Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reading for Insomniacs

Today marks a month since we landed in Nice and drove our little hairdryer-mobile up into the Var. We’ve repotted ourselves here, and are watching a new season pull itself into town to rain on us and set our roots. (Watering a plant entirely with chilled rosé and baking it at 90 degrees all day long sounded like a great idea to me, but I guess Mother Nature knows better.)

Today is the first quiet, steady rain we have seen. When the iphone told me it was going to rain for three days, I assumed the damn thing was just broken. But no such luck. Stupid thing is works fine, so steady rain it will be. I’m sitting on the tile floor, wearing longsleeves and long pants, keeping the laptop dry and hanging desperately onto the one bar of wireless access I can reach from just inside the huge carriage house doors.

I’ve already pulled in my early morning catch of emails from back home. Today was a fantastic haul. The lines and traps I set out last night brought me photographs of my beautiful four year old nephew, an excellent giggle-out-loud comment post from Katie, and news from the girls’ school, from my old job, and from my family. Everyone we love seems willing to miss us just enough so we don’t feel utterly shipwrecked, but never so much that we can’t let ourselves be here.

Part of the reason we came now, as opposed to some other moment in time, was that we were just at that point. Nobody needed us so badly, and we didn’t need them so badly that we couldn’t leave for a year. This was not true in the past, and it won’t likely be true in the future. So we are here, now, and they all generously let us go – as long as we promised to return.

Bill took the kids off to school and is registering Grace for guitar lessons in Salernes. Which means I can spend the rainy morning reading messages and sending my heart home, even as the figs and the gooseberries and the rain pooling on the little Provence-blue chairs keep me rooted in my new pot.

I’m growing here. And it’s not just because of the heat and the food and the good wine, but also because of the sleep. Nearly every single morning, we wake up in the morning grateful and rested. Bill and I had both forgotten what it is like to sleep a full night without a work problem churning in the backs of our heads: what is due too soon, what we had to put off to get something else done, who is disappointed about this, or angry about that, or is feeling slighted because of this and that. A lot of times the problems were foolish and fleeting. But sometimes the problems that kept us awake – particularly those that Bill had to cope with – were a whole lot more gruesome and horrible than I could ever put into this blog.

We both know that the world’s most remarkably successful people can carry out responsibilities even harder than the ones we chose for ourselves, and still sleep just fine. But for us, the combination of our two management jobs sometimes left us with two girls who needed more than we had left over, and more often then not nothing much leftover foreach other or ourselves. It sounds so shameful to admit this, but we bit off more than we personally could chew. Adam Gopnik, in his remarkable book, Through the Children's Gate, describes the way that New Yorkers build their lives on doing too much: "Business is our art form, our civic ritual, our way of being us."

Bill and I pretty much did all we could with that particular art form, then chucked it all to see what else we might happen to make if we stopped making ourselves crazy. Here, with our world boiled down to four people, an inordinately simple schedule, and an entire nation of wholly disinterested observers, it’s pretty clear who is happy and who is not, and what is due when. Our problems can usually be fixed with a hug and a mug of cocoa (or, for the over 21-set, a nice chilled rosé.) While we have to get to school, eat three times a day, and pay the relatively minimal out-of-season rent on the house we found, that doesn’t require a lot of fancy time-and- resource management spreadsheets. Or even a real datebook. Entire weeks on our Google calendar are now wholly empty.

We sleep because we are no longer responsible, even indirectly, for the schedules, the moods, the fates, and even the occasional life-or-death of hundreds of people; or for millions of dollars of tuition, hard-won taxpayer dollar grants and generously donated money. We have only ourselves to manage. So when we go to bed, the day is truly done, and we sleep like the overblown monkeys we took a million years in the caves near here to become.

Back in Brooklyn, way too often, one or both or even three of us would end up downstairs on the sofa sometime between 2:00 and 5:00 A.M., those awful hours when you give up believing that you could ever sleep again, and instead try to pretend you’re President Clinton and never really cared much for sleep anyway. We would read The New Yorker or The Times online, sometimes even an actual book if we could stop stewing and pay attention long enough to follow a narrative thread. We would too often log onto our email accounts and gnash our teeth over someone’s angry missive or some asinine Catch-22. At least once a week, we’d both end up insomniac on the same night, which we loved because it was like we were on a date without having to pay a babysitter, and we’d have somebody to talk to. The rare nights we both slept right through felt like magic. It felt like an undeserved gift of sleep in a series of nights without, rather than the other way around.

