When my cousins and I were quite young my German grandmother took us for one night to stay in a chalet in Switzerland. We were very excited to eat fondue which we had only seen in comic books but then sad and horrified when we got it. All of that melted cheese is full of alcohol! I thought it would be like a bowl of the top of pizza but no, it had schnapps and white wine and a cheese so strong it was like an additional kind of alcohol. We sat in the little alcove and tried to politely eat it because we knew it was an expensive trip for our grandmother. No one every told me there was anything in there but cheese. Decades later in the Geneva dorms we would down bottles of white wine and pour more and more into the fondue pot to keep the fumes going and the bubbling mixture thin enough to dip.
We also had an adventure on a paddle boat on a lake with big dark thunder clouds looming and my aunt yelling into the wind while we paddled farther and farther out into the whitecaps. For years she told us how terrified she was but we thought it was just fun and a little chilly.
We all slept in one little room under the eaves in the chalet. I had never seen eiderdowns like that before. They were thicker than my own child body, thicker than a stack of cousins in a bed. The room was very cold but we each burrowed into our stiff white sheets, under the massive fluff of down, that delightful crinkle crackle of an ironed duvet cover as you make your nest. It was like being smothered by angels. The heft and fluff were simultaneously too much and just right. We only stayed there that one night but it is my first real memory of bed and sleeping as intense pleasure, a delight in contrasting temperatures and the sweetness of being so cuddly warm in a very old house when outside was so cold and damp and still.
Oh, Melville, you knew what you were talking about but I wouldn’t find you for several more decades. Chapter 11 of Moby-Dick: We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blankets between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal. (My emphasis!)
I love my current bedroom with its bare white walls, large window with wooden shutters, view of treetops and balconies, old pine floor (good for handstands) and not much else. It has been raining here and the cool air is delightful and some nice friends have loaned me a big duvet, not quite Swiss size, but warm and fluffy.
For much of my life sleeping was a fraught activity and I avoided it and its tortures. My child didn’t sleep through the night for three years and my own worries roused me at the bad thinking time of 4 am for many long periods. And so when I think of the great pleasures of confinement life, or a simple life, I think of sleep. It is quieter here in this mid-century apartment building in a big city than in my little wooden house on a small street in the US. And so I sleep, and it is just fantastic.
In my penultimate year of graduate school I slept in 54 beds. I wrote every single one down in my agenda which back in those days was a small book with paper pages. When I brag about this people think I am some kind of Casanova but most of the time I was all alone in those beds. And some weren’t even beds, like the cheap seats on the Amtrak train from Philadelphia to Emeryville. I thought that if I made myself sleep in as many different and new places as possible I would get better at sleeping. It was difficult. Most nights I tossed and turned for hours until finally settling down. I had good sleeps at my friends’ houses and at my relatives’ houses because I knew them and the particular quality of their sheets and blankets well.
I have slept on the dirt in the rain with just an old sleeping bag, I have slept in a convent, in a hammock on a beautiful Canadian island, with a dying dog on a musty floor in a shack in Big Sur, and in my grandmother’s twin guest beds with pink covers. An open window, cool breezes, a hot bath before bed and no work meetings the next morning are all good sleep aids. Freshly washed cotton or linen sheets that have hung outside enough to still be cool, bugs or raindrops or frogs making a concert outdoors and a drop of lavender oil on my pillow carry me home to dreamland. Knowing loved ones are nearby and will be there in the morning, but not too near with their snoring and rustling, soothes me to sleep.
Wherever you are and however life has treated you this first day of May, I am wishing you delightful sleep. It’s a miracle of redemption, restoration and the most exciting journey I can take for at least another 10 days.