by Sara Magruder Complete and Utter Nonsense
I sit in the living room at 1:30 am and begin writing. I know I am going to be tired and cranky in the morning, but I can’t help it. This has become the norm in my life; when I can’t sleep, I write. I am lounging on our comfortable couch, lent from grandparents to my roommates and me. It still has the original horrific fabric, the dull variety of all vomit colors displayed in a tacky floral print. While I retch at the thought of visitors ever seeing this monstrosity, I have to say it really is the most relaxing couch in our apartment, often used for naps. I look out the window behind the sofa and see the hazy lights of the parking lot beside me. I hear the rustle of wind whipping through the unsealed frame and the buzz of cars driving down the adjacent street. I hear the soft and muffled voices of freshmen just coming home from their “crazy” night out, and as they draw closer, the big talk of their putt-putt experience and the “sweet sinking” on that last hole really boosts their confidence.
“I can’t believe we just went mini-golfing at midnight!”
I chuckle as their voices pass by, hoping they will get to sleep quickly and not develop my insomnia habits. I don’t remember what I had been writing at the time, but I remember the thoughts that came after.
I turn back to reality, to the quiet in the apartment and look down at the pen in my hand. When writing at night, I am old school: paper and pen. If great writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald did this, it was good enough for me. At the time, I preferred the trusty .5 Uni-ball Vision Elite in black. After a long day of use, it was still going. My brain turned on its sympathy module and went with it:
“I feel so used. Every day, I am picked up and put to work. I write papers. I draw doodles. I underline. I make checklists that I have to check off. I am the one that makes notes last forever. I don’t erase my mistakes but glide over them absentmindedly. I feel like there is never a break. Constantly busy, no time for rest. During the day, I work nonstop, and my job doesn’t end until the wee hours of the morning when I am finally laid down for a power nap before starting all over again. My writer doesn’t know what to say sometimes, so I just have to wing it, going from one idea to another. What do you say when you can’t speak? We are so close most of the time that before she can formulate the correct words to say, I am already writing them down. Warmth from our intimacy allows my ink to dance across the paper. They are her thoughts in the palm of her hand, and yet she allows me to write them down. I hold the deepest secrets, the best kept lies, and the moments of doubt. But I also hold the joys of the day. I know her genuine emotions. What she can’t admit to anyone, she admits to me. The more I think about it, I guess I don’t mind being used so much. I enjoy the important role of being the pen in a writer’s hand.”
See what I mean? This is the nonsense that my brain decides to bring up. Why is it the inanimate objects that have the most interesting stories at night? I have no clue, but I quickly retire the pen, suddenly aware of its overworked hours.
I attempt to go back to sleep, but as I lay in bed, trying to make shapes out of the darkness, the jackets hanging on the back of the door in front of me stand out. In my brain, I know these are simply black jackets, pushed out because of their thick, down make, but for a split second when my eyes catch their form, my scare radar goes off. There’s someone standing in front of you. Those aren’t jackets, it’s a person disguised. They are sticking out more than usual. Yep, you are definitely going to die tonight. Better say your last prayers.
Thank you, overactive imagination. After another ten minutes spent trying not to move, seeing if there are legs at the jacket’s end, my mind decides I am not going to die tonight. Though the jackets are made from goose feathers, and geese and I have a hate-hate relationship, their plumage will not fly up to smother me.
Stressed and sweating from the previous heart attack, my mind is on high alert, and I am hot under all of the covers. Against my better judgement, I stick my leg out and over the side of the highly set bed. Remembering that there is a black hole under it, normally a study nook occupied by yours truly when I want to do homework or watch Netflix and not be bothered, I quickly pull my leg back to safety, worried that the monster under the bed from my childhood has come to college with me.
My mom passed on her love of reading solely to me. My brother and sister could not care less about books, but I have always loved them. I was an avid reader even before knowing how to read. I liked the idea of it so much, my three-year-old self with overalls and pigtails would grab the closest book and sit in the most obscure place, like a laundry basket, with it upside down, making up words to the vivid Disney pictures in front of me.
