I stirred in my bed this morning before there was any color in the sky, reached over as usual to the space next to me and found what I always find. Only it was dead. Cold. Unresponsive. Useless.
It was a little, just a little, like the story I’ll never forget about my Great Aunt Emily. She told me that as the youngest child in her family she had watched her siblings one by one tie the knot and then begin one by one to have troubles – troubles she associated with their unions, troubles that uninspired her to say yes to the man who asked for her hand. Whether she closed the door after that or was never asked again, she didn’t tell me.
For most of her adult life, Aunt Emily lived with her mom. For practical reasons they had slept in the same bed. Once, when I was a child, we visited her at the one-bedroom apartment in New York City they had shared.
You see where I’m going, right?
So, okay, finding your phone – cold and unresponsive – an arm’s reach away from you in bed is not the same as waking up next to a dead body, not the same as all the sadness, weirdness and subsequent suffering that go along with the unenviable life experience that Aunt Emily had. I get that. But when that phone is your connection to living people, when its job is bringing you out of dreamland and reconnecting you to the unsleeping world, when it serves to comfort you in its sameness yet always gives you something new to think about, when you depend on it to tell you not only the time and the weather but also who thought of you in the night and what happened during those sleep hours that you need to know about – well, you see the parallel. I hope.
Wait. How did this happen? How did our phones become a thing we reach for, a comfort, a kind of lifeline to the world beyond the space we stand or sit or lie in? How it is that I routinely fall asleep next to mine? Why did I, first thing in the morning, before making tea, before brushing my hair, before even turning on a light, find the charger and plug it back in?
We must have connection. In so many ways we like, we crave, we depend on connection with others – whether that be the ideas they present, the music they make, the comfort they provide. My phone died because I fell asleep to the podcast I was listening to. But it made me reflect on what the alternatives might be – or might have been. What do you like or need or depend on to get you over the bridge from Awakeland to Asleepland? After you brush your teeth, arrange your pillows the way you like them, set your alarm, and do whatever else is in your bedtime routine, how do you tuck in and make the transition?
Let’s see. You could fall asleep in the arms of your lover. Anyone who has known such a pleasure would surely rank this above falling asleep while listening to a podcast. Yes. Definitely. Some people are blessed with nights on end of such joy. Some have it sometimes. Some had it and now miss it greatly. Some only wonder if that kind of comfort is not just a myth.
Being with someone you love is super nice. Being warm is a need. You could fall asleep just trying to get warm. What if your bedroom were cold enough to wear a hat to bed? Nightcaps were a thing you wore on your head before they morphed into a strong drink you enjoyed in the wee hours. Hot water bottles with cute, knitted sleeves can take the chill out of cold sheets. How about a bed warmer, used in the days before electric blankets to heat a bed. Wikipedia cites Cora Millet-Robinet (1853), Domestic Economy: “A copper warming pan is indispensable to a household. Take care to have a big enough quantity of embers, above all some red cinders, when you want to heat a bed. Get it smouldering well before you use it, otherwise the fire will soon go out and the bed will not warm up. You must move the warming pan constantly to avoid scorching the sheets.” This bed warmer from the Netherlands gives you the idea.
Falling asleep with a lover to keep you warm seems about perfect to me, but I digress.
You could fall asleep just listening. For some it’s music, for some it’s traffic, for some it’s clatter. In my world the sounds I am likely to hear include my heat pump as it kicks back in to keep my house at a steady 68 (ka-chink, but some things I am willing to pay for), some howling coyotes (God only knows what sets them off sometimes, but they are usually pretty far away by the sound of it), the perfectly tuned wind chime hanging above my back porch (if the air is not still), or the rumbling of the train about half a mile away through the woods (a most reassuring sound – if the train is running, something is right in the world).
You could fall asleep in front of the TV. I am old enough to remember how the TV produced a grainy, fuzzy “snow” on the screen, well after midnight I guess, when programming actually ended for the night. I don’t think it does that anymore but I wouldn’t know. I never had a TV in the bedroom, never wanted one. Which speaks to how complicated and unreasonable we silly humans are sometimes. A podcast is okay but forget a TV. There is not much difference perhaps.
You could fall asleep while reading a book, on purpose or not. Some people use the book as a way to fall asleep, getting through one paragraph at best on any given night before being unable to keep their eyes open. It’s a sleeping pill akin to a shot of Bailey’s or your drink of choice just before bed. Not a terrible bridge to walk over.
You could fall asleep praying, though I want to think we do this when we are more coherent. I want to think we pray throughout the day, reflexively, within our daily situations, as a part of our course and not so much as a designated activity. I want to think we fill in the gaps of our days with silent pleas, a kind of continual communion. But as with so many of our life choices, the individual way we each go about prayer is as varied as everything else about us.
You could fall asleep in conversation. I don’t mean the kind where words come out of your mouth audibly. I mean the kind where you hear futuristic or past dialog in your head. This might be an imagined meeting in which you decide what everyone says. What if I said this or that instead? How lovely if he/she/they said that. How might the flow of the dialog change – or even the outcome – if the spoken and unspoken words were different? Or you might replay a significant scene that occurred between you and someone else that you are trying to make sense of. Did I hear that correctly? How unexpected was that reaction! What did he/she/they mean to suggest by doing that? I wonder if only introverts do this dialog review and construction.
You could fall asleep thinking. Just thinking. Most recently I have had porch-building dilemmas to solve, test results to ponder, familial history to find my peace with. The world doesn’t end if you don’t come to workable solutions or solid footing before nodding off, but time spent working through a problem in our heads is under-appreciated, I think. Not everything has an instant solution. Not everything is immediately understood. Some things stick in your craw. They don’t resolve, they stay annoying or difficult or challenging. Maybe that’s because you aren’t there yet, you aren’t done thinking, you haven’t figured it out. Maybe just before fade-out is the right time to make a little progress on that issue.
Maybe your phone even helps you. I don’t think it’s all bad that we sleep next to our phones. They give us lots of information and connect us with people who are far away. But some day, someone studying this time in history will note a shift in human habits right about when cell phones became universal in our culture. They will see what we can’t see – how this technology played out both for good and not so good, how we adapted, how we changed, how our relationships changed. I wonder what they will say. What do you think they will say?
In the meantime, there it lies, my phone, my buddy. Don’t ask me why I put stickers on the back. I have no idea. Hey, it just occurs to me that a bedside table would be very handy!