I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead and Also Before

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Jane Winik sleeping

The subject of sleep first came up a couple days ago at the breakfast table, at which my rumpled darling had wearily arrived in her plaid bathrobe in search of the restorative powers of Multigrain Cheerios and coffee. Fifteen, Jane fell in love with coffee at the malt shop, which is what our neighborhood Starbucks might as well be, then noticed the big fresh pot brewing on our kitchen counter every morning. A baby addict was born.

After checking her phone for overnight BuzzFeed scoops and Instagram emergencies, she yawned and posed the following existential question. “If you could never be tired, never need sleep and just be up all the time, or if you could just have a long, perfect night’s sleep every night, which would you choose?”

I hesitated a moment. The first part of my life was defined by aspiring to be, even claiming to be, a person in the first group. I thought of sleep as a bourgeois hobby, something you simply wouldn’t need if you had enough personality and pizzazz and potential bottled up in you, and night-time was the right time for everything edgy and artsy and fine. This notion was exacerbated by the kinds of drugs we took in the latter decades of the 20th century. As Warren Zevon wrote, “I’m drinking heartbreak motor oil and Bombay gin, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

Part of my antipathy for slumber came from bad experiences with it when I was a child. I had a lot of trouble falling asleep — I have memories of tossing and turning for hours until my sheets were hot and tangled, my stuffed animals all over the floor, and not a single cool spot left on either side of the pillow. Meanwhile, my sister would be over in her bed, still and peaceful as a rock, and about as much fun. Eventually I could take it no longer. I jumped up and scribbled a note on my rainbow memo pad. DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER, I HAVE BEEN AWAKE FOR HOURS!!! WHY DO YOU MAKE ME STAY IN HERE??? I burst out of the bedroom in my flannel nightgown, raced through the house, banged open the louvered doors to the den, and threw my folded note down the two steps to the parquet floor beside the bridge table.

They barely glanced up from their cards. “Three no trump. Go back to bed.”

“But —“


These days you can just give a kid a yummy peppermint melatonin from Trader Joe’s, so Jane has not had to suffer much from insomnia. She, like my sister fifty years ago, plunges each night into the luxurious sleep of the good. The innocent release into a world of dreams, dreams like the one she told me last week about a farm with so many dogs, dog of every size and kind, romping in the meadow, licking her hand, the softness of their fur and the coldness of their noses still there when the iPhone alarm went off, then went off again, then went off again, until at long, sad last, there were no more snoozes to be had.

Jane is as gray upon waking as if she were literally coming back to life, and her revival cannot be rushed. Sometimes the blood is still not back in her face as she stares into her Cheerios, eyes half-open, gloomily contemplating what lies ahead — the living hell of first-period P.E., the tragedy of finding her sneakers, of doing something with all that hair, of stumbling to the car like a sleepy ghost carrying a backpack of stones.

In answer to her own question, she chooses sleep, of course, it is her favorite thing, and apparently my personality, pizzazz and potential have diminished to a size expressible during the daylight hours, for I agree.

But mine is the sleep of the bad, or at least the overly complicated. The sleep of someone who can’t wait to turn off the lights and lock the front door, simply to escape the exhaustion of being human. Of making choices, of resisting or embracing temptation, of putting on clothes and appearing in public, of communicating, of watching the clock, of living with mistakes and making new ones, of finding parking spots and filling out forms online. The sleep of someone rushing toward the painless, blameless, shame-free part of the day, the nightly stay of sentencing for convicts of consciousness everywhere.

When even the story in the book you are reading is more story than you can take, it is time to close your eyes.

Sometimes Jane and I and our miniature dachshund sleep together on my vast prairie of a bed. Always I wake up first and turn to watch them, she a pale face on the pillow, he just a lump in the quilts, slightly rising and falling.  Perhaps he is dreaming of a farm with so many girls, girls of every shape and size, all scratching his ears and throwing his ball and whispering his name.



Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik

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  1. Love this article. As a mom, an insomniac and a friend, I relate to so much.. And how long do I have to sleep before I get the blessing of another book? You are brilliant and I want more!

  2. Great article. I’m the same age, so I have a lot of experiences and mistakes to ponder each night too, but I would still opt for not having to sleep! Rest yes, but hours of unconsciousness still feel like a waste of time to me. A couple of hours of quiet blanket time, like we had in kindergarten, would suit me much better.

  3. like this love the end of the story. i have trouble sleeping take “stuff” worry etc. appreciate the writing. now 73 i say no to alot but still……
    a former baltimore resident grew up there.

  4. Love your writing Marion and love this article! I also love to sleep and savasana is currently my favorite yoga pose.

  5. This could be my favorite sentence yet:

    Sometimes the blood is still not back in her face as she stares into her Cheerios, eyes half-open, gloomily contemplating what lies ahead — the living hell of first-period P.E., the tragedy of finding her sneakers, of doing something with all that hair, of stumbling to the car like a sleepy ghost carrying a backpack of stones.

    • Hearty affirmation, Elizabeth – it’s my favorite sentence YET, too. It could be my 14 year old she’s describing so well…

  6. I LOVE IT, MARION! Very introspective! and abstract. This column of yours could explain why I like to sleep so much. THANK YOU!
    “to escape the exhaustion of being human”

  7. Marian, I connected with this article and loved it. In my early teens, I too was banished by 9 PM to the confines of my stifling and scary sleepless room while the bridge brigade played uncaring below. But now I’m so grateful for the release and escape of sleep. It replaces my muddled brain with contentment.

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