A good friend lost his pillow last week on a business trip. He can’t sleep without it, and now he has to wait four to six weeks for a special-order replacement to arrive from the US. He’s beat, edgy and ashen. This scares me. I used to be able to sleep anywhere – that is, until lately.
I’ve slept around. My first room was an unlit closet packed with faux fir, Christmas decorations and a crib. A few years on, my parents would pitch the family tent trailer in a campground that overlooked the Northumberland Strait. Those seaside sleeps were deep, lulled by ocean sounds and the soothing smell of canvas. I remember waking slowly at first light, often lying still for quite a while to contemplate the intricate spider-like cracks in the fiberglass roof.
Then Dad and the trailer left (he’d been sleeping around). Mom took out her anger on a scrubby shorefront lot on the opposite Island coast. Unlike the house we had shared with Dad in town, the cottage land was all Mom’s.
With her bare hands and a prehistoric hoe, she beat the bayberry back far enough for a three-man tent for the four of us. The stumps and the rejection made the days tough, but we had great salt-air sleeps after days spent on the beach with castles and kites and bottle upon bottle of baby oil as tanner. We were baked but gorgeous, and we slept like driftwood logs.
In my teens, sleep was my refuge. Back home, when it rained or snowed, water dripped steadily like a mantra into a sump-pump hole in the corner of my basement bedroom. When the hole filled, the pump motor kicked in to expel the water outside, where the cycle began again. It was loud and dramatic and I loved it. So did the black beetles. At night I could hear them clicking. By morning my shoes were full of them. I spent my days kicking beetles out of my sneakers and dreaming of moving out on my own.
My wish was granted on my eighteenth birthday. I was given luggage. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that I had no trouble sleeping on planes. Great friendships were made curled up on the floor at the bulkhead on an eight-hour flight to a year of university on the French Riviera. Home there was a comfy family-run hotel a stone’s throw from a nude beach. Those nights were often lonely and confused, with sleep disrupted regularly by fights or sex in streets where Latin romance and Gallic stubbornness intersected.
Not that we cared. That year, each week was three nights in the hotel “at school” and four spent on trains all over Europe. I learned some French, as well as how to sleep with a back pack tangled around a leg, a foot propped firmly against the compartment door, and one eye left open.
Travel by night was cheap, but the sleep was fitful in luggage lockers and train stations crammed with students and vagrants. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between us. We smelled of smoke and wine and unwashed hair, but the sights were always worth the sleep deprivation, and wherever we could we made our destination our bed. We slept away from the lean beside the tower at Pisa, on the gentle slope at the Seine, and stoned out of our minds under overturned dinghies on the docks at Amsterdam.
One night that year I hoped to get no sleep at all. I’d convinced a traveling companion to share a tiny bunk below the water line on a boat. But the object of my desire only wanted to rest – suggesting that we sleep head to feet. Far from a soul’s meeting, the night was spent with a heel wedged firmly against my cheek.
Back in Canada, the next few years was a blur of long work nights, dwindling wanderlust and lumpy futons on brittle pine frames. I remember the day I realized that I could afford to buy a proper mattress and box spring. “Decadence” was suddenly a pillow-topped queen. I was just 22, but when we went bed shopping, my girlfriend at the time called me, “the old man.” She accused me of settling. I was, with her. Even so, although we broke up just a few weeks after delivery, I choose to believe that she will always remember time spent in my bed.
Recently I’ve noticed that sleep has changed. Even though my bed and life are more comfortable than ever, I’m sleeping no better. In many ways, lately, I’m more restless than ever. I think a lot about the choices I’ve made and wonder about how things might be different had I slept differently, with different people.
But life is good! Considering where I’ve been, it’s daunting to consider that my real problem now may be that I am too comfortable, middle-aged and, yes, settled. In retrospect, sleep was somehow richer when I was poor, alone or threatened. I need to understand this.
The only conclusion I can draw now is that life isn’t something you just endure on your way to a more comfortable bed. It’s about embracing the opportunities for experience that present themselves, and being OK with that in the moment. The problem is, exploring this now keeps me awake at night because my life is now a five-bedroom house, and I don’t want history to repeat itself.
So, is the quality of our sleep directly proportionate to the how alert and engaged we are during waking hours? Could it be this simple? I’ll have to sleep on this. But first I’m going to ask my friend where he buys his pillows.