I was always a terrible sleeper.
Anxious and constantly thinking by nature, my childhood mind was a churning furnace of thought and story and all the many possible futures. I remember lying awake and thinking of any number of things – of possible futures, of stories I wanted to tell, of places I wanted to go. I was socially awkward for many years, so I remember sometimes lying away, my scalp sagging into my tiny pillow, planning out possible conversations I might have with peers the following day. Turning my brain off was never something I could fathom, never mind attempt. A mind, in my experience, was a tire fire, an oil slick, a great uncontained thunderstorm. Turning off my constant thinking would mean, almost certainly, that I had simply expired sometime in the night. Sleep usually overtook me only when I became so exhausted with thinking that a fuse shorted somewhere in my brain and the systems took a break.
Childhood insomnia meant I spent a lot of time staring out my childhood window into the night sky. Being unable to sleep anyway, I hated the idea of blinds or curtains, of casting myself in a caul of black, of throwing my eyes into darkness and giving myself nothing to ponder on. I always asked for the blinds to be up, for the curtains to be drawn, for the windows to be slid open to let the night in.
I needed night sounds and night skies. The sound of city buses has always been the perfect white noise to me, a loud parking brake the closest analogue I’ve ever had to soft rain or the aquatic songs of blue whales. A choir of crickets and the soft pat-pat of the few walking the roads late at night, looking up at the same dark skies.
Hours of staring out at twinkling skies were my first chances to create stories. My imagination was never as vivid as when I lied awake connecting bits of sky with my eyes, as I thought about the wind rustling in the boughs before my window, as I swam in the jetstream of every passing airliner.
As I grew older, hours shortened and I somehow grew to sleep better, though imperfectly. The time I spent awake considering the divots in the paint on my childhood ceiling whittled, though did not vanish. Still I never slept so soundly as when I had the stars beyond to tuck me in, when I had the street below to give me my lullabies.
The hardest part of moving from big city to big city has always been the sleeping. Hard beds in strange hotels, lumpy and forlorn and always with the hint of something seedy in a long, sordid history. Murmurs from inside the room and out, and none of them the easy crickets or the predictable stops and goes of the 96 Wilson.
I close the window shades now, I move as far away from the pane as possible. When I look outside, all I see is a blue-black smear, an inky unsalted watercolour wash across a low value sky. There is no glinting, no movement of wispy cloud. The stories in the stars are muted and hidden away, unsaid and unheard.
The sounds outside are wrong, too loud or too quiet. Once I lived above a bar street, and tried to sleep to the sound of clinking glasses and Korean pop music screeching into midnight. Neon would hiss just behind the curtains, amber and fuchsia and acid blue issuing onto the glass in a hazy glow. In another time I lived high above the earth, enclosed on all sides by clone buildings, the only view a Chinese living room and a darkened dome above. No sound bounces high enough to my window, no echo is strong enough to lull me to sleep.
It is harder still when I hit the road. Foreign skies in the morning time are all excitement – sunshine and rain and cloud and wind, gusting over a million interesting things to find and eat and do. An easterly breeze blowing the scent of sandalwood or boiling noodles; a bolt of sunshine blistering down on a Thai beach or a façade of sandstone.
Only when night comes do I notice my restlessness, do I see the blank black strip above and beyond. Only at night does the distances I’ve travelled seem difficult, seem strange, seem hard. Only as I lie awake under a ribbon of darkness, starless or starred, do I really feel far away.
I sit sometimes when I find the right sky, and crane my neck up, and years melt away. I feel days and months sluice off my skin like water, like I’m a shaggy Irish setter shaking off my fur. I’m a little boy under the stars, looking out into the beyond, and thinking of what I am and what I could become and where I might go. I think of all the places out there, and all of the places right here, and where my next night sky might come from.