The intimacy of the owls
Note: The author recommends seeking professional psychological help for insomnia.
This text should be read as an intimate expression but in no way pretends to romanticize this health problem.
Here we go again. I am fighting against the clock once more. How many hours do I have left for sleeping? Four? It will be a hard day tomorrow. Next to me, my partner sleeps like the world stops every time she closes her eyes; however, not for me. The world starts spinning as soon as I touch the pillow.
There are no lights anywhere, the neighbors stopped their endless little noises, I am alone in a large surrounding area. Me and me alone, me with this forced intimate experience. How can it be that the only situation I reread my past life, the present, and wonder about the future is when I cannot sleep?
I assume it is better to surrender to insomnia and get out of the battlefield I once called my bed. Is there anybody experiencing the same? Surprisingly, I found a poet who became my traveling companion in this long night. He says:
It floats about, that boat of cypress wood; Yea, it floats about on the current. Disturbed am I and sleepless, As if suffering from a painful wound. It is not because I have no wine, And that I might not wander and saunder about.
What a perfect way to explain the feeling I have right now. Unfortunately, there is no medicine for this type of wound. Perhaps there is one, which my friend points out, wine. However, I fear using that medicine. I know even the best people in this life have succumbed to its infinite power and never get out of its claws. What else do you have to say, my friend? Is there something we can do?
My mind is not a mirror; - It cannot [equally] receive [all impressions]. I, indeed, have brothers, But I cannot depend on them, I meet with their anger.
Oh, you bastard, you are not helping at all! Now I am thinking about my dear brothers. Of course, I cannot depend on them because I decided to leave, perhaps to the farthest place from home.
My mind is not a stone; It cannot be rolled about. My mind is not a mat; It cannot be rolled up. My deportment has been dignified and good, With nothing wrong which can be pointed out.
Now I understand you. You are trying to convince your mischievous mind that you are a good man. I also treat myself as the worst man above all on many of these nights. Even thinking about mistakes that I committed fifteen years ago… Indeed, this mind cannot be rolled up! Why are we especially hard on ourselves and judge our actions so harshly when we cannot sleep?
My anxious heart is full of trouble; I am hated by the herd of mean creatures; I meet with many distresses; I receive insults not a few. Silently I think of my case, And, starting as from sleep, I beat my breast.
Oh, my dear friend, If only I could have your WeChat, call you, and talk about these issues. Probably I could sleep after that. However, you mentioned your heart. Mine right now, when hearing the birds starting their labors and seeing the first bursts of sunshine coming out, it is running in Houdini mode, trying to escape from my body.
There are the sun and moon, How is it that the former has become small, and not the latter? The sorrow cleaves to my heart, Like an unwashed dress. Silently I think of my case, But I cannot spread my wings and fly away.1
This night is doomed. Perhaps I will not be able to sleep still. However, I found comfort in your words. At least I will rest knowing that I am not the only one. There must be a space where all the sleepless troubled people access when suffering, a dead pool of anxieties that we can refer to when we need to. Who are you, anonymous poet helping me from afar? Could you fix your problems? Can I contact you for the recipe? Maybe now you are like an infant when going to bed? I checked out, and indeed, he is sleeping now with no issues. He had been dead since 400 BCE. These are poems from the Book of Odes (诗经 Shijing),2 one of ancient Chinese classics.
How could you help me with words written 2422 years ago? I guess poetry is the answer. The only tool to cut a piece of time itself. A photograph of emotions, immortal as soon as it is written. Even after all these years, your poem targets the forced intimacy of a contemporary night without sleeping sounds so extremely accurate. If I could talk with you, you would be amazed! You helped a different person, from an alien culture, land, and time, but with the same universal problem as you! The anxieties of the here and now.
References / To go further
David Hinton, Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). According to this author, "The Songs [Odes] can be seen as an epic of the Chinese people from the origins of China's earliest historical dynasty, the Shang (traditional dates 1766 to 1122 BCE.), to the unraveling of the Chou Dynasty (1122 to 221 BCE)." However, the written Odes and the final anthology of 305 Odes were finished in the Book of Odes 诗经 (Shijing) by Confucius’ hand around 551 to 479 BCE (although this information is still a subject of vigorous scholarly debate).
All poems are taken from Ctext, available at https://ctext.org/book-of-poetry/bo-zhou. Translation by James Legge.