Night slides into the shadows and birds once boisterous and bickering—hush. The cars that rushed down side streets park and sit in the glow of streetlights. Night belongs to insects and things that creep—it is the time for stealth.
When I was little, I was afraid of the dark. Powerfully afraid. The fear seemed visceral and paralyzing. I watched a movie once where a ventriloquist’s dummy came to life and stole the man’s voice box. I had a Charlie McArthur doll. After I watched that movie, he slept with me. I figured he was safer in bed beside me than sneaking up the toy box lid and crawling over to steal my voice. I guess even then I understood that you should keep your friends close, but your enemies (or in this case fears) closer.
I remember how empowering it was the first time I moved through the darkness without a light. It was daring. My senses felt super-charged, heightened. I did not take a flashlight, nightlight, or turn on a light. I slipped through the darkness like it was an oily pool of black. Darkness can feel tangible in way that light cannot. The world is a reverse of shadows; streetlights cut swaths of gray. I remember how I weighed each of my footsteps on our creaky old stairs, so careful not to wake my parents whose bedroom was at the bottom. Our house was small, old, and each time you put too much weight on a foot, the squawk of the boards could halt snores or cause the soft shifting sound of sheets.
I felt grown-up, like I could face anything. This was all in pursuit of a glass of water that I was not even thirsty for. I have never been a particularly good sleeper. I am restless at night. Even as a child, night became emblematic of adventure and doing things you would not do during the day. If you were awake in the middle of the night, it felt like you were ruling the world. I was not scared to be awake when others were sleeping. On the contrary, I enjoyed the solitude, the feeling that you could go anywhere or do anything without having to deal with other people. I was a little anti-social as a child.
All of this changed that same summer, in fact. A family trauma suddenly made the darkness suffocating and frightening again. I slept in the room next to my brother (in fact, he had to walk through my room to go anywhere else in the house. I slept at the room at the top of the stairs), and he had spent a few months in the mental hospital. I felt like I had to stay awake—in case. I don’t know of what. But, he was “chemically imbalanced.”
So, night became an exercise in how long I could stay awake before my body forced my mind to surrender to sleep. Sometimes, the hardest part of night is the way all of your energy goes to your brain. With the body quiet, the mind has free reign. My brother was not a harm to us, but at twelve and at night, it did not matter.
I remember in 9th grade my Health teacher shared an anecdote with us. When she was a teenager, she had driven the family car to an outing with friends. I don’t remember all of the particulars, but in the end, the car had gotten scratched. A careless car door flung open. Something uncontrollable and harmless.
But, she drove the car home, parked it in the garage, and spent the night fretful and agonizing over her parents’ reaction. Her mind became alive with scenarios. Her father would yell and never let her drive again. Her mother would cry. She spent all night imagining the worst—until the birds started chirping again and light slowly returned. She told us that things will always look their worst at night. But, it’s only about perspective. In the morning, things will be okay. In the morning, her parents did not punish her (it wasn’t her fault after all). She said that they had pretty much shrugged it off, and she spent the day wishing she had gotten more sleep.
But, the lesson she taught us—that really did not have much to with nutrition or whatever it was we were learning that week—left a deep impression on me.
Now that the sun has gone down, life and its stresses seem overwhelming. The world is quiet, and you are left alone with your thoughts—only the very best friends and closest family still able to be called. But, at night, you have to face yourself. You also have to let go and allow yourself to fall. I still struggle against sleep, but these days it is because I like the intensity of thought that night can bring. It can be scary. It can be therapeutic. It is illuminating.