The Gloaming

Darkness  (A very delayed response to a WordPress Daily Post prompt from about a week ago.) 

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darkness: absence of light; the quality of being dark in color

At this time of the year, when I rise in the morning it’s in complete darkness. There’s always that split-second shock, where I’m dragged out of some light-and-color-filled scenario busily taking place in that alternate reality we call dreams. One moment I’m on a moving bus (incongruously about to pour peppermint tea into a delicate china cup) and the next, I’m reaching out into the cold and dark, to switch my alarm off.

It’s still dark outside while I eat toast and prepare for work, the sky lightening almost imperceptibly, so that eventually  through my kitchen window I can make out the outlines and contours of ground, hedge, fence, trees, and tool shed. Due to the absence of light, my eyes perceive these objects in varying tones of grey, dark shapes against a lighter grey background that is the sky.

Although I know that plenty of people are up at that time of morning, I’m often the only person awake in my house for half an hour, and while it’s dark, it’s easy to imagine that the rest of the world is still asleep and dreaming.

Dark Street 2012

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darkness: gloominess, dimness; night

I am well acquainted with darkness, from years of being an insomniac. Lying awake through the night, you get to know the sounds of your night environment pretty well.

At different stages in my life I’ve felt a comfortable familiarity with my nightly soundscape. In the country town where I grew up, I would lie in bed listening to a deep silence, broken only occasionally by the sound of a truck driving through the main street, the sound of its engine reaching my ears for a surprisingly long interval, as it passed through town and then changed gears all the way up the hill, back on the highway towards Melbourne. Living in the city, I’ve listened to the rhythm of traffic stopping and starting up again at the traffic lights outside my apartment, off Punt Rd in Richmond, a busy main route that funnels traffic all day and night from north to south.

In this house, my current home, I’ve listened as evening noises (dogs barking, car doors slamming, neighbours talking, cars driving home down side streets) slowly die down, until in the depths of the night there’s just a soft hum, so soft that at first it seems like silence ringing in my ears, but then it becomes apparent that its actually the never-ceasing swoosh of traffic driving on the nearby freeway. Occasionally this is broken by a deep, thrilling rumble, that starts, quietly, to my left – in the south west – and grows louder as it travels solemnly across the sky, reaching a crescendo above my roof, and fades as it continues rumbling on, to my right, or the north-east, as a plane descends into Melbourne airport.

I like those sounds, the traffic and the planes; in the depths of the night they are proof that I’m not the only person who is awake.

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darkness: unhappiness or gloom

On nights of insomnia, darkness can contribute to your state of mind if you allow it to. I remember nights where I’ve felt utter despair when the sky begins to lighten, because it means having to get up in an hour for work with little or no sleep, or, (at another time in my life) that I’ll need to pull myself together enough after lying awake all night, to smilingly greet my baby daughter who will wake any moment now.

In the midst of months of chronic insomnia, it’s very hard to find the strength to do what books advise: don’t lie there in the dark desperately trying to go to sleep. Get up, switch the light on, make a cup of tea, settle in, read a book. Turn on the heater, create some light and warmth. Don’t let the darkness defeat you.

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darkness:  murkiness, shadowiness, twilight, gloaming

If we trace our history back to the stone age, we can easily see why darkness would imbue fear in humans – in those days, darkness brought with it a very real and practical fear of the wild animals that roamed at night and preyed on humans.

(Perhaps it was the remnant of this prehistoric, protective instinct, that kicked in when I was a new mother, so that sometimes in the dark of night, when my daughter was a very new addition to my previously self-centred life, I would manage to make myself more and more tense, as I imagined, almost compulsively, how I’d defend my child if an intruder entered my house and put her in any danger.)

Over the centuries, humans have developed and finely-tuned the art of story-telling, at first through a traditional of aural story telling, and then by using symbols and hieroglyphics, and then by developing rich, complex vocabularies. Across history and throughout all cultures, many of our myths and stories serve to embody our fears – in the shape of ghosts, witches, giants, demons – evil, personified into physical forms.

Inevitably, in these stories, evil is almost always encountered where light is low or absent – in the shadows, in the twilight, and in the dark of night. There’s an otherworldliness about the half-light, or the gloaming, that makes the hairs on my arms stand on end just as much as the pitch dark can do.

The contrast between light and dark plays a big part in the Greek myth of Orpheus, in which I imagine the River Styx, and the Underworld as gloomy places devoid of light. Orpheus wishes to bring his departed lover Eurydice back to the daylight of the living world. The King of the Underworld allows Orpheus to lead Eurydice out, on condition that he may not look back until they are both safely back in the land of the living. But when Orpheus sees the light of the Sun up ahead, he momentarily forgets this condition, and turns to look at Eurydice, who immediately vanishes back down into the dark of the Underworld forever.

