On the nights when dreams are far from comforting, and the aches of an overused body and a troubled soul project slow and familiar horror shows on the desert night screens of my eyelids, the relief of the coming of morning cannot be overstated.
I sat down to write about tea. Tea is a comfort and a human ritual as old as fire and pottery. I made tea, sat at my desk to the sound of the dog snoring on the other side of the room, and thought about sleep and the impossibility of sleep. There is light on the horizon now, silhouetting the papaya leaves rustling over the back fence. Soon, sunlight will shine on the desktop, and I’ll put the ordeals of sleep out of my mind for another day.
As a child, I walked through nightmares of a pure and surreal horror, of an army of land swimmers breast-stroking across the pasture, between the horses, toward the window where I awaited whatever doom they were never quite able to bring. My mother watched, silhouetted in the bedroom doorway, terrified by my sleepwalking and the nonsense I was speaking.
“Shut the door quick, Mom, before you let all the darkness out.”
When night terrors receded, and I learned to relish a young man’s deep slumber, I slept many a dreamless night and blocked the light of morning with a pillow until roused from bed to carry books and saxophone up a mile of overgrown, snake-infested country roadside, to a bus stop I shared with a kid whose greatest joy was knocking me down in the dirt. In those days, escaping into books, and into sleep, were my solace. One afternoon, I learned to fight back, bloodied the bus stop bully, and slept better for awhile.
Driven from home, I put myself through school by cooking, bartending, serving those with money to pay. For a few years, those nights went up in smoke, obliterated by alcohol, weed, and the slow parade of friends, lovers, and strangers who shared the wee hours with me. I once had a roommate who slept with a 12-inch kitchen knife under his pillow. Did I sleep at all?
The money ran out. I enlisted in the National Guard, joined R.O.T.C. the following year, and graduated on a stage with my long-estranged parents each pinning a gleaming second lieutenant’s bar on one of my shoulders.
As a soldier, I learned to sleep, night or day, still or in motion, on the ground, in a truck, or in a parachute harness bathed in red light and sweat with a helmet as my thrumming pillow against the bulkhead of an airborne C-130 until the jumpmaster’s “Stand up!” passed from front to back, paratrooper to paratrooper, with a tap on our snoozing armored heads.
The smell of tent canvas, diesel fumes, and CLP weapons oil in the pre-dawn darkness prompted an appetite for Army grits, powdered eggs, and coffee too hot to drink from a steel canteen cup. These smells persist like grooves in vinyl.
Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. Never stay awake when you can…
Sleep. If you can. And dream. I remember more of my dreams these days. Some leave traces of great adventures, voices, or the scent of a person’s skin. Most replay some version of my failures, crimes, fears, and inadequacies. When sleep abandons me, and I lie awake beside Susan, and my mind begins to prey upon itself like a starving wolf eating its own paw, I rise for a glass of water and to check the time, to write what I can piece together, to make tea, and to await the forgetfulness of sunlight.
Some who I love, who will still have me, will rise in a couple hours. We’ll laugh and share breakfast, and I’ll be able to look forward to the possibility of a good night’s sleep and the dreams that may come, and maybe to dream something sweet, right up until sunrise.