Category Archives: SOS

On (not) sleeping

Common reed/Phragmites australis. March 2013, Florida.

Common reed/Phragmites australis. March 2013, Florida.

The early days of the week have, in recent months, found me writing weekending posts. It’s hard to overstate how grateful and glad I am that I chose to show up every week to write them. This is a tough season for me. Checking in like that has been a kind of meditation, a breathing in and out, a noticing. It has buoyed my fairly ragged spirit but it has also rooted me here. For all the stress, this is a precious time. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

I don’t intend to stop writing my weekending posts, but it’s 3:00 am Tuesday morning, and I wonder if this week we could start a conversation about sleep instead?

Last week we left the house half packed and snuck away for a few days to my husband’s hometown on the Gulf Coast. It was bliss: coffee at sunrise on the quiet shores of the bay, a long solo walk on an empty beach, pizza, gumbo, spring peepers, bare feet, long talks at the breakfast table, and a second Christmas!

On Friday morning I woke to my son’s whimpers a little before 3:00 am. He’s three years old, and sometimes he wakes in the middle of the night. Add in a nasty cold, and the way travel disrupts our body’s rhythms, and his own stress about the move, and really it’s amazing he’s sleeping as well as he is. I slipped from under the quilt and pressed my ear against his door, but already his breath was deep and steady (if snortling) again.

I got back in bed but I was not even a little drowsy. I lay there for an hour, maybe two, staring at the moonlit ceiling, turning to the wall and pulling the covers close under my chin, trying the other side. I got up again, moved to the living room couch, and read for a half hour in the mustardy lamplight. I got back in bed. Nothing. My thoughts accelerated from busy to panicked. I’m never going to sleep well again, I thought. This is who I am now.

A little before 6:00 my husband turned to me and managed, still half asleep, to whisper, “Maybe you could take a walk.”

And like that, my panic fell away like undone shackles. I squeezed his hand and got out of bed again, padding down the length of the house in socked feet, stopping in the warm kitchen to make myself a cup of milky Constant Comment. While it steeped I pulled on a sweater and a hat and wrapped myself up in my scarf. I slipped out the sliding glass door and down the back deck steps and walked across the yard (strewn with thousands upon thousands of acorns from the low and sweeping live oaks) and there I was at the water.

Almost immediately I felt so much better. The bay lapped quietly and retreated in lazy rivulets, and a few seagulls yammered, and the light was as sunrises over wide sweeps of water are: profound, you know, and liquid, the kind of stunning that makes you stop looking for words to describe it. My mind steadied. I swear I could feel my pulse slow. I had one clear thought: I’m so damn lucky to live in this world. And then for a while I wasn’t thinking at all. It was just me, and that glassy bay, and some small black ducks diving for breakfast, and the reeds, and my son’s sandcastles. A few bellyflopping grey mullets.

I started thinking again. I thought of those breakfast table conversations with my husband’s grandmother. I thought of my own grandmothers, of all the conversations at their tables. I thought about how much we don’t learn from our elders, and I wondered if that has always been true or if it is something new. I wanted suddenly to read May Sarton and Madeleine L’Engle, maybe Eudora Welty, any writing I can get my hands on written by women when they were a generation or more older than I am right now. Who else?

I made my way back inside. It was pushing 7 and I expected to find the rest of the house creaking awake, but everyone slumbered on a little longer. I set a couple eggs to boil. Before long my husband appeared and poured himself a glass of orange juice. Our son wandered in a few minutes later, rubbing his eyes. My husband’s grandmother put on the coffee. The house filled with all those blessed mundane sounds of morning: the eggs beginning to dance in the pot, the gurgle of the coffee maker, the hum of the fridge, the brakes of a garbage truck outside.


It’s been like this all winter. I find myself unequipped. I have always slept well. I’m a night owl for sure, but until recently, I always fell asleep, and back asleep, with ease. We coslept until quite recently, and even all that night nursing and all those octopus limbs in my face or my belly or my back didn’t faze me. I felt so much better rested than most of the moms I know. But now I lie awake for an hour, maybe two, most nights, before drifting off. If I wake in the middle of the night – to my son’s cries, to a barking dog, to a car horn – I am awake for hours.

I am almost certain this insomnia is caused by stress about our move, and I have coped in part by believing it would fade once we’re settled at the new farm. But I’m less certain about that these days. Without getting into the mud and the muck of it all, there are still loose ends here, lots of them, and they’ll remain even as we back the moving van out of the driveway and head north on Friday morning. Also, it’s been so many months. I’m concerned that my circadian clock is majorly out of whack, and that it’s going to take some real work to get it back into a more restful gear.

And I guess this is where I’m asking for help. Do any of you struggle with insomnia, whether situational or chronic? Have you come out on the other side, or at least made peace with it?

My mom, who also struggles with sleep, recently talked to me about “decatastrophizing” sleep. I like that. Because it’s true: for as exhausting as it is, not sleeping well is not the end of the world. You get up (and in fact when I do get out of bed I am strangely untired), and you make some coffee, and you make some breakfast, and you hug your family, and you get on with things. And maybe your temper flares, and maybe you can’t see the forest for the trees, and maybe you even get sick. But at some point you also have to call it a day, every day, and try again.