 

 

Full Moon in cloudy sky 2012 (over Melbourne Airport)

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darkness: wickedness or evil; as in ‘the forces of darkness’

Darkness is effectively used to evoke fear and foreboding of disaster in any  form of storytelling. Take, for example, the opening of this scene in Macbeth, the night when Duncan, the King, will be murdered:

Banquo: How goes the night boy?

Fleance: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.

Banquo: Hold, take my sword. There’s husbandry in heaven: Their candles are all out.

When light is absent, the benign forces of Nature, present in the light of day, are supressed, and evil has a free reign.

In the Lord of the Rings, the power of evil has created the Ring-Wraiths, creatures doomed to do nothing but relentlessly seek the Ring forever. These chilling presences, neither alive nor dead, invisible but for the black cloaks they wear to give them form, are referred to as Black Riders or Dark Riders. Formerly human, they now live in a kind of limbo; only half existing in the world that humans see :

…they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Úlairi, the Enemy’s most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death

The trilogy makes symbolic use of dark and light throughout – in that epic journey, the heroes frequently traverse through forests covered with growth so thick that no sunlight can penetrate its depths, or down into the bowels of the earth, into caves under mountains. These places are always the abode of dragons, goblins, orcs, trolls, and similarly evil creatures, and the fear that even worser evils could be hidden in their depths. When they enter these dark, foreboding places, I am filled with the same foreboding that the heroes have. We learn, through reading and telling stories, that there is a the pattern to our story-telling, so we know it’s inevitable that when our heroes enter gloomy places, something disastrous will occur.

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darkness: lack of intellectual enlightenment; ignorance

Up until recently, European history from the 5th to the 14th Century was commonly referred to as the Dark Ages.

An implication in this term was, that during that period, which came after the decline of the Roman Empire, there was a period of intellectual darkness, that lasted until the Italian Renaissance in the 14th Century; a period of high achievement in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, music and science.

As noted on Wikipedia, the term Dark Ages employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the “darkness” of the period with earlier and later periods of “light.”

We also refer to the Age of Enlightenment, a period during the 18th Century which saw philosophers and scientists espouse reason, and scientific method, as legitimate modes of thought.

Thus even in colloquial language, a lack of knowledge equates to being kept in the dark, while gaining knowledge will throw light on a matter that was previously not understood.

Throughout history, education has mostly been the realm of a small minority, namely the rich and powerful, while a high proportion of the population has always remained poor and uneducated. In that environment, fear and superstitions are able to gain a strong hold on the collective imagination. It’s a situation that creates a ripe breeding ground for stories that instil fear; and in turn, not coincidentally, that situation creates a handy tool for those in power to utilise to their advantage.

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darkness: secrecy or mystery

The term Dark Ages, mentioned above, used in reference to a period of European history, has a second meaning. That is, that the period was

characterized by a relative scarcity of historical and other written records at least for some areas of Europe, rendering it obscure to historians

In the time in which I write, it is sometimes hard to believe that we can’t find the answer to anything we need to know by merely typing it into Google and seeing what comes up. So it’s fascinating to realise there is a period of history about which little is known due to a lack of historical and other written records. It’s almost as if that period deliberately and obstinately wishes to remain obscured to us.

Really, what could intrigue us more, than that which we do not yet know the answers to? Humans are by nature curious; this drives our desire to learn about the world. Centuries after the Dark Ages, we have a wealth of knowledge and reasoning at our fingertips….and yet for all our supposed modern sophistication, the tendency for humans to fear darkness has lasted through the centuries, despite higher levels of education and scientific advances that should dispel the predominance of irrational fears and superstitions.

After all, who amongst us in 2016, if left alone in the dark, even in the safety and familiarity of their own home, would not prefer to have a light readily available? And be brazen enough to say that it is merely for convenience?

I will be the first to admit it: if I’m home alone, I leave the bathroom light on.

 

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Don’t Dream It’s Over

You know, if I was a different kind of person, I’d wake up bright and early – at 7am, say, even on a day off.

I’d stagger out of bed, lumber downstairs to the kitchen to make coffee, and sit at my kitchen bench, marvelling at the sounds of birds singing in the trees, while I started planning my day. By 7.30am I’d be outside watering the plants, or inside dusting the bookshelves, or heading off to the gym, or whatever early-risers do. I’d use my time to the fullest, every day, in ways that other people could see and appreciate.

