Long watches of the night

25 August 2015

The older I get, the less I sleep. Wakeful at 4.30am, the phrase “the long watches of the night” popped into my head. It seemed an appropriate way to describe the hours till dawn – the unrelenting darkness, the disordered thoughts, and trying not to toss and turn too much lest I disturb the man gently snoring beside me. Worse still is being wide awake at 2 or 3am. Then it is not so much the disorder of my thoughts, but the wildly exaggerated worries that are disturbing. Why do things seem so much worse at that hour than they do in the clear light of day?

This apposite phrase has a long history stretching back to ancient Roman times, when the hours of the night were divided into four watches because the city guards could not be expected to be vigilant all night long. It appears in the Bible (Psalm 119: “my eyes stay open through the long watches of the night”) and in various forms in the Book of Common Prayer after 1662. Longfellow’s poem The Cross of Snow begins with the line “In the long sleepless watches of the night …” and Kipling wrote a story titled Watches of the Night.

Getting into bed with a book at the end of the day has long been my habit and, in the days when I looked after children and/or went out to work, it was a welcome reward. There is a delicate balance between reading till I fall asleep and reading so that I wake myself up. I remember starting Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door one night and being so alarmed by the first chapter that I barely slept at all. If I’m wide awake at 2am, I’ll quietly pick up my glasses and book and tiptoe to another room to read till my eyelids feel heavy. In this as in many other situations, like waiting for an appointment, I wonder what people who don’t read do.

I have read expert opinions on how to improve one’s sleep patterns and am always disconcerted when they recommend restricting one’s use of the bedroom to sleep only – no screens, no books, no distractions. I have never had a television in my bedroom though I sometimes sit in bed with my laptop, finishing an email or reading an online newspaper. That I could do without but the pile of books on my bedside table has always been one of my life’s mainstays. So I ignore this advice, along with the warning to avoid alcohol and coffee. Coffee is my morning treat though I avoid drinking a cup late in the day and a glass of wine on the balcony in the early evening is too pleasurable to give up.

I love the sound of the term “circadian rhythms” (almost as much as I like the idea of being made up of the atoms of long dead stars) but have never really understood what it means. Clearly I’ve done something to muck mine up. And if I won’t follow expert advice to eschew reading before sleeping, coffee in the mornings and wine in the evenings, I’m probably doomed to wait out many more long watches of the night. The other advice, which seems to be the answer to almost all of life’s problems, is to get physically fit and stick to a good, healthy diet. With that in mind, I’m off for a swim having eaten my breakfast of fresh fruit, natural yoghurt and organic muesli.

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