I don’t get the opportunity to travel much—it’s expensive and hard to find the time. But mama still needs a break now and then. When I seem to need it the most is at night.
“That’s what sleep is for,” you say. “It’s the body’s way of recharging and rejuvenating.”
If you can sleep.
But I have insomnia.
There’s nothing special about it. It’s not caused by any underlying medical condition, medication, noisy neighbors or my snoring husband. It’s just the normal “life is crazy and I can’t shut my brain off” kind. Most nights thoughts run around my head like ponies on a souped up carousel.
I’ve tried many techniques to get to sleep and talked about one of my favorite ones here.
But sometimes when I’m trying to get out of Worryville and into Sleepy Town, I take a slight detour to the most serene retreat I’ve ever experienced.
I first discovered it as an 18-year-old exchange student in Australia while attending a Catholic high school. The school wasn’t serene—anyone who’s gone to a Catholic school will tell you that.
Each year the graduating seniors went on a religious retreat. I was neither Catholic nor religious—a couple of months before leaving for Australia I had extricated myself from a cult I’d been “invited” into by one of my former high school classmates back home. I’d had enough of religion. But a retreat or anything that would take me out of school sounded good, no matter the adjective slapped in front of it.
On the second day of the retreat the retreat facilitator led us into a dusky room lined with tall, slender stained-glass windows along each of its walls and a high ceiling. Candles lit the space, their yellow finger flicks competed with the patchy sunlight that flitted through the windows, both trying to gobble the dark.
The retreat facilitator asked us to lie down on the floor and close our eyes. He said he was going to lead us through a visualization exercise meant to help us connect with our spiritual selves. I was mostly concerned about the back side of my body connecting with the wafer-thin, red-carpeted floor—it looked like a piece of toast slathered with raspberry jam that had been stomped on by a dirty boot.
As we settled on the “comfy” floor, the facilitator turned on some new-age music and started to speak in a slow, husky voice. I don’t remember a word he said, only that the longer he talked the more the floor started to feel like a feather bed, and the cold that had contracted my muscles was replaced by what felt like a warm water bottle covering my entire body.
And then I was asleep.
A few seconds later my brain transported me to a different room that looked like what I now recognize as one similar to the servants’ quarters on PBS’s “Downton Abbey.”
Pushed up against the wall on the left side of the room was a white-enameled, metal-framed bed draped with a plain white coverlet. To its right stood a modest walnut nightstand on which sat an oil lamp and a dusty book. On the opposite side of the room was a matching dresser topped by a framed mirror, its glass speckled with dark splotches like my shoulders after months in the Australian sun.
Centered on the wall opposite the door was the room’s only window. Sheer white curtains waved in the breeze inviting me to see what was beyond them. Outside was a field of endless sunflowers. They wobbled and bobbed and tipped in the wind like hundreds of drunken men staggering home from local pubs. Heart-shaped leaves jutted out from the sides of their stems, as if trying to steady their top-heavy heads. They lulled me into a state of relaxation so deep I felt like I was levitating.
And then in instant and all too soon, I was back in the cold retreat room.
Today I go to that room on nights I can’t get to sleep. I start at the far end of the hallway outside the room and run toward its door, pursued by all the things that keep me from sleeping: my husband’s lost (but hated) job and our slashed income; our daughter’s teleportation into puberty; my writing and lack of progress. Each night these demons claw for the space closest to my fleeing back—the winner is the one that weighs heaviest on my mind.
I scramble for the door handle, which never turns on the first try. But just as the insomnia-inducing imps reach me, the handle gives, and I tumble into the room and slam the door behind me.
I stand there for a few moments facing the door, my back to the room. A cool breeze kisses the exposed skin on the back of my arms and neck, and I smell the sunflowers just outside the window. I lock the door then slowly turn around, always clockwise, and gaze at the place I know will carry me mercifully into sleep.