But alas, I’m not that kind of person. I’m the kind of person who sleeps till 9am on a day off and thinks it’s extra nice to go back to bed with a cup of tea and a book until 12. No wonder I’ve achieved so little in life.

To anyone observing my sleep – ASIO for example, if I was under investigation – it would look as though I spend an average of 9 hours a night fast asleep. In reality however, on a weekly basis, a reasonable proportion of that time is spent lying in bed with my eyes shut, breathing slowly and engaging in encouraging, comforting self-talk.  It’s ok not to be asleep, just relaaaax. Relaxing is nearly as good as being asleep. Maybe I even am asleep, just really lightly asleep. I’ll count backwards from 100, here we go. 100. 99. 98. 97. 96. 95. …..

Another proportion of those 9 hrs is spent less calmly, tossing and turning while the self-talk changes tone to something like this: Well I slept from about 11 to 12, and it’s only 4am now so it’s still possible to get another 3 and a half good hours if I can JUST GO TO SLEEP RIGHT THIS MOMENT…..ok, calm down, that’s not going to help. Let’s think about words starting with P. Pumpkin. Porpoise. Particular. Pedantic. Personify. Personal. Patriachal. Puppy. Playful. Pantomine. Pendulum. Piston. Palpable. Pretty. Pod. Perfect. Plait. Plate. Pine. Pour. Pout. Prefect. Plum. Pudding….THIS ISN”T GETTING ME ANYWHERE, I”M STILL WIDE AWAKE!!!

At least one night a week I go to bed about 10.30 feeling tired, but find that I can’t go to sleep. Instead I toss and turn until my partner comes to bed at some time around 1am, and starts snoring about 4.5 minutes later. Meanwhile, I continue to toss and turn. On a night like this, tiny noises that probably occur every night, jolt me out of any semi-sleep state I might be about to drift into. But sometimes, I might only toss and turn for another half an hour or so, and finally nod off to sleep about 1.30am. Hurrah, success!

But not for long. Inevitably after a bad night of sleep, I wake the second it starts to become light outside. Noooooooooo!

One moment I’m lost somewhere deep within a dream, the next moment my mind is awake and conscious that there is light in the room. I don’t want to register that fact! I keep my eyes closed, and try to calmly grasp onto that feeling I had one second ago – that warm, comfortable, sleepiness. Stay comfortable, stay relaxed.

What was I just dreaming?

Don't even start me on that damn violinist who wanders through my room. No wonder I've got a hat jammed down over my ears.

How’s a girl supposed to sleep with  that damn violinist wandering around the room?

pic: Wikimedia Commons

I desperately try to manipulate my mind into slipping back into the dream I was just having, as if it’s as easy as taking the pause button off on a movie. But of course on this particular morning, when I’ve had little sleep at the other end of the night, there seems to be no in-between state available. My mind has gone from unconscious dream-state to switched on in an instant. At one level I know I won’t be able to get back to sleep but I try for a while anyway. Ok, this doesn’t matter. I’ve thought before that I’ll never get back to sleep, and I have. I”m sure that’s happened. At least once. Just relax. Relaaaax. Relaxing is almost as good as being asleep. Listen to the birds. Soon it will be time to go to work. Don’t think about work. Of course today I’ve got that meeting with that difficult client who – shhhhh. No thoughts about work. Relaxing thoughts. Deep breathing…..OH BUGGER WHAT”S THE POINT??? I may as well get up.

All of us wake up all through the night, but those people lucky enough to sleep soundly usually don’t recall waking. Most mornings I recall multiple times where I woke up through the night. To me it’s a good night’s sleep if I woke up multiple times but got straight back to sleep. Having had periods in my life where I had chronic insomnia, I feel pleased if I can get to sleep in less than an hour, or if total sleep over the night equals 6 hours or more. It doesn’t mean I feel great the next day, but I take some comfort from getting those 6 hours because I know from experience that being awake night after night, until 5.30am, when you have to be up again at 7.30am, is very bad for your mental health.

The bonus is that all the failures in my ability to sleep make sleeping a valuable pastime that I appreciate. Man, I do love to sleep! I love the creative time that my mind takes to wander in that hazy half-world known as dreams. Almost every morning I wake up recalling a dream, or multiple dreams from the night before. I think it’s partly because I wake up throughout the night that I recall my dreams so well, because when I wake out of a dream in the night, for a second or two it enters into my conscious mind.