I’m not so much looking for tips on how to sleep better, although I would deeply love to hear whatever parts of your sleep stories you’re willing to share. But what I’m after especially is a more holistic understanding of what’s happening with my body, and any wisdom you might have on how to feel more peaceful about it all. Many thanks in advance.

“Be of good hope. Try to think in terms of ‘the long run’ and store up your honey like the bees.”
– May Sarton, July 18, 1954 letter to Madeleine L’Engle, May Sarton: Selected Letters 1916-1954

I need some advice.

That is my fine fine father up there, sewer of more Halloween costumes than I can count, starting with a pioneer girl bonnet. A bonnet! Of course we had no idea in 1986 that I might end up knowing a thing or two about eviscerating chickens, keeping a wood stove going for days, rendering lard, or judging the ripeness of squash. I just loved my palest of pink dotted swiss dress with tiny ivory rickrack at the cuffs and trusted my dad could figure out the rest.

I have watched the man figure out a heck of a lot more in the almost 30 years since that labor of love. He was strumming real chords on my guitar not twenty minutes after picking it up for the very first time.1 He drove us safely from Düsseldorf to a gorgeous apartment building off the rue du Montparnasse in Paris one hot July afternoon in 1996, with only a little navigation help from me and only a little panicked yelling from both of us as we managed those winding one-way cobblestone streets in the days long before GPS. He can drive a tractor, throw a vase, soothe a fussy newborn, build a porch, roast coffee. I am pretty sure he still remembers how to use the dative case in German. Need a washer moved from Philly to the Bronx? A dance floor for your wedding? A cheesecake? No problem. My dad’s talent, cleverness, and generosity are a mighty triumvirate.

Needless to say, when I bought this 1961 Singer Style-0-Matic 328K off Craigslist from a woman named Wanda just a few months after my son was born, I turned to my dad immediately. He helped me wind the bobbin and set the tension and thread the machine, and together we sewed some simple big bottomed baby pants for one very cute cloth-diapered bum. That was also, sigh, the last time I sewed.

I didn’t – and don’t – have what I’d call grand ambitions for myself as a seamstress. But our life is very home centered and from scratch, more so every day. In the last seven or eight years we have replaced so many “boughten” (remember that from the Little House books?) and outsourced items and jobs with things we can grow or make or do on our own. I resisted this for a long time – not because I felt ill-suited to all the trial and error, but because I want to need people. I seriously worried that if we stopped buying vegetables at the store or going out to eat, we’d be standing on a very slippery slope – would we soon enough find ourselves living in a cabin in the woods fifty miles from anyone, well fed and hale but alone? But I’ve relaxed. I’ve learned there are a whole lot of ways to need people. Sometimes you pay them for a product or a service: other people pay us to grow their food, for example, and we pay other people to fix our transmissions, find our firewood, install our electricity. Sometimes you knock on their door and ask for a cup of sugar. Sometimes you put your baby in their arms and kiss them on the cheek and go out for a walk alone. Sometimes they bring you lasagna and wine when you have run yourself ragged with packing. Sometimes they are waiting for you to walk through their front door so they can pour your coffee. Sometimes they write a letter, or laugh at your jokes, or let you cry.

My point is, learning to do some things for ourselves has not made me need people any less. It has only made me appreciate all of us more.

My other point is, I need to know how to sew. And I need some advice.

A thought occurred to me two or three weeks ago, and it is so unlike me that when I said it out loud I think my husband almost wondered where his (nostalgic, dreamy, whimsy-loving) wife had gone and who this strange woman sitting in the kitchen was. The thought was: maybe I should sell this beautiful sewing machine and replace it with a new, or newer, model, one that will fit in a case, one that can be put in the back seat and carted to sewing lessons, one that can be stowed in a closet or on a shelf when I’m not using it.

I grimace thinking about it. My Style-O-Matic makes me smile every time I look at it. It is good to have simple beautiful things around. From the limited research I’ve done, it’s a solid machine, from a good era in Singer’s production history. It was well cared for by Wanda and by her mother before her. I still have our series of emails; she says her mother used it to make all her clothes when she was young, that it is super easy to use, and that it brought both of them many years of fun. I can almost see a seven-year old Wanda at her mom’s side, learning to oil the machine or sew a pillowcase. Can I really let it go?

And yet, our new house is so small. I don’t know where we’d put it. A more compact machine makes more sense in a lot of ways.

I don’t want to do fancy or involved sewing – not really thinking about clothes for myself.  I know – even anticipate – my ambitions might change as my skills evolve, but right now, I just want to be able to hem pants (I do not come from tall stock), sew curtains, chop up old wool sweaters I’ve felted and stitch them up into longies, sew basic farmers market aprons, make a duvet cover. Practical things.

I would be ever so grateful if the sewists among you would weigh in here. Keep the machine I have or get a new one? If I get a new one, what should I get?

  1. It should be noted I bought that guitar in 1999 and still don’t know how to play it. Will happily barter vegetables, cookies, or lard for lessons. []