September 26, 2017

RUSSELL | Waking Hours

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If you’re the type of person who needs a break from the world and also thinks he can do anything, you may find yourself in a lean-to in the Adirondacks on a Friday night without a sleeping bag. And if you find yourself in such a situation, you’ll probably spend your entire night shivering, staring out at the tree-line and the backs of your eyelids in half-hour intervals from dusk to dawn.

Last weekend, when this was my story, I spent half the night begging myself to go to sleep and the other half wondering if I couldn’t, and whether the cold had anything to do with it. My hiking trip fell at the end of a stressful week with a handful of late nights and a few all-nighters, so my pervading fear in the lean-to was that, sleeping bag or no sleeping bag, I’d worked myself into lasting sleeplessness.

As I rolled and flopped in incessant attempts to find a comfortable position, I remembered my friend from high school, a certified insomniac, who would come to school each day with the same bags under her eyes and the same disappointments on her face because the phrase “tomorrow is a new day” loses its potency when each “day” isn’t separated by a good night’s rest. She didn’t expect herself to get only a few hours of shut-eye a week for months at a time and she certainly didn’t plan for it, but at some point she realized that regardless of what she wanted, this would be the new normal for a little while. I was, maybe unfoundedly, petrified that this was my “some point.”

And it got me thinking. About how I’m not in control. About how sometimes I can’t just tell myself to go to sleep because I want to. It’s easy to think of your body and your mind as sets of tools that always work and always work the same way, but they aren’t. We could lose even the parts of ourselves we overlook. We’re that fickle.

A few years ago, my sister got sick and suffered some minor brain damage. It was terrifying for her, partially because she’d based her career on her ability to think and communicate in creative ways, and partially because even the smallest bit of brain damage can change one’s life. In these cases, your brain doesn’t send you a memo outlining all you’ve forgotten; you’ve just gotta figure it out, like searching for foundation cracks by jumping around and waiting to fall.

A normal day meant forgetting a few life moments or driving to a stoplight and forgetting what each color meant. She lost decades of built-up confidence and had to relearn a few early-life lessons to gain that confidence back. When you can’t trust your brain to do what it’s always done, your very identity is put on hold and you wonder if you will continue to be who you tell yourself you are.

My sister’s now back to where she was before, but she’s learned a bit about the way things work in the world. I like to think I have too, from watching on the outside. When it gets down to it, when most of us hear the word ‘change,’ we think of something external, something we adapt to. But we ourselves change too, and we’ve gotta be ready for our own bodies and minds to disappoint us.

The morning after my lean-to shivers, I hiked back to a store at the start of the trail a few miles away. On the way, I passed a young couple, an old couple and a few handfuls of middle aged French Canadians. One of them smiled at me when I passed. “Did you see the sunrise?” Actually, I did.

I didn’t tell him that when I saw it I let out a sigh of relief because it marked the end of eight hours of frustration. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t think much of its actual beauty because I was too busy worrying about the fact that I wasn’t tired yet. Regretfully, I didn’t really tell him anything because I was entrenched in my march to a place to buy a sweatshirt and an emergency bivy to use the next night.

When that next night came around, I slept pretty well. I didn’t have any kind of stress-induced form of insomnia. I had just been cold.

I guess my next goal in life is to get to the point where I know things are going to change — I know I’m going to change — but I don’t worry about it. I want to be able to stay up all night and leave with an appreciation of the sunrise.

On my way back from the store at the trailhead, I eavesdropped on a conversation between an older woman and a young couple. “I try to come out here every week,” the older woman said. “It isn’t as easy as it used to be,” she said. But hey, maybe that’s half the fun.

Paul Russell is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at prussell@cornellsun.com. Russelling Feathers appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.