I am awake, but ’tis not time to rise, neither have I slept enough…I am awake, yet not in paine, anguish or feare, as thousands are. ~ 17th Century religious meditation for the dead of night
With winter darkness falling at 5:00pm, I’m lucky to remain vertically upright until nine. After a hard day’s labour, a hot bath and two fingers of wine, I struggle to make it to eight.
I don’t mind the pseudo-narcolepsy as much as the psychological loss I feel for the interrupted sleep which follows. Two a.m. is my new six, and I lie awake for a couple of anxious hours. I try to remain still so as not to disturb Husband. But at some point I muddle in the pile of clothes on the floor, trolling the gloom for familiar textures – fleece, flannel, wool – then laptop, charging cord, and slippers. I squeak my way downstairs to the couch, fighting the anxiety of unintentional wakefulness. Some reading, some writing, some panic and, at some point, I doze off for a couple of more hours. I’ve coined it my Two Sleeps and feel a modicum of gratitude that the cat has ceased trampling my head for the trifecta.
Eight hours of restful sleep, we are repeatedly told, is optimal for health and performance. But the sleep pattern that is so new – and startling – to me is hardly new to human history. E. Roger Ekirch argues in his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, that segmented, or bifurcated, sleep was the norm for pre-industrialized society, “that awakening naturally was routine, not the consequence of disturbed or fitful slumber.”
Segmented sleep is described as two major intervals of sleep, of similar duration, bridged by a prolonged period of quiet wakefulness. Historically, the First Sleep generally ended around midnight and was considered the superior sleep cycle, one’s “beauty rest.” Second Sleep followed the prolonged period of “watch,” ending with morning light. Ekirch discovered more than 700 references to First and Second Sleep in literature and oral history, extending back to Plutarch, Virgil and Homer, through St. Benedict and John Locke, to The Tiv of modern Nigeria.
Western Europeans, and later North American settlers, below the “middling orders” took to their beds soon after nightfall for a variety of reasons: lack of central lighting; to conserve costly fuel and light; concerns for personal safety; winter cold; fatigue from manual labour; illness; and crowded housing conditions with little personal space or furniture. They always had bedmates, sometimes multiples, of family or strangers. The wealthy also shared their beds, but by the late 17th century, artificial lighting and the growth of “nightlife” extended their days into the small hours of the morning, permanently shifting their sleep habits. All of the first world eventually followed suit.
Just after midnight, the common people awoke to urinate, begin domestic duties, meditate, interpret dreams, converse with their bedmates and make love. Falling into bed exhausted, couples would wake after first sleep refreshed, “when they have more enjoyment” and “do it better.” 16th Century physician Laurent Joubert advised those wishing to conceive to “get back to sleep again if possible. If not, at least to remain in bed and relax while talking together joyfully.” Students studied, poets wrote, thieves committed petty crimes, monks prayed, witches practiced magic and tribal members communed with one another. Mid-night wakefulness offered a surprising variety of rewards, including staving off loneliness and anxiety.
I can think of more than a few seasonal things I’ve always wanted to do in the middle of the night (happily, petty thieving and witchery aren’t amongst them). Swim in the river on a hot summer’s night. Fire up the sauna. Snowshoe under a star-filled sky. Wander the village in pajamas and drink tea on the park benches. Skate on the frozen river by lamplight. Paddle by the light of the moon. I joke with friends about flashing a Bat-Signal in the sky to alert others to my wakefulness, but I know there are simpler – if not as cool – technological solutions to making contact.
So why, I wonder, must this sleep disruption be a solitary, anxious endeavour? Why must it be a curse and not a creative, soulful blessing?
Just after midnight I get out of bed, double-check the calendar, and put the bag on the dining room table.
At 5:45am, I search for light and hope I’m not late.
My slippers flip-flop on the path in the pitch black. I ring the doorbell, a vision in robe and FrankenHair.
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear neighbour, happy birthday to you! I croak, handing her the present.
She laughs before I finish. “It’s from my husband, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I say brightly, thinking how thoughtful and clever he has been to make these arrangements before his extended business trip.
“Thank you very much,” she says. “But it’s not my birthday. My birthday isn’t for another two days. After 25 years of marriage he still gets it wrong.”
I shuffle home debating whether it is the thought that counts. Goodness knows, I can see both sides.
When I was a kid, my brother and I were allowed to choose kittens from the litter of a stray cat. My mother wanted only one cat for the longterm, so she told us that at some future time one of the two would be given away.
When that time came, my brother’s cat, Percy, was deemed more valuable, with his six toes on the two front paws and seven on the back two. A freak of nature, his saving grace. Amidst my sobbing, we drove Squeaky 50 miles to her new home. Later we were told that one winter’s night she had climbed up into the engine block of the owners’ truck to keep warm. In the morning that was that.
Percy, however, lived a long and crabby life. He died on the operating table and my mother carried him home in a plain cardboard box, tears streaming down her cheeks. I stroked him one last time, then dug a hole in our backyard and laid him to rest.
But not everyone has a backyard.
