For the first few months of our son’s life, I nurse him at ungodly hours on an ottoman across from a framed black-and-white poster of a photo of Hemingway convalescing in a Red Cross bed in Milan. The year was 1918. Hemingway was a young ambulance driver in Italy when an Austrian mortar shell struck him along the Piave Delta. The impact knocked him unconscious.
I bought this poster at the Hemingway House in Key West when I was twenty-three, on a road trip with friends, our first stop en route from Georgia to the Dry Tortugas. We had driven all night. None of us had slept. We arrived alert to the sun, full of the adventurous exuberance that accompanies shirking your shift at the coffee shop and taking off last minute to camp beside a historic prison for Civil War deserters, to camp among ghosts.
Hemingway suffered from insomnia. He transfers his own sleep issues onto alter-ego Nick Adams in the short story “Now I Lay Me”. Nick, trying to sleep in shared soldiers’ quarters on the perimeter of the Italian front, is tormented by shellshock and the invasive noise of silkworms chewing. He is preoccupied with the idea of his soul leaving his body in the dark, a result of it having left once before, at night, post-injury, temporarily. Each night, he staves off shut-eye by inventing and cataloging streams. “I am sure many times, too, that I slept without knowing it—but I never slept knowing it”, Nick announces.
When Hemingway was struck in Italy, the earth rent and rose, then rained down upon his body like a meteor shower, like the soil was the soul returned. His right foot and knee, his thighs and scalp, all were badly injured. The two soldiers with him were killed.
The poster features a collage of the author’s books and face and is presented as a timeline of his life. The photo I fixate on is the one of the injured volunteer in recovery. In it, he is flagrantly handsome: rakish white grin, jet black hair, bulging biceps barely restrained by a casual canvas shirt. His arms are wrapped around his own torso, as if to signal a trust fall. “To fall asleep”: the etymology of the phrase is about becoming rather than descending, from the Old English onslæpan, “a movement into”.
This debonair, hyper-alive Hemingway is the one who keeps me company at 3am. The one turned on his side, almost defiant of pillows, eyes twinkling at the camera. You wouldn’t know it from the photo, but even if he hadn’t been too young to enlist, he still would have been refused fighting because of a weak eye.
Why is my son incapable of sleep? I sit slouched, baby to breast, eyes locked with Hemingway, asking him this question in my head. Rephrasing it into my own assorted trout streams to keep me awake. Is it because this world is so wonderful he’s loathe to leave it, even for a second? Or is the underbelly of sleep so terrifying he can’t stand to enter?
“Put him in the crib with a cookie”, one friend of my mother-in-law suggests. “That’ll teach him to stay in there.”
From the moment Miles was placed skin-to-skin on my chest in what is referred to as “the golden hour”, he fought sleep. His brow seemed expansive with inquiry. His little fists pumped open and closed in an effort to keep the wake machine running. Experts say that what happens in the first 60 minutes of a child’s life has lasting, immeasurable repercussions. There are nights I wonder if the anesthesiologist had coffee grounds under his nails when he administered my epidural after ten hours of unmedicated laboring. Or if the live wire of my birthing body transmitted some galactic current to his wrinkled amniotic one, the equivalent of what scientists have deemed “space lightning”, roughly 1 trillion bolts.
After F. Scott Fitzgerald read “Now I Lay Me”, he felt compelled to write a response, detailing the origins of his own chronic insomnia which began with the late-night antic pursuit of a lone mosquito. “Sleep can be spoiled by one infinitesimal incalculable element”, he observes. His description of the arduous movement into sleep isn’t characterized by falling, but traveling: “In the dead of the night I am only one of the dark millions riding forward in black buses toward the unknown.” He implies that this journey is communal only in that we are journeying concurrently. We’re commuting in separate psyches. Apparently, it’s the wheels of a million different buses that go round and round.
In August 2005, I embarked on a volcano-themed tour of Central America. Our group traveled by rickety bus from Antigua to Costa Rica, with stops along the way devoted to climbing. The drop-offs along the shoulder of the road were frequently steep, and you could see the rusted battered hulls of vehicles, overrun with green foliage and flowering heliconia. On the island of Omnitepe, we hiked the dormant volcano Maderas—four hours of strenuous, muddy ascent in rainy season—and at the top, descended into the cool lagoon of the crater by insubstantial rope. Even getting into the water necessitated giant leg lifts like a moon walker. We sank to our knees in silt. On the three hour descent back toward the base, we crouched low to the roots, slid down on bloody palms. That night, recumbent on the terrace, we sipped Omnitepe moonshine as the need for sleep suffused our bones. An older woman in our group who hadn’t climbed, Anna, made a toast. She shared that her brother had been killed in a freak accident by a kangaroo. Someone laughed in the dark. We were impervious to the world’s incalculable elements.
Two days later, in a San Jose hotel, I turned on the news for the first time in weeks. The garish red headline blared NEW ORLEANS GONE. The city was drowned. While I had slept the best sleep of my life, pillowed by fatigued muscles, Katrina had been treading the warm waters of the Gulf.
