The Waking Dread

Talk sleep with me

I couldn’t sleep this week. First it was the Canadian election, then some undefined climate angst mixed with worry over whether we’ve adopted too many guinea pigs. Reader, we have. It wasn’t the worst, though. I read the new Sally Rooney from 3-4 AM each night, and finished it, not sure if it was mediocre or I was just half sentient, awake enough to read, but only just.

I think often about this great New York Times Magazine piece from a few years back, a letter of recommendation on segmented sleep, or dorveille, as the French call it, and which, like poubelle, is one of their words that punch so much classier than their weight. Writes Jesse Barron:

In the preindustrial West, most people slept in two discrete blocks and used dorveille for all kinds of purposes. Having sex was popular. Benjamin Franklin liked to “take cold-air baths,” a fancy way of saying “open his windows naked.” Many people wrote in journals or interpreted dreams, which feel more proximate at 3 a.m. than in daylight. You could drink a cup of tea and take a satisfied leak on the embers of your fire. But everyone did something, because dorveille was ubiquitous.

The idea is that there are many ways to sleep, and this twofer was once the reigning one. My friends used to guffaw at my narcolepsy. I’d fall asleep at dinner parties, and party parties, loud music no bother. It’s genetic. My son once slept through a Balkan jam, sousaphones deftly sidestepping his sweet form, as we danced round him. 

For a decade I fought my sleepy nature with a six pm espresso when friends were coming over for dinner. But a few years ago I gave into my early bird tendencies, and just started flying off to bed earlier. 

But a side effect of going to bed so early is that I occasionally wake in that very early morning space of time where worries can fester, and shadows loom shadowy. For years I let this empty time fill with anxiety about the planet. And sometimes I still do. But lately I’ve tried to view it as what a scientist quoted in the Times’ piece calls “nonanxious wakefulness.”

I often joke that climate keeps me up at night, and I don’t like that. It’s a self-reinforcing cliché. So lately I’ve been reading really good climate books when I wake up at 2:57, like Suzanne Simard’s beautiful memoir about trees and so much more. When I find myself awake at this time, instead of feeling grim and anxious, I delight in the prospect of reading a few more pages. So climate does keep me up a night, but in a newly positive way. Barron again:

During dorveille, I finished books. It was like having a superpower. Nor must dorveille be all business. I found that snaggly, insoluble problems, in friendships and writing and marriage, were more easily confronted and could be muddled through for longer.

I can’t say I’ve solved the climate crisis or what to make for my son’s lunch in these hours, but I am less fearful or angry when I inexplicably find myself awake in the dark now. I try to puzzle through my ideas, grateful for the rare quiet time to think without being asked for an orange cheese sandwich or a drone. It’s in the morning that I’m crabby and evil.

My magpie-minded husband alerted me to this lovely Larkin poem about waking up at 4 AM, so I’ll leave you with a little bit of it. It’s called Aubade:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.


Does the climate crisis keep you up at night? Let me know.


It was a pu pu platter of a newsletter, (You’ve been warned: I am really gonna try to make fraught-starter happen) and yet so many people wrote with great thoughts! Said C:

I definitely appreciated the admission that you mess up 53% of your conversations about climate. I feel the same! And I feel like the stakes are so high whenever I talk about it, especially with someone on the fence who I’m trying to move toward climate awareness, I’m constantly scared about messing it up and ruining the rare opportunity. So anyway, I appreciated hearing that others like you feel the same!

I feel like I need to revise to 72%! It’s been hard lately! But try we must. Lately, I’ve been reminding myself to slow down, to collect my thoughts before letting my words pour forth in a toxic spew.


  • I wrote about Solarpunk a few months ago and it seems to have struck a futuristic chord - people still send me their amazing ideas about it. I LOVE this incredible cartoon about a future parfait from the artist Marc Ngui. Writes Marc, “My creative practice has evolved to a pretty distinct focus on envisioning positive futures based on contemporary conditions. It is heartening to see this idea moving into the culture at large.”

  • Been stressing about stalled progress in the lead-up to COP? This is goodish news: 


Just amazing vibes.

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Have a lovely weekend,