More than 80,000 pets have been buried in the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery since it’s founding in 1896. It began as a rural apple orchard in Westchester County and a simple place for a woman from New York City to bury her treasured dog. When word spread, it quickly grew into America’s first pet burial grounds, where human owners could be cremated and live in perpetuity alongside Achilles, Pumpkin, and Cupcake the fish. The apple trees are gone and its crowded picturesque slope now overlooks suburban sprawl. Still, on these three compact acres, it is peaceful with room for more pets and their people.
On one particularly cramped plot, two workers dig a grave, teetering between the existing headstones and monuments, carefully scooping dirt into a half-sized wheelbarrow. A man in his late 70′s passes me on the path to the office holding a small, clear storage box. I rudely fixate on its contents – a cat I think – and forget to say something appropriate like “I’m sorry for your loss.” Further on, I meet Roseanne.
Roseanne tends the grave of her father’s mixed-breed dog, Brandy, who’s been dead for 25 years. Her husband stands by as she arranges the cemetery’s most elaborate seasonal decorations.
25 years seems a long time to pay homage to a dead pet. But the elaborate mausoleums, headstones, and markers tell stories of love, heartbreak and attachment to each animal. Frequently, they reflect strained family relationships, loneliness and lack of communion with other humans. Carefully worded inscriptions refer to them as babies, sons, daughters and grandchildren. Couched in those words, they deserve a long-term, elevated level of adoration, don’t they? Should it matter if they were a cat, dog, horse, crocodile, gecko, fish, bird or tiger?
Love is love.
Back at home we construct our own version of the pet cemetery. We collect urns of ashes – one for Devon, our cocker spaniel and a second for Piglet, one of our sister-cats. Bobby, one of the guinea pigs, received a lovely riverside burial this spring, where tears were shed and a simple cross erected. We need to prepare a second hole in case we lose Ricky over the winter. And we keep a close eye on an aging Tigger.
Together with the children we experience the expansive love and pain of intimate loss on a smaller scale, while strengthening our hearts for the inevitable human loss that is part of life, that we know is yet to come.
They’re cedar. I also have trim, painted steps, some stripped and painted windows and clapboard set to arrive mid-November.
“You must be so excited to get it done?” most people ask, a reasonable question after two years of exposed insulation, peeling windows, and flapping Typar. But I scramble for an answer. “What I love most is the adventure,” I tell them, which isn’t enough. There is no possible pat answer for a project underway for more than a decade that weaves so many carefully considered parts of my life into one.
So the long answer to what I love more than the idea of closure is this:
I love being outside all day. I love the changing leaves, the flocks of migrating birds, and the muted grey-blue of the river under an autumn sky.
I love the constant contact with my neighbours, the daily dog parade, the enthusiasm of Sharon our bus driver, and the exchanges with strangers who pause to watch the show.
I love the paint scheme so intensely I cannot look away.
I love that I found the scheme on a building in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia when my babies were small and I’ve carried it with me ever since.
I love that I designed and planted all my gardens with these particulars in mind.
I love that I went to trade school for construction carpentry. I love that this “fancy dress” marks the culmination of my (self-induced) apprenticeship.
I love that I have had to, and continue to have to, figure out all the minute details, fix mistakes, and really nail the “money” cuts.
I love the brainwork that takes me so deep into myself that other parts of my life have temporarily disappeared.
I love the rippling of my biceps when I dead-lift a ladder twice my height.
I love being physically spent at the close of the day and sleeping the sleep of the dead.
I love that it says “I can do this” and, more importantly, “I can do way more than this, too.” I love that my confidence and skill are, for the moment, in perfect alignment.
I love the power I feel because “I get it.”
I love showing my daughter what is possible. I love that my boys see this as normal.
I love working alone. I love problem-solving and whinging with my carpentry-inclined friends.
I love that winter is almost upon us and I have a compulsory completion date that looms large and real. I love not knowing if I’m going to get snowed in.
I love the press of useful work. I love that some doors have slammed shut and I am unable to move anywhere but forward.
I love dreaming of house-swapping for bucket list locales.
I love the mind-blowing, soul-expanding promises of what’s to come.
I just love the whole damn thing to bits.
Pierre explained that it was customary for guests to write their names on pieces of wood to mark their stash of bottles in Marco and Rod’s cave. So I’ve heard, I nodded. (A charming idea to ascribe such permanence to something so ephemeral.) But we cycled through so much wine that summer that it never stuck around long enough to warrant writing my name on anything aside from the credit card receipts.
What I couldn’t wrestle the two block trip from Maison Paillot was delivered in boxes on a dolly. (Daily entertaining requires volume.) The empty bottles migrated to the carriage house, awaiting the car trip across town and up the hill to the recycling depot. The cave, magically, remained stocked in spite of the litany of empties. There was cidre, too, all gone of course, and I imagine beer, although I don’t touch the stuff myself.
A year on, my inscription wings its way to Noyers, accompanied by a few euros and a personal note, here unpoetically blunted:
Dear Pierre – Please buy wine, as you see fit, and place this in the cave so I will have something awaiting my return. Kindest, Andrea
Mine, it says in that one word. Also, I was here, and, most importantly, I’ll be back. (It is written, therefore it must be so.)
Beguiling, that kind of promise.