A 2014 Time Magazine article entitled “The Power of Sleep” asserts that “sleep is the only time the brain has to catch its breath.” Glial cells, neurons that aren’t especially active by day, rid the brain of waste by night. People who consistently don’t get the requisite amount of sleep can display a cognitive slowness akin to dementia.
My garbage-addled brain has started to resemble that of an 80-year old. I discover my car keys in the freezer. I formulate questions that seem deeper to me than they are: Isn’t video a way of never dying? Can a fern love a human? I glom onto trivia, which doesn’t rid my brain of excess waste, but maybe rearranges it and in this rearrangement keeps me sharper than I would be otherwise. For example: Hemingway and Walt Disney and Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, all drove ambulances in WWI.
One afternoon, riding shotgun in a car, it takes me a few seconds to remember where I live. Not my address—my state. I was pregnant in Georgia but gave birth in New York. Where am I now?
In graduate school, I took a course on Hemingway taught by one of the world’s foremost Hemingway scholars. I was excited to delve into the oeuvre. This professor spent the first class discussing his involvement with Hollywood movie production and showing us a slideshow of him hobnobbing with Sandra Bullock and skiing the Alps with Mariel Hemingway.
Still, we read a lot, almost every book Hemingway wrote, with an especially large amount of time devoted to the Nick Adams stories. I chose to focus my final research paper on “Summer People”, a short story omitted from In Our Time possibly due to its sexual frankness and narcissistic, out-of-character narrator. I devoted twenty pages to an exploration of water and gender and misogyny, to the metaphor of diving and sexual sublimation.
I pulled an all-nighter right before the paper was due, not because I had waited last minute to start, but because I still had so much to say and I was eager to say it. At some point, I fell asleep on the keyboard in the computer lab. Another student nudged me twenty minute before class. He set a cup of coffee by my head. I was disoriented and frenetic. I couldn’t get the printer to work. My margins were off, skewed to the right, and my header was compacted in an upper corner. It looked like a snowplow had doggedly moved up the left side and deposited a bank of words. I was run down. I scribbled a note and attached it by paperclip: Formatting issue, I will resubmit a clean copy.
There was no opportunity to resubmit. I received a C. This chaired professor, whose name rhymed with “flagel”, stopped commenting around page three. He chastised me in a full paragraph of arched blue cursive. If I were you, he wrote, I would seriously reconsider your decision to continue graduate school. Your former professors have done you no favor. You are a babe in the woods.
I completed my Masters, but I kept his reproof. Meaning I physically carried it with me, move after move, but also that I continued to lug around the weight of its sentiment.
When Miles is about 5 months old, as I’m nursing him in the middle of the night in front of the Hemingway poster, I coo to him, call him my babe in the woods. It’s as if an evil spell has been broken.
“We tried to get him to sleep with the other kids when they went down. It didn’t work.” This is what I hear every time I phone daycare.
“Is my child the worst sleeper?” I hazard one afternoon. I regret the question as soon as it leaves my mouth.
What follows is an awkward pause. In the background I hear what sounds like a tambourine being spit out by a plastic lawnmower.
“We had a baby who would only fall asleep with a marker in each hand. It had to be a certain kind of marker.”
Better than the marker kid becomes my new refrain.
Some nights it can take us two hours to lull our son to sleep. Even on the nights he goes down quickly, say in 15 minutes or so, he might wake every 30 minutes for comfort. I’ve done the math. Miles is 11 months old. Including time spent wrangling naps, with additional hours allotted for the newborn period, I’ve logged well over a month of nursing him into sleep submission. My husband Dan can only do so much. My child and I are a Mount Vesuvius plaster cast, a side-lying side-show act.
I love it. But I am tired.
Attempts at helping him transition were either met with temporary or no success: modified cry-it-out, magic suit, swaddle, lullaby lamb, constellation turtle, fan, mobile, rocker. Handkerchief brushed back-and-forth over his face in a soothing motion. Warm water and lavender lotion. A bedtime story, nothing too innervating, preferably a narrative with meek acquiescent amphibians. We elevated his head. We checked him for the aberrant invisible hair that I learned can wrap itself around a baby’s fingers or toes and cause disruptive discomfort. I massaged his head with moderate pressure. I switched him to a massive overnight diaper, thick as a phonebook. Pacifier. Tylenol. Paul Simon’s Graceland. White noise. Blackout curtains. Effusive proclamations of love. Orchestral displays of distance.
I studied the science. Babies must learn to adjust to circadian rhythms. They startle easily when they go from deep non-REM sleep into active REM sleep. Most adults experience a new sleep cycle every 90 minutes, at which point they will awaken slightly, then fall back asleep, not remembering this brief window of alertness. A baby’s sleep cycle is shorter, only 50-60 minutes. Add teething to the mix, and you’ve got a real problem.
