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What Happens in the Middle of the Night

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Awake at Night

Here at Weekend America, we asked listeners what they do in the middle of the night when they're not sleeping. And lots of people took a break from their nocturnal activities to write us. One was an artist/telephone technician who got his best work - both musical and telephonic - done in the wee hours. Another was an emergency room doctor who described the late-night hours in the ER. We asked what goes on when you're not sleeping, and we share the answers.


What Keeps You Up at Night?

I'm frequently woken by nightmares of my childhood. I used to think that given time, the nightmares would eventually stop. I don't believe that anymore. In the heart of the night's darkness, I keep a cheap toy guitar bought for $18 by my bedside. When I'm woken, I play it lying in bed, in the dark. I compose. Trying to turn the pain into beauty.

- John Twist, Portland, Ore.

What doesn't keep me awake at night? There is the press of the day's events - its pleasures, stresses and strains. There is the idea for a new article or book. There's the latest news about the war or terrorism. There's a Scottish folk song that I can't get out of my head.

What to do with such heavy cerebral cross-traffic? I keep a yellow legal pad by the side of my bed, so that I can write down ideas that come to me at 3:30 in the morning. Sometimes, there's a nascent poem that can't wait until morning to be delivered. Sometimes, it's a philosophical argument that is so brilliant and devastating, it must be written down just as dawn is breaking outside our bedroom window, while my wife is still asleep. Of course, the argument usually looks a whole lot less brilliant in the harsh light of day. But the night, with the seduction of its rich, dark silence, is my Muse. She must be coaxed, courted and obeyed.

- Ronald Pies, M.D., Lexington, Mass.

Sometimes the heat, sometimes the cat (who frequently walks across my face). I take a shower and get ready for bed. Then I listen to the radio. I listen to public radio, but I only want to listen to talking, so I usually find the BBC. I have it on all night and, when I wake up in the morning, I already know all the news. I usually don't remember hearing it, though.

I actually know two other people who listen to the radio all night.

When my children were younger, we slept all day in the summer and stayed up all night. It was a way to live here in the high mountain desert without air conditioning. Sometimes we would get in the car in our nightgowns and pajamas, roll down all the windows, turn up the radio and drive around in the cool night air.

- Kathy Zuckerman, Boise, Idaho

You're right, there must be a reason...let me think...at the core lurks the reluctance to relinquish the conscious time... since I learned (belatedly, but a couple of months before everyone else) that Time, Life (what- have- you) is Finite. However ... though mentally alert, I don't feel energetic at night when I am supposed to be asleep.

Though I am not sure if I can tell you what keeps me up, I can tell you what I do when I lie awake at night...read...and read....and read...for example this past last week I read Peter Hessler's "River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze," "Switzerland" (The World in Color series) edited by Dore Ogrizek and J.G.Rufenacht, "The Tender Bar" (set in Manhasset NY) by J.R. Moehreinger, Moishe Feldenkrais' "El Poder del yo" (that's what "The Potent Self" is called in Spanish) (actually, I would really like to read his "La dificultad de ver lo obvio," which could almost have been written for me) and have started "The Portable Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (ed. Dero Saunders). Only problem, weakening eyes...and difficulty of finding truly comfortable position in which to read in bed...I would switch to books on tape in I had to, but it would not be the same...

-Penelope Knuth, Santiago


We are your night people. If you happen or have to think on us, you know that some of us are here, in this island of bright light, while all outside is dark, or dimly street-lamped. We know that dark, even when illuminated to the eye, can be a void to the spirit through which you must travel if you are to reach us. That void may be the hollow emptiness on which your fears feed at 3:00 a.m., or the ambiguous space between the push and pull of need and denial. But you know that across that void there is both light and life here. You know that we are here working and sometimes waiting, here where dread and pain and death come, drawn by hope and propelled by desperation and carried by diesel chariots running on standard-operating-procedure. The beacon sign says, "Emergency Room" - a call of comfort or of warning and fear?

