I am early to bed and early to rise – makes a woman wise, they say. Nearly all the nights Jack and I have been together, I have gone to sleep first, unless he’s suffering from sort of crippling flu. Even our cat stays awake longer than I do. My family jokes regularly about how much I need my sleep, how often I fall asleep during movies. “Just stay awake!” my brother has said, on more than one occasion, driving me to dinner in LA, the time change working with my natural propensity for an early bedtime to drag me into sleep again.
I have never tried, truly, to be a night owl, most of all, because I love mornings. In the clearer, softer light of the mornings, the world is less peopled. The early hours of the day have always given me space to reflect away from the noise and opinions of others. From within that graced time, I can listen to my inner voice with more precision.
This weekend, however, Jack and I flipped schedules. Jack spent most of last week reading about the parasympathetic nervous system for a project at work, so he couldn’t stop talking about how sleep, constructive rest, meditation, breathing, et cetera were vital to reducing stress hormones. He sounded like me, quite honestly. “Sweetheart,” he said, “I am going to head to bed early.” Beyond the few times I had been nursing him back to health with bone broth and Vicks, I had never found myself in this situation before. I assumed his typical role, turning off all the lights in the apartment, except for one small reading light, and kissed him goodnight.
Under normal circumstances, I would have been enticed, as I nearly always am, by the calm of sleep, but I happened to be reading a more engrossing novel, not for any particular end but my own delight. This is one joy I recovered post-graduate school: I am a reader again, not out of utility, but love borne of freedom. I had been nestled into the corner of our beloved gray couch, the pillows solidly depressed into the shape of my spine, with several throw blankets pulled over my body for warmth. Reading cocooned is a great pleasure, no matter the season.
At first, I felt the oddness of this circumstance, our roles suddenly reversed. I looked at the time sporadically, but as the plot unfolded, I kept my energy. Returning with a glass of water from the kitchen, eager to get back to the next paragraph, I stood there, looking over my reading corner, for a moment. Everything was calm. The still night had thickened into dark comfort, even in New York City. I felt held by our apartment, this small room and a half we have called home for three years. I beheld what the two of us have created together, and the space I have created for myself within the bonds of intimacy.
To my surprise, the night – bleeding quickly into the early hours of the morning – gave me the space to contemplate aspects of my life that the busy, bright, loud hours of the day never do. Now, after last week, Jack could tell you more about the parasympathetic nervous system than I could, even though I am technically a trained yoga teacher and actually do meditate and take baths and regularly go to bed early, but essentially, it is the antithesis of the flight/fight response. In that space beyond reactivity and fear, there is rest, which is a state of peace that allows for creativity, growth, introspection, compassion – all the lived virtues.
These pockets of emptiness, in which there are less forms of stimulation, give us the space to fill up again. They give us the space to feel free, rather than ‘on,’ to pause.