One positive thing about often being awake in the middle of the night is that you have the opportunity to observe your own thought processes at their most fluid and haphazard. Here’s an example from the other night. It began with a dream.
The details of this particular dream are a touch sketchy, but what I do remember is that, near the end of it, I was at a party, where I was on the receiving end of some damning criticism re the quality of my blog, from a complete stranger. Then a friend of mine, who was also part of the conversation, leapt to my defence and said, ‘Don’t listen to him Rod, I reckon you are the King of June.’ I was about to ask my friend what she meant by this term when I was dragged suddenly into wakefulness by ‘hum, hum, hum, hum…’ noises coming from the cot beside me. Little Kit Kat had woken up and was turning her head from side to side, opening and closing her mouth, and making the aforementioned ‘hum, hum’ noises, all of it in the vain hope that there might be a nipple hovering just above her face that she could latch onto. I picked Kit Kat up and handed her over to the keeper of the nipples, and as I lay there waiting for the feed to finish, so I could change her nappy in the light of Tilly’s penguin torch, my thoughts turned to dreams.
I thought of all the dreams we must have in our lives and how few of them we remember, and this struck me as particularly sad (the fact that it was three in the morning may also have contributed to this dark take on the subject, I guess). Setting aside the question of whether you can learn anything about yourself from your dreams, if you happen to be an artist of any kind, dreams are a fantastic (in both senses of the word) treasure trove of narratives, ideas and images. And yet, unless we wake (or are woken) in the REM phase of sleep, we won’t remember any of the dreams we have during any given night. What a waste of creative resource. How sad for the dreams themselves that so few are ever recalled, let alone recounted.
My addled mind then decided that this phenomenon was analogous to the way most species on the planet reproduce (of course it did). All these microscopic organisms, insects, fish, frogs, reptiles producing billions of eggs, of which only millions are fertilized, of which only thousands hatch, and of which only hundreds reach maturity. Such a tiny fraction of potential lives come to be, and an even tinier fraction reach the age where they can reproduce themselves. Evolution is such a brutally inefficient system: non-existence or premature death being the destiny of almost every potential life.
Which makes (and here my mind swerved back to my own children, of course) the expectation we have in developed countries in the 21st century that all our children will survive pregnancy and birth, be healthy and strong, and outlive us, so extraordinary. I recalled, at this point, a story my brother had told me a few night before of visiting the Mozart museum in Salzburg and walking from one room, which showed a family tree on which he counted seven children, into the next room, which showed a family portrait that featured only two children, and then, upon returning in shock to the previous room, noting that five of the seven children had died before they were two. Mr. and Mrs. Mozart lost five of their seven children when they were babies, and that was normal.
At this point Susie handed me the milk-drunk Kit Kat and I held her very tightly to my chest while I stared into the darkness of our room and imagined the unimaginable prospect of her, or Tilly, being taken away from us. It is both sobering and sickening to realise that what I consider to be an unimaginable experience, has been, for almost every parent, in every species, in every age, and in every place, an inevitable and unavoidable experience.
It occurred to me at this point that in the West we have achieved a kind of strange reverse Copernican revolution (I get a touch grandiose in the wee hours). In the past people thought that the Earth was at the centre of the universe and dwarfed every other celestial body, and yet at the same time they understood correctly that life itself was a tiny planet orbiting the vast black star of death. By contrast, we modern types understand correctly that the Earth is a tiny planet orbiting a minor star, in a minor galaxy, in an obscure corner of a vast universe, and yet have convinced ourselves that death is but a small, black planet orbiting the dazzling sun of life (or at least, our lives and the lives of our children). We have exchanged one form of ignorance for another.
As I finished changing Kit Kat’s nappy, re-swaddled her and returned her to her cot, I thought about all the things that we gained from the Copernican revolution, and I wondered how much we have lost in the developed world as a result of this reverse Copernican revolution of the Soul (somebody stop me!). As I laid my head back down on the pillow I even started to construct a rant about the death of spirituality; about the connection between our death-denying culture and the extinction of so many other life forms; about the need for a healthy relationship with, and respect for, death in order to cultivate qualities like humility and gratitude. But then it occurred to me that if I went back to sleep straight away instead, then it might not be too late to pick up where I’d left off with my interrupted dream. So I said goodbye to my stream of consciousness, swam quickly through the briny estuary of drifting off, and dove down deep into the little death that is sleep, to search again for the King of June.