I needed a bit more time to work on this week’s Infrared Isolation chapter, so here’s a reflective and somewhat meditative piece I’ve been working on for a bit instead. Chapter 6 will go up next week on the 8th and you can enjoy this bit of non-fiction about my life and what I’ve done to fill my nights when my insomnia kept me from sleeping.
When I was younger, I used to go for walks late at night. I would leave my home after midnight and sometimes not return until sunrise, trading a night’s sleep for the comforting rhythm of my feet as I wandered through neighborhoods all but abandoned by people seeking rest. Growing up in the privileged suburbs, you get used to a world that all but disappears after dark. Even the rebellious youth abandon streets and porches after dark has truly settled over the world, instead seeking out places they tell themselves are more private. No police cruise the streets, boulevards, or cul-de-sacs since that’s what the neighborhood watch is for, but no one really watches, either. The contradiction of a neighborhood watch in the suburbs is that it only happens once something everyone chose to ignore has come to light and been dealt with. They’re only called for once the need for them has passed. The only way to draw attention is to seek it out in the pools of light that dot the neighborhood beneath the rare street light, to eschew the dark in favor of demanding attention the only way you know how.
I did most of my walking in college, going out multiple times a week because there was no one to notice me missing. I had keys to every door and knew that no one would be checking on me in the night, so I could keep my own schedule and wander when the need took me. I went to college away from any large city, firmly planted on the edge of suburbs just like the ones I grew up in, and carried on a habit I’d formed in high school. After all, when you can’t sleep and your body is so used to being unable that you can go a night or two without before you eventually crash, a night is incredibly long. Unless you have the right financial or emotional support systems in place, you eventually run out of ways to fill your time. An endless, empty night can be a dangerous thing when you can’t sleep becaues your thoughts have grown too dark or wild to let you relax your body enough to rest. So you find ways to fill it.
In high school, I snuck out a lot compared to most of the other kids I knew, even though I went to far fewer parties. I don’t think anyone in my family knows this, because I knew every bend in the floorboards and could command the creaks of the house to fall silent in a way that no one else could. I had my own keys, after all, so it was a simple thing to silently creep down the starts, slide open the lock, and then close it again from the outside without anyone noticing. There was a forest full of deer paths, horse riding trails, and clearings I remembered from my younger days when my parents still allowed me to play pretend games on my own so long as I came home when they called, and I grew to know it better in the dark than I ever had in the light. There was always talk from the adults around me of coyotes and raccoons and deer prowling in the woods that implied danger, but they were the same abstract dangers that threatened kids walking to the park four blocks away by themselves. I was just as threatened by wild animals in the stretch of nature surrounded by suburbia as I was by razor blades hidden in candy and strangers in my neighborhood offering me rides home in their unmarked vans.
It was a precarious thing, though, to leave my bed and walk freely, but only because my mother was moved at times to check on her children if she awoke in the night. I am the product of a cycle of abuse and neglect, after all, so it stood to reason that my mother might also occasionally struggle with sleep and the lackthereof. Like all the patterns of my childhood, though, I had learned to read this one as well. By trial and error, mostly, during the days when I still thought I could get away with some time to myself by waking up early or sneaking downstairs after everyone was asleep to play video games or watch the movies that I, rather than the ones my younger siblings, wanted to watch. I could tell by the way my mother hovered or directed her attention more closely to the chores we were assigned if it would be one of the nights that she, after waking in the middle of the night, would pace the hallways of the upper floor of the house, stopping to peek into every room in order to lay eyes on her children. If she ever noticed me missing, seeing through the body-double composed of blankets, a beanbag chair, and a stuffed animla, she never mentioned it despite taking me to task for things far less disobedient than leaving the house in the middle of the night.
It was these nights, in high school and college, that I learned to always look up. To walk even when I couldn’t see where I was going by following the way the space between houses or trees shifted and swayed while I stared at the stars. Most people I know look down when they have something on their mind, but these years of staring toward the sky have trained me to tilt back my head and stare up until the ache of my neck drives my gaze earthward. These nights are where I learned about the stars that are too dim to be seen if you look directly at them, only appearing if you look out of the corner of your eye at a seemingly empty patch of space. It is where I learned to tell time by the passage of the moon, to tell the weather by the way the air altered the moon’s light, and where I became familiar with every visible crater on its surface. There nights are where I learned to love the colors of dawn and every shade of deep blue that made up the night sky.
Once I was finished with college, I stopped going on nightly walks. My schedule wasn’t my own, anymore. I had places to be, appointments to keep, and, for a time, a lot less to be worried about. I slept through most nights, going from almost never sleeping through more than a couple nights in a row to never losing more than a couple nights of sleep in a year. I stopped living in the suburbs I new and started living in the sprawl of a city that had rapidly outgrown it’s borders decades ago. I went from the complacent nights of established suburbs to the wary anxiety of a town convinced that teens, college students, and twenty-somethings are one moment of vigilance away from stealing their garden gnomes or puking in their bushes. Suddenly there were cops patrolling everywhere, and not just for the usual racist reasons of keeping “suspicisous” people away from the settled families, but also to keep out everyone who didn’t clearly follow the schedule of the neighborhood they were in. I made it through four years of highscool and four years of college without ever once being approched while on a midnight walk and couldn’t even make it through my first late-night walk in my current city without getting stopped by two different cops who were convinced I was up to no good.
Now, I sit on my porch and stare at the stars instead. I can’t walk, for fear of encountering patrolling police who like to remind my neighborhood that deviation from the norm will be punished. So I sit, instead, staring up at the night sky that looks the same as it always has despite how much the world has shifted around me, losing sight of the stars as the carefully manicured trees sway in the wind, as sirens blare past and pollute the night with their light and noise, and as the lights of the city bounce off the clouds. It is better than nothing and I’m not sure I could see the suburbs the way I used to now that I’ve spent so much time away from them. The times I’ve gone back to visit always remind me of the trip to McDonalds I had after not eating there for five years. Everything that once felt normal and natural feels artificial. What was comfortable now disturbs me. The treasured silence I long for has vanished, replaced by the undercurrent hum of imposed quiet that carries the nervous drone of whispers too scared to raise their volume in the face of the social pressure to appear the same as everything else. I mourn this loss as I mourn the loss of everything else from the past few years, but I recognize that there is no going back now.
So I sit, I watch the stars shift slowly overhead, and I find new ways to fill my nights when I can’t sleep.