We know that the brain is very busy at night, connecting neural pathways, storing away memories, and categorising and filing information, and that dreams play a part in all of that. But I also just simply enjoy recalling dreams. Frequently they interest or amuse me. “On paper”, the content of a dream may seem nonsensical, or banal, yet often the memory of a dream is accompanied by feelings that are harder to convey or even recall accurately, and that fade quickly from the memory. It could be a feeling of cosiness, or security, or a sense that something interesting is happening just outside of my focus. Perhaps the dream was of an ex work colleague of mine, but with only one eye, which was big and bejewelled and possibly had a laser beam coming out of it. (*True recent dream). Yet this weird image could have been accompanied by a feeling of anticipation that something exciting was going to happen. (*feeling is fictional and concocted for the purposes of illustrating this point.) It’s often that feeling that makes me want to go back to my dream on waking, so that I can continue on with it.

So in reality, I may appear to be much lazier than the energetic person who leaps out of bed at 7am, goes for a half hour run, and by 8am has had a coffee and a shower and sold some shares, but I actually expend a lot of effort on trying to sleep, and on trying to dream. I hope that my efforts at sleeping to the best of my limited abilities will put my neural pathways in at least equal condition to early risers, by the time we are both 85.

Of course, that probably won’t be the case, since I notice that those annoyingly cheerful, early-rising, high achieving people are always inevitably the ones who never have the slightest bit of trouble sleeping, so they probably do all of that hard brain work too, just without ever waking and being aware of it. Damn them!

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**In keeping with the frequent-but-not-always theme of this blog, this post is named after a song. This particular song is by popular New Zealand band Crowded House.

The Sounds of Silence

Hello darkness my old friend

I’ve got insomnia again,

although I wish that I was sleeping,

instead my thoughts are gently seeping

and alertness has taken over my brain

and remains

within the sounds of silence

 

With restless thoughts I turn and toss,

recalling convos with my boss,

remembering the tasks I need to do,

noting most of them are overdue,

when my ears are smitten by the rumble of a garbage truck

that gets stuck

and squashes the sound of silence

 

And in the iPhone light I saw

10 000 Tweets, or maybe more

people Tweeting without speaking

people Tweeting without listening

people writing Tweets that voices never share

and no-one dared

disturb the sound of silence

 

“Fools” I said “You do not know –

Lavender oil is the way to go.

Try it now, I do beseech you.

Follow me that I might teach you”

but my Tweets like silent raindrops fell

and echoed in the wells of silence

 

And the people bowed and prayed

to the neon god they made,

and the phone flashed out its warning,

in the words that it was forming.

And the phone said the battery is low, down to only 20 percent,

nearly spent.

And beeped, in the sound of silence.

 

 

 

 

 

Sleep, it don’t come easy

My parents were problem sleepers. That is my diagnosis, not any medical opinion that I’m aware of.

When I was a child, my father drove a truck for what was then called the Country Roads Board, so he worked all over the place, and would sometimes have to drive to a location 2 hours away, for a 7am start. Because of this, he was uptight about getting his sleep, and would go to bed each night at about 9.30pm. God help any child who made a noise after that time and caused him to wake up!

On more than one occasion we’d realise, too late, that we’d got a bit carried away and were “in for it.” Sure enough, we’d hear the dreaded rattle of the bedroom door being angrily pushed open, and the clomp of our father striding furiously down the hall, to give whoever was responsible a “clip over the ear,” and a barked command that they shut up.

Mum, on the other hand, didn’t work in paid employment, but was a housewife with 6 kids. She would stay up late reading, but then sleep in and often have to be woken by kids wanting lunches for school. She took medication for mental illness that probably made her sleepy, and might also have been depressed, so sleep probably seemed a welcome respite from the dreariness of endless household chores for 7 other people. It wasn’t unusual for her to go back to bed after the kids were gone to school, or to have a nap in the afternoon, and still be in bed asleep, with the curtains drawn and the room blacked out, when we would arrive home from school.

Consequently I have an ambivalent relationship with sleep. That is, like my mum, I love sleep and like to get a lot of it. I can easily sleep 10 hours given the chance. However, like my dad, sleep doesn’t come as easily to me as it seems to to other people. I take a while to get to sleep, and once asleep, I’m a light sleeper, and can be woken at the slightest noise. I find it impossible to sleep at all if I know there is going to be continued interruption to my sleep. (Eg, a cat that meows at regular intervals from 5am onwards!) If my mind is too activated, I can’t sleep for hours, or even for the whole night.

Insomnia again

There have been periods where I’ve had chronic insomnia. One of those was after having a baby. This was directly related to loss of having any control over my own time, day or night. Interrupted sleep may sound trivial, but when you have a newborn baby, every moment counts as far as sleeping is concerned. At that time, before I’d even had a baby, it was usual for me to take an hour, sometimes more, to go to sleep at night, and that included after being woken up during the night. So of course, with a baby, I stress out that I needed to go to sleep immediately, because I’d probably be woken up again in an hour or two. Naturally, this made me so tense that I couldn’t sleep at all! Often I’d go to bed exhausted at about 9pm, sleep for 2-3 hours, be woken by the baby around 1am, and then be awake for the rest of the night, even while she slept.

