It’s 3 a.m., my witching hour. Miss K, my therapist, calls it the “common hour” because apparently so many people are awake at this time of night. Thinking of my fellow insomniacs makes me feel less alone when I wake and blink in the darkness, my mind racing.
Everything is scarier during the common hour: the thoughts, the aches, the unsaid words, unpaid bills, unresolved fights, the speed of time passing, my grip on it tentative, slippery. I know that it’s just my primal brain misbehaving at this hour—Miss K explained that. Still, I can’t help but list in my head all the things that I am sure will end in tragedy: the weird rash, the soccer game, the plane ride.
Then words. Long, mingled nighttime thoughts turn into perfect sentences and brilliant paragraphs and entire bodies of work float across my mind. I am eloquent and have so much to say. I reach for my notebook by the side of the bed, almost giddy with excitement. But even just that movement—turning to my other side—interrupts this cosmic flow. I scribble nonsense in the half-light. Whatever the darkness reveals to me slips away by the morning completely.
“Listen, you are doing so much hard work in here,” Miss K tells me, but it doesn’t feel like it. I sit there, cry like a baby for an hour, ask questions that have no answers. I sink into her sofa and try to breathe through the contractions: of the heart, the mind, the body. I am exhausted by the time I leave.
I came to her months ago, wounded, raw, not even knowing what was wrong, only that something—most likely me—was about to break. “So, we want to work on clarity,” she says after the first session and I think “yes, yes, that’s it!” Clarity. I like the sound of that word, its sharp, defined edges.
I haven’t written anything for months. Maybe a year. Then I think: perhaps this is the part of the writing process when stuff—Life—happens and I’m supposed to just live it. Maybe this is what will make my writing richer, juicier once I am ready to commit words to the page: the search for clarity, the discovery, the travel, the friendship, the stumbling around in Amsterdam and London and Budapest, the drumming of techno in a basement club, the smoky haze of coffee shops. The drudgery of every day—the lunch bags, the swim practice, the play dates, the Sundays when there is nothing to do but go to the grocery store.
Life gives me no choice—it demands that I immerse myself up to the chin. In the messy aftermath of my husband’s surgery, I bandage the wound on his chest as it seeps and bleeds. I can’t look away, even as my stomach churns. I keep track of appointments and medications and listen to and soothe worries. I learn to tell the difference between infection and healing.
I sink into the neediness of my son—the way he craves to be close, for me to make things less scary. It’s physical and exhausting, like it hasn’t been since he was a newborn seven years ago.
I play “office” at work, like I used to when I was a little girl, paging through catalogs and filling out order forms with my best friend. But now it’s no game: it’s what sustains us; it’s what keeps me sane.
I sit with Miss K and grapple with the shifting nature of my love and marriage—the shifting nature of me—and she gives me questions to try out in my mouth like pieces of candy. “Do you have to say that?” “What happens if you don’t do that?” The questions are simple, but the thoughts are revolutionary and exciting: yes, maybe there are other ways. Maybe there is a way of not breaking, of finding a path, of coming out whole in the end.
“41 is an interesting age,” my osteopath tells me. A tall, mustachioed man with a shock of white hair, I schedule him right after Miss K so that my heart and shoulder muscles are tended to on the same day. “41 is when you meet your invisible other.”
I smile at that, the recognition instantaneous. “But sometimes the invisible other is so vastly different from what you’ve come to know of yourself, that there’s bound to be conflict,” he admits. I recognize this as well.
He later adjusts my posture, shows me how to stand at my desk. When he notices me leaning forward towards my imaginary keyboard, he stops me with a gentle nudge at the back of my neck: “No, no. You let it come to you. You let it all come to you.” I know he means keyboard and computer screen—but I think: desire, dreams, inspiration, words.
I want it all to come to me.
To try to put any of the past year on paper feels like pinning down the shape of smoke. What really happened? What’s the storyline, the arc; who are the characters, what’s their background, their motivation? They move. They buy a house. Someone gets sick. Someone walks around with an achy heart. Someone tries to find something that’s been lost and can’t be recaptured. They nearly lose each other. There is a child to raise. It’s all very specific, the actions: the breaking, the mending, the searching. But the driving forces, the aftermath, the rebuilding are elusive. How does it all end? What is there to learn?
When I was a teenager, my mom and I had an ongoing joke. I would ask her whether I was “done”—like a chicken-in-the-oven-done. I wanted to know if I was finished developing, changing. If I was ready to do and live as I wanted, as a full-grown, complete being. I was ready for answers and crisp, snappy endings.
My mom would never give it to me straight—she would sometimes poke my arm as if checking for tenderness. “Not quite, not yet,” she’d say. Several times since then I thought that surely, I am done now: after I finished college, after I got my first job, after the first heartbreak, after my son was born, after my grandmother died, after the hysterectomy, after my husband’s surgery.
But not quite, not yet.
I think of this when a few months into our sessions, Miss K suggests that maybe I am doing better. “Maybe you understand that there are no quick, clear solutions, but you are OK with that.” She quickly adds: “For now.”
Her words feel true. I am not certain of my story or of love or of my place in the world. But I am comfortable sitting with this feeling. I sleep better at night and when I do wake in the common hour, I think of my fellow writers, all of us scribbling in the dark, all of us trying to pin down our stories, all of us—works in progress.
Zsofia McMullin is a writer living in Maine. Her essays have appeared in Full Grown People, Motherwell, Rum Punch Press, and several other online and print publications. You can read all of her work at zsofiwrites.com and follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin.6