Most of you are where you should be at this hour: in homes and apartments, or in places of shelter not your own. Some are where you must be, under bridges or on steam grates. Yes, a few factories and shops, coerced by opportunity or necessity, persist. Here and there an isolated individual or business still works, "burning the midnight oil," guided or enticed by the invisible hand. Some of you not yet situated will have need of us this night. A drunk is sitting at a red light, wondering if he can risk driving through before it changes, if he can trust his sense that he is alone. A teenager paces in an alley, knowing his lateness cannot be excused. A grandmother weeps beside a public telephone booth. Even a few of you now in your proper place will call on us tonight. The sweating man sits up in bed, rubbing his chest, wondering if he should wake his wife. A mother's worry contends with her fatigue as she rests her forehead on her feverish child's crib rail. Careless with haste, the plant's night shift supervisor steps over the grinding conveyor. Some will be reminded of us, wishing it were otherwise. But most of you sleep, without any thought for us or why we might be here.

We are where we must be, in a communion of camaraderie with others who are for you but not with you. The police officer has stopped by to drink coffee again. We welcome his reassuring presence, while knowing that our new nurse has caught his eye. She is kind without being encouraging, thinking of her husband and child asleep in her new home. The radio crackles with calls of firemen, reporting a false alarm, returning to station disappointed and relieved to have been summoned without cause, gradually relaxing the courage and force of will they had readied. An operator phones to report a suicide call she couldn't trace, calls to warn us, and possibly to hear a sympathetic voice, another night person. A taxi driver walks in supporting his fare, helpful despite the vomit and the curses. We chuckle at a hospital administrator passing through on her way out. A "suit" in attendance at non-bankers' hours is rare. She had come to deal with some crisis on the inpatient floors and stops to chat, sympathetic to our weariness but watching everythingl.

We move and talk and act and think as the needs and demands of our present charges dictate. Our minds are not much on most of you, the great sleeping mass of you. If we stopped to think of you, would we know that you rest in some small part because we are here? Can we draw from your collective confidence in us, using that blessing to help those who have come or been brought to us, strength for ourselves and compassion for our patients?

Here, our routines are much like those of normal human hours. Other than our bodies' fatigue and minds' fog, there are only little clues that we are in a zone of relative pause, of waiting: a lower noise level, more of our patients doze, they and we wear different clothing. Some have carried in a sign of their nighttime expectations -- a suitcase instead of a briefcase. There is a longer wait for answers on the phone, less push to be ready for the next sudden surge in volume, longer suffering with the patient waiting for the OR team to come. Many of us, aware of our temporal shift that feels like isolation, repeat questions and examination specifics, trying to compensate.

We are lonely at this hour, despite the activity and shared purpose. Our families sleep, we hope safely. The same eight or 12 hours away from them now seems more distant, more chest hollowing, than the same time and space separating us during the working day. We cannot call, without disturbing their rest, making them worry about some more-dreadful-than-usual tragedy, about which we cannot speak, but because of which we need to be reminded of their love. The dispatcher's voice on the scanning radio monitor brings us up short -- what is the address of that house fire? An ambulance speeding our way with injureds from a wreck has several of us holding our breath -- are our children home in their beds? "Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse." The policeman runs out to respond to a shooting call -- where? where?

We are here, paying dues with our bodies and our vital forces. We know that shift work shortens tempers, marriages, lives. The data shows . . . The data shows . . . But it's a part of the job, more a part of the commitment. Like the other night people, we know you need us, whether you are asleep or awake. Even in this hour of turning, there are skilled good people here, who will care both about you and for you, if you have to come here. We hope you don't have to come here. We hope you don't have to think about us.

-Hugh, Baltimore, Md.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Skallander
    CD: Skallander (Type)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Darielle Dannen

    From Minneapolis, MN, 01/23/2009

    First, I am so sad that your show is going off the air. I am an MPR member, and I do help pay for programing. That being said, I love it when you ask questions about sleep and the middle of the night. I often can't sleep and it is so very helpful to know that I am not alone. At my house in the middle of the night I feel so alone. My neighborhood is sleeping and quiet, my husband and even my cats are asleep. But, I am awake. And, I too read and read, but I'm not happy about it. I want so much to be asleep as well that I start worrying and fretting about not being asleep - which you can imagine only makes it worse. So thank you, for reminding me again that I am not alone awake in the middle of the night.

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