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Sleep

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Charles Bird King: The Vanity of the Artist's Dream
Former Title: The Anatomy of Art Appreciation
Former Title: Poor Artist's Study
Former Title: Still Life, The Vanity of An Artist's Dream
(1830)


" … only then could the aspiring artist ever come out to play."


Of all the skills that have eluded me in this life, Sleep certainly heads the list, though I should have had adequate practice with it by now. I early identified Sleep as an enemy and alien state, and set about trying to as much as possible eliminate it from my routine. It seemed such a sorry waste of time, time I might spend doing whatever else I might please. The wee hours, those downplayed by those who've perhaps never intimately engaged with them, seemed the perfect medium for me to practice as an artist, for a budding artist needs plenty of cave time. My earliest performances were barely fit for my own experience, practice far preceding whatever perfection might later emerge. My writing, too, demanded bounded solitude and could not be produced with any sort of audience hovering nearby, and certainly not with anyone even distantly inquisitive about how it was going at any time.

So I routinely stayed up way past my designated bed time, reading with a flashlight beneath covers, hugging my warm bread loaf-sized radio to my chest, master of my own wee hours.
The amount of solitude needed to become a writer cannot be easily measured, for it's probably too vast to even imagine. Whatever's estimated, it's orders of magnitude greater, more, as they used to say, than hours in the day, so one quite naturally becomes also nocturnal. I prided myself on my ability to shunt off sleep. I groomed myself to thrive on little more than four hours of sleep each night, and came to suffer no ill effects or, really, anything but benefits from my practice.

In my later years, I came to doubt my prowess. Doctors would speculate that I perhaps exhibited some dysfunction, that my long-standing routine might represent a kind of broken. My nurse practitioner suggested a battery of tests. My new doctor wondered if I might benefit from scuba gear in bed. I began to wonder if I might have messed up by training myself to go without sleep, that perhaps it brought some benefits invisible to the denizens of wee hour practice. I decided to try to sleep more, a Be Spontaneous! Paradox of course. It was then that I noticed that I didn't seem to know how to sleep. It seemed to me that I could right and properly fake it when needed, but I seemed clueless whenever I attempted to just induce it. I could lay there for hours, mind wandering and racing in turn, achieving nothing. I could "wake" just as weary as I started, or almost just as alert, it seemed.

Two extraneous factors seem involved. The first, purpose, and the second, prescriptions. When I'm pursuing some purpose or other, I tend to experience a level of passion in my engagement. Purpose seems a fine and perfectly adequate replacement for almost any amount of sleep. Purpose demands a certain naiveté in its pursuing principle, an innocence bordering upon the gullible. The belief produced seems more nourishing and refreshing than any meal or any nap. Purpose, once engaged, seems self-reinforcing, self-nourishing, endlessly reassuring.

I'm learning that prescriptions, of which I currently take four, can wreck havoc with even a well-developed pattern of sleep. My sufficient four hours, adequate for over fifty years, began eroding once the presence of these prescriptions began intruding. They've upset some balance I'd achieved through long and diligent practice, rendering my experience to become worth less if not precisely worthless. I sometimes seem to lose consciousness and sleep for hours, whole mornings or afternoons, waking perhaps less rested than I began. The superpower that propelled me through beginning and learning has become less reliable in my late career practice.

I still require a cave, preferably one shrouded in shadows, rather like the one Plato suggested we inhabit, in order to make proper sense of this place and my roles within it. I daresn't simply sleep through it. I need to be present and alert, not dozing in some wing chair by a fire with The Times folded in my ancient lap. I realize, as I said above, that I'm one lousy sleeper. I never aspired to become any better at it than I've become, indeed, my current lack of skill represents a lifetime of focused practice, the payoff, not an absence. I will attempt to find some replacements for those probably disruptive prescriptions. I'll in the mean time continue to fake it, I guess. I learned before I was ten how to appear to be dreaming until well after the lights went out and the house fell quiet. Then, only then, could the aspiring artist ever come out to play. Only then does the practicing artist ever continue practicing to this day.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved







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