There’s something about the feeling of a book in my hands— the smooth touch of the pages between my fingers, the smell of ink and binding glue, the sound of the spine cracked for the first time—that brings me home. As Paul Kalanithi says in When Breath Becomes Air, “it was literature that brought me back to life” every time I felt like I lost myself. The imaginary worlds gave me a break from the tough reality in front of me.
Similar to this, but not nearly as effective, television shows from my youth also played a part in my active mind. My favorite cartoon growing up was Scooby Doo. I loved helping solve the complex mysteries alongside those meddling kids and their dog. Forget Dora the Explorer. She was never challenging enough. But with Scooby Doo, did you ever notice what time of day the villains normally made their appearance? The Creeper shows up after dark. The Ghost of Captain Cutler emerges from the depths of the ocean glowing in the night. The Black Knight only comes out when the full moon is up. As a kid, all of this mystery associated with the night only drew me further in, wanting desperately to observe all of its secrets. Most of the time, findings related to this section of my thoughts only brought up more paranoia.
When I talk about the night, I am talking about my definition of it, which is anytime from 2:00 to 7:00 am. For as long as I can remember, the night has fascinated me. I don’t know if it is the quiet hums of cars, the stillness of life, or the alone time that so easily gets skipped over. There is a beauty and a mystery that comes with it. From childhood books and shows, kids get the sense that darkness is scary and brooding. Bad things happen at night. But the older I get, the more I realize that bad things happen just as much in the daytime. The midnight hour simply brings about more creativity. Fabrication is fun for my imagination, and when it is paired with sleep deprivation, the thoughts become somewhat irrational.
Though these feelings are generally centered around paranoia in the darkness, I often think of times with my dad, who reminds me of the sweetness and complexity of the night. From a young age, I took on my father’s sleeping habits. These habits include: four to five hours of sleep, midnight snacking, Walmart trips at 12:30 am, and so much more. We spent many nights on our red leather couch, munching on tortilla chips, watching American Pickers or Storage Wars. My mom would shuffle out of her bedroom, gently remind me that I had school the next day, and then retreat back to her cozy sanctuary to rest until having to come out again an hour later to make sure that I went to bed. These were terrible habits for a teenager in high school to develop, but it was the one rebellious thing I ever really did. I am sure it was frustrating to my mom, but these nights were some of my favorites. Staying up late with my dad, talking about life, is something that I will cherish forever.
However, I do sometimes regret these sweet moments when it’s three in the morning and I am contemplating the meaning of life and existence or replaying the conversations of the day. My midnight chats with dad brought about a firm sense of reality. He reminded me of the realistic situations: the good, the bad, and everything else in between. Thinking of these experiences grounded me in truth before dozing off. The older I become, the more my nights consist of this thinking before bed. As much as my brain loves fabrication, reflection is equally, if not more, important.
Reality CheckThe Happy
Throughout middle school and part of high school, I would occasionally ask my parents what I should dream about before bed. I knew that the chances of me actually dreaming about what they said was slim, but it always gave me something to think about. When I would ask them this, they would respond with something upbeat and exciting, which only made me want to prepare for whatever was ahead instead of going to sleep. Still, the thoughts were nice and often a good starting point for the nightly routine of attempting to go to sleep.
My favorite things to think about were family and friends coming into town or us going to them. I remember crawling into my full-sized, spacious bed, grabbing my worn, stuffed puppy and imagining a visit with my godfamily. They were visiting us in a couple of days, so naturally when I asked what to dream about, that was the response my mom came up with. I closed my eyes and started my slow, steady decline into the real dream world.
