9:30 pm.
At about two am, I’d wake up. Or rather, I’d open my eyes and find myself in a state that felt a lot like wakefulness, but not quite. I’d have a highly sensitive perception of the dark room I was in, but no sharp awareness that I was no longer asleep. It was an odd, placid form of being awake; more aware but less alert. There was no tug of tiredness trying to pull me back under, nor any restless notion to get up or turn on a light. It was a ripe sentience that allowed clear but limited thought and wanted stillness.
I was experiencing segmented sleep, something that was as normal as defecating outside up until about 150 years ago. It’s as close to Lincoln as I’ll get. (Segmented sleep, I mean.) Evolution probably created it so we could listen for predators, count the younglings and tend to a dying fire. Internet porn is a more recent use.
During the hour between “first sleep” and “second sleep,” sometimes I’d write in a notebook without a light, sightlessly recording some marginal thought I would never reference. Or click on a radio play. Or just concentrate, trying to recall a sequence of music notes I heard when I was drifting to sleep a few hours earlier.
The music has been happening more frequently in the last decade. In the minutes before losing consciousness, I’ll occasionally hear a symphony score roiling with colors and textures, deep strings and clean horns. Every score seems different. Since I’m not fully asleep, I still have that molecule of live reasoning to wonder if the music is original or would be tonal gibberish if I heard it in daylight. Trying to recall it is meditative and challenging and melancholy at the same time, like eating an imaginary slice of cheese.
I lived in the lockstep mode that yielded segmented sleep for four months in 2006. It suited me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. There were no swings, including the kind that adds variety to life. Gluttony felt repulsive. Sleep was good, but never the sweet coma-like convalescence you enjoy after boozing or pulling an all-nighter. The occasional beer or wine had magnified taste and heft, rather than just being the strange water taken at every meal. Food lost the ability to deliver joy or disappointment; it was appreciated calories and all dirty plates looked agreeably the same.
It was a repetitive existence without angst, agitation or excitement, the kind that spits out one bale of hay for every thousand metronome tocks without any reflection or relief in finishing. Frustration and satisfaction never climb above three on a ten scale because neither can bloom for more than a few minutes. It’s precisely the existence we’ve been told is a living death by self-helpy types and economists. (I don’t think I made one clothing or gadget purchase during those four months.)
It was the definition of nearly single-minded simplicity, which is very hard to indulge in if you’re not childless or independently wealthy. Life circumstances rarely allow this kind of living. Or maybe they’re always conspiring to compel it, but we refuse to give up the fight for complexity.
Second sleep made a brief return visit in October 2012, when I was without electricity for five days in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It’s impossible to do anything by candlelight other than screw or plot war, so I started nodding off an hour after sundown and waking at dawn. By day four it was as if I had been doing this my entire life. Then the lights, radio, microwave and clocks exploded on all at once at four am on a Saturday morning, thank God, and complexity flourished again.
I’m in that mode of lockstep living again. Working on a book. Part of me feels pathetic for dropping off to sleep at 9:30 pm; another part feels pathetic for not doing so for the last 35 years. Second sleep has returned. Laying in bed with fingers folded at three am, hearing faint arguments and distant train whistles probably an hour’s walk away, wishing the occasional bed partner was in sync with me but also content to be alone, it’s a sensation I’ve never known well enough to miss. I hope it sticks around for a longer spell this time. I hope I figure out what it has to teach this time around.
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