Giv­ing up the night

How I learned to let go

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I can­not re­mem­ber ex­actly when it started — late July, maybe? But one night I looked up from my work at four in the morn­ing and said, “Aw hell, it’s bet­ter if I just don’t sleep.” I got a few ex­tra hours of tasks ac­com­plished, the sun rose, and I went on about my day.

Sure, I guz­zled like five pots of cof­fee, and I was a lit­tle weepy and re­ac­tionary by sun­set— I had an ar­gu­ment with the dog that I’m pretty sure I lost — but over­all I was pleased with the num­ber of things which got checked off the to-do list.

I rec­og­nized that, just for a lit­tle while, I’d sched­uled more tasks than could ac­tu­ally be ac­com­plished dur­ing nor­mal hu­man wak­ing hours, and I might have to sneak in an all-nighter here and there to stay on top of ev­ery­thing.

But then some­thing hor­ri­ble hap­pened. I dis­cov­ered I was ac­tu­ally ca­pa­ble of do­ing this twice a week, prefer­ably on Sun­days and Wed­nes­days, which af­forded a few days in be­tween to re­boot my sys­tem.

I called it “Giv­ing up the night,” which was a mis­nomer. I was ac­tu­ally gain­ing the night, fin­ish­ing off var­i­ous craft projects, stuff for work, catch­ing up with old friends on­line. I also was watch­ing a lot of medi­ocre tele­vi­sion.

Even in a 900-chan­nel uni­verse, with a seem­ingly in­fi­nite playlist on de­mand, a per­son will run out of any­thing de­cent to watch and find him­self en­grossed in a thriller about a con­niv­ing mother star­ring Joanna Kearns. Some of you are no doubt ask­ing, “Who the hell is Joanna Kearns?” To you I say, “Ex­actly.”

I had dis­cov­ered a dark dan­ger­ous se­cret, a rit­ual com­mon­place among ER physi­cians, truck drivers, and par­ents of new­borns: Your body doesn’t ab­so­lutely have to go to sleep ev­ery sin­gle night. You gain up to 16 pre­vi­ously un­used hours each week, while al­most kinda func­tion­ing!

But here’s the flaw: No free time ever re­mains un­claimed for very long. Once I dis­cov­ered I had mag­i­cal hours that were mine, all mine, I be­gan to book them. I started sched­ul­ing ap­point­ments on my Out­look cal­en­dar from five to eight in the morn­ing. Giv­ing up the night was no longer the fail­safe I used when things got hairy. It had be­come a re­quired part of my week.

My hus­band’s job of­ten re­quires him to rise in the predawn hours. He’s done it for so many years, he’s able to shower, dress for work, let the dog out, have a cup of cof­fee, and get in his car be­fore he ever ac­tu­ally wakes up. He’s got it down to a sci­ence.

Only one thing can de­stroy the rou­tine: if I am still up from the night be­fore. Then he’ll stum­ble into the liv­ing room, bleary-eyed, ob­serv­ing my java jit­ters and the flat-out ex­hausted dog who’s been fol­low­ing me around the house all night. “What’re you… what’re you do­ing?” he’ll ask. “I replied to like 40 emails and I think I made real progress on my script and I talked to my friend Kevin who’s never seen ‘What­ever Hap­pened to Baby Jane,’ isn’t that crazy? Then we got in this long con­ver­sa­tion about Wil­ford Brim­ley and whether he was born an old man be­cause we couldn’t find young pho­tos of him on­line and I made peanut but­ter cook­ies, you want cof­fee?” “What’re you… what’re you DO­ING?” Fol­low­ing a good night’s sleep, I’ll re-read the scat­ter­shot work, or apol­o­gize for an overly sen­ti­men­tal Face­book mes­sage, or re­flect upon whether I really needed to see that Joanna Kearns movie — she was the mother on “Grow­ing Pains,” peo­ple — and re­al­ize that what’s really driv­ing me ul­ti­mately isn’t the night­mar­ish sched­ule. Sched­ules can be ad­justed with­out too much fall­out.

But the fear, that I’m miss­ing some­thing, that if I turn down the wrong thing I’ll miss out on some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary, leads me to rarely say no to one more thing. As my friend in a 12-step pro­gram is fond of say­ing, “How’s that work­ing for ya?” (12-step­pers have lots of nifty catch­phrases, like “I can only love my­self as much as I be­lieve I am love­able,” and “Let’s all go chain smoke at Waf­fle House.”)

It’s a rough thing, learn­ing you have to let go, first of non-es­sen­tials, then a few less-es­sen­tial es­sen­tials. But one can do so grad­u­ally, tak­ing the time to ex­am­ine what’s still work­ing, ver­sus the things you’d love to hang on to, if only there were more hours in the day.

I think I should sleep on it.

To­pher Payne is an At­lanta-based play­wright, and the au­thor of the book “Nec­es­sary Lux­u­ries: Notes on a Semi-Fab­u­lous Life.” Find out more at to­pher­

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