So now we are noticing that uncommon feeling of calm. Calm, and also quiet. On First Street back home, there’s nearly always something making noise: a loud couple getting out of a taxi and slamming the door; a car with a bad muffler drag racing up the block; somebody coming home joyful and laughing from the restaurants on 5th Avenue; somebody’s amateur band playing late at night (oh wait, that was us) or just a really angry guy yelling at his ex on a cell phone.

Here at night, we have silence, broken only occasionally with the sounds of animals and birds. I never hear a car at night, only rarely a plane. The lack of cloud cover and the distance between the houses allows sound to fly unimpeded to the sky rather than bouncing around and into everybody’s window trying to escape. Thus the sounds we hear all happen within ten or fifteen yards of our window, quiet animal night sounds. When we are shutting the family down for the night, all kinds of creatures emerge. The feral cats – our anti-pets — eat the leftovers we have left out for them. Bats swoop in and out of the prehistoric caves, in and out of the tile roof. Starting as soon as it is dark, some sort of squirrel-like creature (I prefer to believe he is a squirrel, anyway) runs up and down the thinnest branches of the big fig trees that overhang our driveway. Something insistently chirps at odd intervals and rustles around in the ivy by our window. There is no screen, but so far all of these creatures have all left us the house and stayed outside where things suit them best.

Inside, we sleep because we are calm, it is quiet, and also because it is getting cooler. The nights have become perfect sleeping weather – cool now is moving straight onto cold, step by step, night by night. We have only the thinnest coverlet, and a soft seagreen blanket. The cold drives us towards each other to huddle and snuggle to stay warm while we hungrily breathe the sweet night air that smells just vaguely like fig.

The temperature now falls much lower at night, but we still sweat at midday, as long as it is not pouring. Yesterday during Abigail’s lunch break, I snuggled her on the yellow cushioned chaise just outside the kitchen, but after half a minute, we were both too hot and had to take off our long sleeved shirts. We had just the opposite feeling in bed this morning, when she came in to see us, her skin all chilly and smooth. I pulled her in under the covers so that we could both get warm for a few minutes before showers and breakfast and her first three hours of blah blah (recess) blah at school.

When we first moved here, Bill had wondered if this would be like Los Angeles. He disliked L.A. for several reasons, but particularly because it had no real seasons while he was there. But already we are feeling the changes. The evening chill, and a morning shiver. I’m starting to wonder whether I brought enough sweaters for the winter, and where I could get a few more pairs of good jeans if I need them. The tiny green leaves on the tall cedar trees by the gate are all turning to yellow. The midday sun is less like a klieg light, more like a heatlamp. Sometimes now that blue sky we had so taken for granted is covered over in cloudmush. Or dripping with steady rain.

The moon is slipping away from us. Not too long ago, on the nights when it was full, it was as though someone had switched a light on outdoors. It was one of those super-low wattage eco-bulbs, or more accurately, a solar powered reflecting light, but it felt artificially bright nonetheless. Now the nights are fully dark by eight, and it doesn’t get light until after 6:30 in the morning. To calm and quiet and cool, I can add dark, and getting darker. The equinox and the new moon are each a week away. As the moon winds its way around the earth, the earth is coquettishly turning its northern face away from the sun, getting ready to rudely stick its southern end upwards.

Abigail will be eight on Saturday. I want to write down every day and every change, as a way of holding on to time as it moves past. Late last winter into the spring, I crossed every day off the calendar with a combination of relief, exasperation, exhaustion and regret. I knew then that was wrong, and that it was no way to live; worse, I knew that I had talked myself into that life, and into that state. I had nobody but myself to blame, and had forgotten that nobody but me will remind me to live.

I fought this move, hard. I couldn’t believe, back then, that moving away, specifically moving so far away, would sort out whatever it was that was making me cross off the days and white-knuckle through the nights. I just couldn’t see what was ahead, so focused was I on where I was. Poor Bill, who had not only to make all the plans and scrape together the visa, but also to withstand my foul moods and grouchy premonitions of disaster.

For the record: he is often right, and I am wrong. But he has never, ever, been so right as this time. Now I can let myself feel the days, the hours, and the minutes passing without so much argument. I have the wholly unaccustomed pleasure of just sitting inside of change. I have the surprising gift of sleep and quiet and calm. Rather than crossing off my days, I can grow slow through these last few months of this fourth decade of my little life, and into a century and a Millennium that will roll along ahead of all of us, no matter whether we sleep, or where, or how soundly.

1 comment:

  1. Launa,
    I love this! Once again, thank you.
    As a lifetime insomniac, I'm inspired to find the sleep you cite (and the peace that it speaks of).