In tribes who still live much like our Paleolithic ancestors, people don’t sleep through the night. Soon after dark, they climb into their hammocks in the smoky communal hut and fall asleep, then get up a couple of hours later to add wood to the fire, nurse babies, or make more babies. Then they go to sleep again.
Some researchers maintain that the concept of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is an artifact of the post-Edison era, an expectation that leads to frustration, anxiety…and insomnia.
I used to be a sleep athlete. Once my head hit the pillow, or the headrest of the car or the airplane seat, I was asleep within seconds. But those few seconds were so delicious that I used to wish I could prolong them. And waking up in the morning I would regret that during all those hours of lovely sleep I had been, well, asleep.
A memory: I am seven years old and getting over a bad case of measles. The doctor tells my mother that she needs to get me out of Barcelona and into the country to breathe fresh air and regain the kilos I have lost. So in spring, in the middle of the school year, my mother packs our suitcase, we kiss my father goodbye, and we take the train to my grandparents’ farm.
I have many reasons for rejoicing, being away from my scary German nuns and my even scarier classmates. I can step out of the farmhouse and, without having to hold anyone’s hand, cross the courtyard, stop to pat the chained up Irish setter who is only let loose in hunting season, then turn the iron ring that unlatches the heavy, weathered wooden door, and take myself for a walk on the dusty road that borders the wheat field.
But the best memory of those weeks is the orxata d’ametlles * that my mother brings me in bed at dawn. This super-rich almond milk takes time and muscle to prepare. First the hard, pitted shells of the almonds, harvested the preceding fall from my grandparents’ trees, have to be cracked with a hammer. My mother or perhaps my grandmother then blanches the almonds, slips off their skins one by one, grinds them in a mortar, strains them through an old linen napkin, and seasons the resulting liquid with cinnamon and a little lemon zest.
At first light, my mother glides into the bedroom and wakes me. With my eyes half closed, I slurp the orxata through a straw—a real straw from the haystack, yellow and shiny and vaguely redolent of summer grass. The orxata, sweet, thick and a bit floury, feels like a dream in my mouth.
But better even than the lingering flavor of almonds is my mother pushing me back down onto the mattress, pulling up the covers, and tiptoeing out of the room. This allows me to savor, twice in a single night, the pleasure of falling sleep.
The orxatadid its work, my mother and I returned to Barcelona, and those dawn interludes became a thing of the past. For decades after that, except for the short periods when I had babies to nurse, I slept for eight, ten, or twelve hours at a stretch, every single night.
But not any more.
Now I have to coax sleep to come to me, as if it were some shy wild creature. I practice state-of-the art sleep hygiene. I go to bed at the same time every night. I take a couple of herbal supplements for their real or placebo effects. The bedroom is a temple of Morpheus, dark and on the cool side. There are no TVs or laptops or phones–just a slumbering spouse, the cat Telemann, Bisou, the dog, and me, counting my breaths.
Sometimes my strategies work, but often they don’t. Some nights my yet-to-be-replaced left hip hurts, and I have to keep changing position. Some nights nothing hurts, and I still can’t fall asleep.
Eventually there’s nothing for it but to get up, find my glasses, and sneak out of the room. I pad to my study and turn on the lamp. Through the window, I can see the moon shining on the snow. The house is very quiet.
Soon Telemann and Bisou join me, and then it gets a bit crowded in my narrow recliner. After an hour or so of reading or staring at the moon I lead the way back to the bedroom. Telemann and Bisou go back to sleep, and so do I.
What is so terrible about this? Why can’t I learn to like my weird new nights?
I resent it that sleep, once reliable as a well-trained dog, no longer comes when called. I miss the blessed confidence that, no matter what was going on in my life, I could blot it out by turning out the light and pulling the covers up to my chin, consigning my anxiety/nervousness/sadness to temporary oblivion. Sleep was a harmless but effective drug, always within reach, one that didn’t need a doctor to authorize refills.
What, I wonder, did my Paleo ancestor do—the one who wasn’t up nursing or making babies? Did she fret about the wolves howling in the distance? Did she revisit old sorrows, guilts, and regrets and wish that she could make them vanish by going back to sleep?
Or, being a wise old woman with a touch of early Zen in her philosophy, did she throw another log on the fire, pull her blanket over her shoulders, and stay present with her feelings as the moon moved across the sky?
*orxata d’ametlles (horchata de almendras in Spanish) is the Catalan term. You can find a version for contemporary kitchens here.