I thought about the five little smiles that would greet my mom and dad, their godma and godpa, when they entered through the front door. Their tight hugs would embrace us all in an aggressive way to show off the strength they’ve accumulated. I imagined Kimmi and Andy, who used to babysit me when I was a child and who both became part of our family, looking at me and talking about how tall I had gotten and how mature I looked. I reflected on their past trips here. Like the one time we went to the zoo, and Zoee cried because she couldn’t jump off of the ski lift into the big kitty’s cage. It was the tiger’s cage, and we were well-advised not to hop in to try to pet them. Or when Zeke was just a baby and he crawled into my lap, butt naked, and fell asleep on my chest. He hated wearing pants and diapers. It was all commando, all the time. It was weird, but he was such a sweet, cuddly baby boy; I didn’t have the heart to wake him up just to force a diaper on him.
While I loved thinking about these moments, I really looked forward to the upcoming conversations with Kimmi and Andy. I was old enough to finally talk about the serious stuff in life. I couldn’t wait to sit down and pick their brains for any advice or wisdom they had to offer. These “dreams” continued until I dozed off, thinking about all of the ice cream sandwiches that were going to be consumed the following week.The Humorous
As much as I loved thinking about these sweet memories, my brain also likes to rehash the experiences and conversations of my day— most of these being the ridiculous, embarrassing moments I somehow always find myself in.
As I lay in bed, wide awake at 2:00 am, I think about my days working as a student worker in the Office of Advancement over the summer. I and Taya, a spritely, enthusiastic colleague and friend with boundless energy and a continuous positive outlook, had been cleaning out and reorganizing the small, wooden shed behind our office. It was a tight space that only got more claustrophobic as boxes were pulled off the shelves. Being stuck in a room that was roughly the size of a large handicap bathroom stall all day, we had to find things to keep us entertained. Some days, we put on our Spotify Disney playlist and blasted the music until we would notice the banking personnel next door looking over at us, and upon the realization that they had listened to our best renditions of “A Whole New World,” “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” we would turn the music down and double over laughing.
That summer was full of laughter and embarrassing moments, but one memory is commonly brought up during the nightly battle between sleep and my overthinking brain. Taya and I had just cleared some cardboard boxes from the shed, throwing them out the door to conserve our leg room. When we were done for the day, we took them over to the dumpster. Determined to get the lid up in one swift throw, I grabbed the flimsy black dumpster lid with both hands, and with all of the strength in my arms, I heaved it as hard as I could upwards. However, I had been so focused on my task that I had forgotten to move my head out of the way and was left with a bruised, bleeding chin. After the eighth alcohol wipe and with a large piece of gauze taped underneath my chin, I was all patched up. I was sent home early due to my “injury,” but I had to come back to fill out an incident report the next day. Even as I write this, I can’t help but chuckle remembering the questions and my responses.
“Describe the accident that occurred.”
“I clothes-lined myself with a dumpster lid.” I joked as I read off the questions and verbally answered them.
“What safety precautions need to be put in place to prevent this in the future?”
“Remind employees not to get frustrated with a dumpster. It will win whatever battle is thrown its way.”
“How can we avoid this accident in the future?”
“Hire more intelligent people, I guess.”
My brain often reverts back to this memory when I want to sleep because of its ridiculousness. Sometimes, when my face gets red from the heat, I can still make out the lines where the dumpster scratched the skin off my chin. Then, I go to bed laughing at myself and thankful that not many people were around to witness the short-lived Dumpster War of 2017.The Hard
Though there are so many fond memories I reflect on before bed, sometimes it’s the hardest ones that stick out, forcing me to ruminate in darkness before I can sleep. Just as quickly as I thought of the jacket attack, I also think of the heavy realities that come with living in a world full of pain. My brain generously provides flashbacks for me. These recollections are vivid and haunting. The most recurring memory only happened a few years ago. I can still picture it perfectly.
I was sitting alone in my cousin’s living room on her cream-colored, suede couch, staring at a baby monitor. The television was on solely for the quiet noise it provided. I was too focused counting the number of breaths Nana took to watch a meaningless show. One, two, three… Wait, is her chest moving? When was the last time she took a breath? I got up and ran into the small bedroom. It was lit only by a lamp on the side table. Nana’s hospice bed was pushed against the left side of the room, and my Aunt Brenda sat across from her.