So finally, I made a gigantic effort to get over having insomnia. I developed lots of tactics to use, and I think this is important: you need to feel empowered, and that you have lots of ways to deal with insomnia. That way, if one tactic is not successful, instead of feeling defeated, you simply try another tactic the next night. Nothing will “work” 100% of the time since it all comes down to your own alertness and state of mind. What’s important is trusting that some of them will definitely help, some of the time. This alleviates that stressful, defeated feeling that comes with insomnia, where you feel that you are facing a long period of being severely sleep deprived, night after night. Instead you see one or two nights of not sleeping as a one-off thing that inevitably happens here and there, and is nothing to get overwhelmed by. Crucially, getting this perspective will help you to be more relaxed about not sleeping, which of course, will then make it a lot more likely that you will sleep!

So: Tactics – here are some of mine.

Count backwards slowly from 100. An oldie, and admittedly boring, but hey – that’s what’s needed in this scenario! It helps!

Try to think of words beginning with “P” . That one is my own invention. Don’t ask me why. P seems like a nice, quiet, relaxing letter. When he heard this, my brother commented that trying to think of words would keep him awake, which seems logical, however I’m sure this has worked for me.

I had a cassette (!) called Sleep Better Without Drugs, by Dr. David Morawetz, that I would listen to on my walkman. His relaxation exercises (“10….you’re feeling warm, comfortable and relaxed…..9….” etc) are all spoken in a perfectly intoned, monotonous, sleep inducing voice – I recommend it. If you don’t actually drop off to sleep, you will definitely relax. And I’m sure it is now available on CD!

Get up and make a cup of tea. Although it’s hard to give up the hope that you might be “just about to go to sleep!”, it is really good to do this, as it breaks the cycle of just lying there feeling frustrated. I found once I was up, with a warm cup of tea in my hand and a book (or the tv on), I felt a certain kind of cosiness in accepting that I had the house to myself while everyone else slept.

Valerian helps (available at health food shops or supermarkets) but I tried not to use it every night, just now and then. The main reason is, as above – so that no one “tool” becomes the one I rely on, because then when it inevitably “doesn’t work” one night or two, then fear that nothing will ever help will rise up and of course then become a self-fulfulling prophecy.

Lavender oil is therapeutic and calming – try burning some in your room before going to bed, and having some on a hanky under your pillow.

A final tip that I took up at that time was a simple one – keep a diary of when you don’t sleep and how you felt the next day. I don’t know why this helped, but I think it’s because it also helps to put it into perspective. I started to see that the nights I didn’t sleep were interspersed with nights when I did sleep. Gradually, it was clear that the nights of not sleeping were becoming less frequent and were outweighed by nights I did sleep – at least 3-4 each week. I also noticed, since I had to record it, that after not sleeping I managed to function ok and, importantly, even feel ok.  I realised that if I got 4 hours straight, I actually felt quite good for most of the next day! (That was relatively a long period of unbroken sleep at that time!0 Silly as that may sound, those things are important to realise when you are stressing out about not sleeping. It’s another tactic that lessens the threat that insomnia has over you. You think “what’s the worst that can happen….I’ll feel tired!”

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Eventually after quite a few months, I managed to win the war against chronic insomnia, and since that time I’ve learned to be more relaxed about sleeping! I hardly ever need to use those tactics anymore, and if I do start thinking of words that begin with “P” the next thing I know it’s morning! Of course, like most people I’ll still have trouble sleeping if I’m stressed out about something. Alternatively, (and I’m not sure if this is as common!) if my mind is too stimulated it seems to get really wired and I can’t shut it off and go to sleep. But on those nights, I now just accept that I’m going to be awake for hours, and that I’ll be a bit tired tomorrow. It can be quite relaxing to just accept that and daydream, or read. Overall, I’m much better at sleeping than I used to be.

I have to admit though, that only occasionally have I ever actually used the time to get up and write something, but I think it’s worth doing. Writing at night when it is dark outside and the world is relatively quiet and still and everyone else is asleep – it’s ideal! It’s reflective time. And you can always start by brainstorming ideas about insomnia!

PS, this post was inspired by a Plinky prompt, “What do you do when you can’t sleep?” but sometimes when I publish the post on Plinky the “sharing” option doesn’t work!

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