January 21, 2017
In the past six months, I’ve gone from falling asleep quickly, deeply and comfortably to feeling every night like I’m wedged into a tiny window seat, next to a screaming baby. I’ve tried various remedies: getting up immediately to read on my kindle (which does not require the lighting of a lamp), melatonin, a few sips of brandy, brandy with melatonin. My strategies are not creative.
I woke up around two o’clock last night, mind churning. Elderly parents, love, control, money, work—all of the main factors around which a novel could be written. Several chapters of Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time didn’t help. Neither did crackers, or turning down the thermostat or changing beds. Finally I resorted to prayer.
As a person who holds absolutely the belief that we are not meant to flounder meaninglessly on this earth but are created, each one of us, by a God both intimate and inscrutable, for a purpose, I feel bad admitting that prayer is lower on my middle-of-the-night list than counting backwards from a thousand. But sometimes I feel as though I’m laying my worries out like a bad hand of cards, not really expecting to be impressed with any new ideas about what my next moves should be.
Last night, however, I was desperate enough to begin reeling off the list of woes, feeling my agitation swell like a cresting wave. In the middle of the monologue, I was suddenly pulled up short, literally mid sentence, by an image I remembered seeing, incongruously, on New Year’s Eve, of a wounded Middle Eastern child, rubbing blood from his face and blinking uncomprehendingly at his fingertips. “Jesus,” I suddenly said, not as a thoughtless explicative but as a plea to the very exemplar of suffering, “help that child.” I remembered another image, this one of a dark, bloated boy with round eyes and limbs like twigs. A relief worker wearing overalls, her own fleshy arms covered in tattoos, knelt in front of him. I prayed for him. Then driving at dusk by a homeless man at an intersection. He was huddled under a gray poncho, holding a smeary cardboard sign. The windshield wipers of my car whipped back and forth in cold rain, but I saw in that instant the man’s face, bleak and remote, chin pressed against his knees. I prayed for him. And inexplicably, I felt an immediate, profound peace, not because these images could possibly have comforted anyone, anywhere, but because I was reminded of an answer: Move away from yourself. Care. Be still. It wasn’t words as much as a settling, a certainty.
We are, I think, sometimes afraid to let other people’s pain in. Our lives can feel like an overcrowded garage of responsibilities for everything from family and bills to the constant bombardments of social media. But the irony of last night was the comfort of simple compassion, the release from my own idiosyncratic troubles. Will it “work” to calm me on another sleepless night? I doubt so, because it wasn’t like meditation or any technique I can cultivate for my own purposes. It was more like a small miracle—a reminder that I am not alone; none of us are.