“Lately I’ve been waking up at 3 a.m.,” a friend admitted in a group email last month.
It was only a passing comment; we were talking about when we find time to read, and she confessed to snatching an hour here and there during her nocturnal wakings. But the 3 a.m. comment caused a quiet thump of recognition, because for months, I have been waking in the night, too. A flurry of responses from the group confirmed it: we’re not the only ones.
I think it started for me last summer, as I switched jobs, moved to a new apartment and grieved over several national tragedies. It has continued, off and on, through the fall and winter: the election and its fallout, significant stress at work, many other challenges in my life and the lives of people I love.
Late at night, I often find myself in bed with my journal and a pen in hand, pushing my glasses up on my nose. I keep the lamp on after my husband rolls over and closes his eyes, trying to write my way toward a peaceful place, taking deep breaths so I can turn out the light and head for sleep.
Some nights I can dive into a book, lose myself in a good story or some luminous poetry. Other nights, I need to trace the swirling thoughts, get them out of my brain and onto the page. Then I can try to sleep. But I often – though not always – end up wide awake, at some ungodly single-digit hour of the night.
My friend lives six time zones away, and our fellow nighttime wakers are scattered across the country, but it still comforted me, somehow, to know I wasn’t alone in this. The next few times I woke up in the middle of the night, I lay listening to the whir of traffic outside, thinking of my friends, wakeful in their houses, in Illinois or North Carolina or Maine. It made me feel better to picture their faces, even though I knew the fact of our communal waking wouldn’t solve anything for any of us.
Madeleine L’Engle, one of my patron saints, begins her memoir The Irrational Season with a similar image: the silhouette of Madeleine herself, standing at the window of her apartment on the Upper West Side, holding a mug of hot bouillon on a dark morning in early winter. She peers out the blinds to the street that is never quite silent, the building across the way whose lights never all go out at once. She sips her bouillon, savoring her small rebellion against the tyranny of the clock. “I enjoy these occasional spells of nocturnal wakefulness,” she says. “And I am never awake alone.”
I’m not always so sanguine about my own nocturnal waking, though sometimes I can turn over and fall back asleep, or think about something comforting (including my friends, awake in their own houses). Sometimes I get up for a drink of water, walking around the wicker chest at the end of our bed, down the darkened hallway and glancing out the bathroom window, at the streetlights one block over, or a winking star. (After eight months in this apartment, I can finally walk through it in the dead of night without crashing into anything.)
“I do not think we talk enough about how every one of us / Has shuffled around the house in the middle of the night / Worried,” Brian Doyle says, in a poem aptly titled “Three in the Morning.” A few lines later, he adds wryly, “Sometimes there is zero / To be done except shuffle around wearily.”
Sometimes, I might add, there’s not much to be done except lie there a while, taking deep breaths or running the lines of an old hymn through my head. The anxiety doesn’t always dissipate, though sometimes it quiets to a background hum. But it does help, usually, to think of my friends, or of Madeleine at the window with her mug of bouillon, watching the slow nighttime life of her neighborhood. If I am awake, and especially if I’m worried, it helps to know I’m not alone.