Ours was a late flight last night. It got us in well after midnight, and, with the final leg of the journey by car, I was falling into bed close to 3am. It was a deep sleep, the sleep of the travel-weary, the sleep of being back home (or one version of home). Not that I didn’t sleep well while I was away, I did, as lately I have been sleeping easily, and when sleep comes easy you don’t give it a second thought – you take it for granted. But when one’s sleep is disrupted, or even cut short – like mine was last night – it can quickly become the main focus of attention, an all-consuming obsession. It’s the same with toothache: when it strikes there is nothing else you can think of, but once the ache subsides it is hard to remember how debilitating it was. Your health is your wealth, they say, and we know the truth of the old adage, we give it the nod, a perfunctory acknowledgement, but all good health is built on the foundations of sound, replenishing sleep. Things quickly begin to unravel when sleep slips. Take any child and see how their personality flips when they are tired; out comes the growling monster within, no deal can be struck, all reason is abandoned. Making sure your child is well slept is surely the compost for their growth and development. And we are just the same. Hence all the tricks we’ll try to send them (and ourselves) to sleep: wind up musical toys, phone apps that stream white noise for a hasty tip into the land of nod, or the old-fashioned lullaby sung by the bedside. My favourite is the beautiful old Irish one we learned at school, The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby, by Joseph Campbell: “Sleep, O babe, for the red bee hums / The silent twilight’s fall / The crickets sing you lullaby / Beside the dying fire.” It’s an overly idealised vision of falling asleep in tune with nature and the setting sun, but it is dreamily appealing and somniferously soothing.
Yes, there is nothing that will unsettle every part of your life quite like being deprived of sleep. It is one of the ultimate torture techniques. Being denied sleep has made people admit to acts they didn’t commit. It can lead to hallucinations as one staggers about in a weak, dizzy haze. Shakespeare – himself said to have been an insomniac – described it thus through the words of Macbeth: “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
I missed the twilight last night, and although I clocked up a reasonable sleep, I didn’t get quite the strength of balm I needed to have me dancing today. I’m down by a few hours on my necessary collation and I feel off kilter – wobbly from one night’s blip. My sleep ship will right itself tonight, I’m quite sure. But for many it is not so easy. So if any of you aren’t sleeping too well these days, I hope the rhythm returns and that sleep comes to knit you back together.
‘All You Who Sleep Tonight’, Vikram Seth
‘All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love
No hands to left or right
And emptiness above –
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.’