“And nothing in the world is lovelier than sleep,
dark, dreamless sleep, in deep oblivion!”
[D.H Lawrence, ‘Sleep And Waking’]
If just skipping through these immortal lines make me yawn wide and deep, I consider myself one of the few lucky Sapiens roaming the earth, walking on air. Don’t get me wrong, I slide off to slumberland, not for the reason that these lines are tedious. But, for the reality that these timeless words read like a lullaby to me. D.H Lawrence, for all his fame and creativity, had not been as lucky. He happened to be the chronic insomniac wandering on the sea of wakefulness, the shore of sleep sailing afar from him. It seems ironical that those same lines, written by him on one of the many sleepless nights, rock me to sleep as I read them.
I grew up reading Dickens’s classics and studying Wordsworth’s poems during the course of my school years. I should never say that I had been rote learning those poems for the exam, I was literally dreaming about them, ‘wandering like a lonely cloud among the golden Daffodils‘(‘I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud’ by William Wordsworth). I met with those clouds and Daffodils while tripping into the deep abyss of sleep. Little did I know then, that these two literary maestros were connected by a ‘common chord’. Both of them were intractable insomniacs.
Many of us might have sailed through the rough sea of wakefulness at some point or phase in our lives. Those journeys almost strike me as sailing on tides high and low, twisting in the wind, solitary, disconnected, languishing as outcasts banished from the kingdom of slumberland, yet, they never drag on for long. Soon I catch sight of the sleepy shore, sneak around for some time and moors the restive, swinging mind to the secure wharves, piers, and docks. In short, that sort of sleeplessness simply means our body is responding to the vagaries of life and it autocorrects itself by some tweaks and twists, lulling us into a stupor.
In ‘Night Walks’, a collection of essays, Charles Dickens describes his nightly walks that extended for hours through the London streets, reaching back home by sunrise. His literary prowess and insomnia were intertwined, in a way. The same should be true for other night owls like Wordsworth. Those creative minds were melting pots of dazzling ideas and hyperactive brains were a maze of fired up neurons. Some of the famously insomniac creative class brought out their respective magnum opuses during one or the other of the sleepless nights. It seems, this sort of insomnia, known as ‘creative insomnia’ is an efficacious exasperation, offered free, gratis, and for nothing along with the creative genius.
But, cerebral and creative minds do not automatically equate with insomnia, beyond question, and without doubt. While there is some direct and observable correlation between creativity and insomnia, there are no studies that substantiate definitively that sleeplessness contributes to creativity or all mental giants are insomniacs or stretching the point even further, that all insomniacs harbor giftedness, talents, intellect or skills of some sort, by all means. In fact, a good night’s sleep could enhance the creative skills per se and long term insomnia is definitely detrimental to creativity and health. To be specific, an assortment of medical reasons, thyroid issues, for example, should be ruled out and never should one seek to self-medicate.
As a physician, I have had occasions of getting reminded about the ‘lucky me’ in full control of this intangible asset, something I had taken for granted. Or, sometimes encounters of mind-bending synergistic interaction with patients, while I keep my ears open, mouth shut, eyes of the mind receptive, sailing near the reveries of the wakeful drifter who goes over again like the haunting refrains of a discordant dirge. In short, I could appraise the ‘sensible experience’ after those interactions and a few up-close-and-personal ones with my near and dear. Yet, one could never get to the bottom of it unless one experiences it. There is an adage in my local language that translates like ‘you could never understand what fire is unless you feels it’. I would say I had only been near to the fire or I could only see the burning ember. Its a dream I dare not feel.
Let me add the finishing stroke by dedicating this article to one of my colleagues, a friend who happened to be a chronic insomniac. That was, back in time by 11 years in the Middle-East where I had been working in a multi-specialty hospital. The place had been sort of a microcosm of the globe, a world city, cosmopolitan, tolerant, secular and above all welcoming. My friend, an Arab, was a blend of all these qualities, an archetypal lady from the East, and I could easily glimpse in her a commonality of views, interests, and traditions of an Eastern culture that I was accustomed to. More than anything else, she stood out from the crowd in the country of my origin, only in her appearance by virtue of her azure blue eyes.
The truth was that I had seen those eyes only on the pages of novelists like Charlotte and Emily Bronte. They seemed exactly like the novelistic material from those pages, like the deep, calm ultra-marine sea on a cloudless day. Or, from an exclusively Eastern perspective, like the turquoise blue lapis lazuli on the incisive eye of a khamsa.
Coming back to her insomnia, a few of our friends once tried to extend our solidarity just to lighten her up from a melancholic reverie. She peppered it figuratively, poured in color, kneaded that into an easy to mold texture, molded it into a simple form with a subtle shape. We were able to discern the form with vivid colors from the abstractness and vapidness of the term. It should have been something like this if I would express her thoughts in verse
‘ When you glide away into the dark abyss of slumber,
My soul goes astray in the vast expanse.
I clamber onto the thorny track uphill,
To seek my alter ego who is awake,
But to find her deep asleep on the tattered, tawny shroud,
With all her dreams spangled,
Like diamonds on the ink black hair.
Catching on to the tip of a low hanging dream,
Wading through the murky bank on the shore of sleep,
I stumble on the deep spreading roots of thought,
Watching the fog of consciousness drown the land.
I pine for the knight in shining armor,
To take me to the no man’s land,
Beyond the curtain of the eyes,
Where the thespians perform the vivid showpiece.
I close my eyes tight, beseeching to reach the shore,
Before they exit the stage in the rage of light,
But all I see, through the faraway curtain,
Is dancing dandelions and a flashing spectrum.
I keep my eyes closed,
Still, all I do is chase my rambling muse,
Now, I see the chink of light,
Sneaking through the worn out facade.
I see him with the palette and brush,
Blending the black and white,
On the dull ashen monochrome sky,
Pasty as my pallid face.
I watch him paint the dome of the sky,
Dipping the brush in the vibrant sun,
Strokes of lemon yellow, warm orange and flaming red,
Dappled on a cool opalescent cerulean blue.
The kaleidoscopic dance from the strokes so flawless,
Smooth and flowing and vertical and circular,
Nothing but a banal reflection,
Yet never do the hues reflect in my mind’s eye.
All I possess is a drop of azure sea,
In the deep well of my eyes,
For you all to see,
And dreams of a dreamery,
Buried deeper beneath.
Oh dear sleep, it’s not you whom I miss,
I miss those wistful dreams of yore,
Woven from the web of mirage,
Dancing to the tune of light,
Dreams that escape the dreamcatcher’s grip……
I am sure I might not have been able to get to the bottom of her thoughts completely, yet, at the very least I was able to look behind the curtain of her beautiful blue eyes and dredge up those obscure layers from the deep well of her eyes. The salient thing for me was that I could see other sleepless souls through her eyes, from thenceforth.
( Photo credit: Seth Macey on Unsplash)