Any pediatrician or sleep specialist or seasoned parent will tell you that if you want your baby to be a good sleeper, the key is to teach him to be a self-soother. Teach him to return to fishing the deep waters of the subconscious rather than bring him, every time he awakens, the opiate trout of your breast. Italian for sleep is the reflexive addormentarsi, “to sleep oneself”. I think of young, restless Hemingway in Italy. The cruel terror of the verb, the burden placed on the self to sleep that English mercifully masks.
My son is not a self-soother, although he is many other things: self-assured, self-driven, self-destructive. It amuses me to reimagine Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as “Song of My Self-Soother”. “I have heard what the talkers were talking, and I can sleep through it.”
The dark companion poem to “Song of the Myself” is “The Sleepers”. Its speaker travels from bed to bed like a sleep shaman or clairvoyant Santa, embodying those who toss and turn, cataloging REM slumber. Everyone, even murderers and masturbators, must sleep. Sleep is the great equalizer. “And the mother sleeps with her little child carefully wrapt,” Whitman promises. In visiting all beds, sleeping all sleep, dreaming all dreams, the speaker himself is a wakeful watchman. His eye is on the moon, too. (One earlier incarnation of the poem was titled “Sleep Chasers”.)
I am not an insomniac. I am a mother who longs for sleep. I can self-soothe anywhere. Prior to having a child, I required a solid nine hours to function on this human plane. I needed a sound machine and pitch black and climate control. Now, I can nod off almost anywhere. I could sleep standing up in a prop shower at a sold-out performance of “South Pacific” under full fluorescents.
Recently, a woman approached me in a bakery. It is only ever women who approach me to offer unsolicited advice or commentary. I was sucking down coffee and spoon-feeding a content and babbling Miles. “Did you know”, she began, “that a baby learns to cry in the rhythm of his mother’s language while in the womb? I’m a linguist. Sorry –it’s just you look like someone who would appreciate that.”
I look like a fact collector. I look like a co-sleeper. I look like a someone who extrapolates: might a pregnant me have transferred my own vexatious bedtime rituals onto Miles? When will my child and I stumble onto the right set of circumstances, the proper sleep-conducive environment?
“I just read”, I offered, “that in Japan, having a sumo wrestler make your baby cry is good luck.”
One of the only times Miles cries is when he is made to sleep, when I pin him down to stop the flailing and force a vibrating yin-yang out of our bodies. He loves to nestle against my chest, to tenderly work my arm flab between his fingers, but not as a prelude to sleep. He can only abide the trough of the wave so long. He kicks to propel himself upright, or rolls over into a table-top position to rock back and forth. His baby toenails rake against my shins and thighs, briars drawing blood. On more than one occasion, he has head-butted me like a disenfranchised goat, like I have taken away the seat of his goatly power. Now, at almost a year old, he keens “maaaa-ma, maaaa-ma.” I stroke the hair on his damp forehead. I try to be a sympathetic Charon.
“Where you are going, my love, I will go with you.”
Maybe this is it: my son is afraid of dreams, how they collapse the space-time continuum, how a tower of blocks can become an archetypal tiger, or the grass turn sharp as protruding teeth. Whitman, traveler unbound by laws of physics, is preternatural in his capacity to cope, to see the beauty in nightmare. If I sometimes struggle to recognize the beauty in the conscious world, how can I expect Miles to treat a dream stairwell as anything other than chimera?
My first year with Miles is full of women authors, too: Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Lena Dunham, Donna Tart. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Toni Morrison. Roxanne Gay.
And yet, there is a comfort in reading dead white men. I think this has something to do with my heightened sense of being female and my exhaustion at immersion in new motherhood, my body’s prime objective to be a soporific when for so many years it was a locus of awakening. In my new mothers’ group, other women both console and undercut. A new mother is hardest on herself. She is second hardest on other new mothers. Breastfeeders pit themselves against bottlefeeders. Co-sleepers cast aspersions on sleep trainers. I once had a woman pronounce that my son isn’t sleeping because I haven’t opted to give up dairy or synthetic fibers.
But the dead white men don’t care, or rather I wouldn’t care if they did. My mothering decisions are beyond their reproach. I am corralled off from their reprimand, elevated in my experience. When they write about women, even well, there is always some degree of distance. Second only to sleep, I am in need of distance.
I study my son when his eyes are closed, when his clenched fists have gone limp and open, as if an invisible ticket has fallen from them. William Blake believed that babies are closest to a state of innocence, to a purity that contradicts original sin. Perhaps it is hardest for Miles to sleep because he is journeying into experience, that dreams for him are like a mortar shell, or a mosquito, or a startled kangaroo, or the outermost bands of a storm. And each time he returns, he is a little older, a little further from the clean slate, the start.
Every morning now is the same. Miles shoots straight up and claps his hands. His gratitude for returning is excessive. He crawls out of bed and heads straight for his oversized farm animals puzzle. Taking a puzzle piece in each hand, he climbs back into bed, pounding my cheeks with the jagged wood like he’s wielding a defibrillator, like my face must be jumpstarted into waking. It is painful, but also an act of the greatest kindness. He has come back for me.