“Aunt Brenda, what’s going on? Is it time for more medicine already?”
“No. She doesn’t need more medicine.”
“Her breathing is really shaky and hollow. What’s happening?”
“Baby,” she paused. “She’s dying.”
I couldn’t believe it. My eyes fixed on Nana. I was paralyzed by fear and sadness. I couldn’t hear anything. I don’t remember what Aunt Brenda was telling me. I just stared. My heart pounded faster as hers slowed. Her chest went up and down. Up and down. Up and down. And then it stopped.
My mind provides these short films of my life often. Involuntarily, I rewatch my Nana take her last breath. I recall the moment I heard about the passing of one of my godsisters, Lucy, at only three years old. I wave goodbye to my home and friends in Arizona as I move to Colorado all over again. It’s not that these hard memories didn’t have sweet ones that followed them, they are just some of the things my brain won’t ever give up.
Most recently, my thoughts before bed have fallen into this category of reality checks. After a long night of trying to write about how I am feeling, I give up, going into robot mode. My mind seems to work double time as I brush my teeth and wash my face. My plans for the next day are sorted out as I crawl into my multicolored bedding with the perfect comforter for bundling up, thick and soft. My pillow calls to me, and as my head hits it, my mind sounds the alarm, reminding me again of the harsh news received only a week ago. My dad’s words still reverberate in my head, your ex-youth pastor was arrested today for sexual assault charges. A myriad of emotions flow through me. How could he? I trusted him. I believed in him. He was a mentor, a friend. How could he do that? The grieving process starts over again nightly as I try to make sense of how this could have happened. I feel every emotion all at once. Each comes and goes whenever it pleases, and I am left even more of a mess than I was before trying to sleep.
I love sleep, but my brain hates it. There is a daily fight against the low-level of energy from the previous night. When I finally return to my dorm bed, exhausted and ready to turn in, there is no avail. There are just some nights when sleeping is more of a hassle than the energy boost it boasts of being. As much as I love it, there are more important things to focus on every once in a while.
I will never fully understand why I can’t sleep sometimes. It seems the night still holds me captive, as it did when I was a kid. There’s just something about it that draws me in. The night is terrifying and ominous, but it is so much more than that. It is unknown and mysterious; and yet it brings me the most clarity. It reveals the paranoia of the mind, but also uncovers the creativity of it. The night is dark and hazy, but it encourages reflection and shines light on new and old situations. I don’t see myself ever defeating this thief of sleep, but if I’m being honest, I don’t think I want to.
I don’t mean to advocate for sleep deprivation. You should definitely be getting sleep when you can. I am only attempting to expose the difficulties some of us have with this idea of sleeping: the difficulties of people who aren’t up with newborns and children, people without any medical issues, but merely the restless night owls, the wandering souls, trying to make sense of this world. The only time for thinking without disturbance for me is at night. The hours when all else is quiet, and for the first time in my day, I can process without remorse, without the fear of missing important information from others.
The monsters we used to get so scared of at night might not be real, but sometimes their entities remain, haunting us. The teddy bear that we imagined raising its sword up to protect us isn’t always around anymore. My stuffed puppy is still close by every night, but the idea of him fighting off any new, fresh dragon has been laid to rest. He has retired and now sleeps more soundly than I do. As we grow older, we are left to fight off the demons on our own. For me, I prefer to process believing God is by my side, as He provides comfort in the chaos of my thoughts. But I know others that the darkness eats for a midnight snack, their will devoured under its black cloak and in the morning, the monster spits them back out, cold and already tired of the battle ahead. About the Author:Sara Magruder is currently a student studying English and Communication. She works on her university’s campus in both the Residence Life program and the Writing Center. She is an extrovert and loves getting to know people. In her free time, she also enjoys writing, reading, and editing.”