Saturday, August 17, 2013

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

This summer has been unusually cool, characterized by what my late father-in-law would have called "good sleeping weather." I just wish I was sleeping better! I spent a goodly chunk of my pre-parenting career working as a therapist and coordinator for research protocols in the fields of neurobiology, sleep, and affective disorders. I therefore know what I should and shouldn't do to assure a good night's sleep. But the baro-receptors in my bad knee have been acting up after a recent fall (both knees are bad, by the way, so take your pick as to which one I'm complaining about here) and some things are beyond the control of sleep hygiene.

And so I toss and turn. While the cool nights sure beat the usual Pittsburgh humidity, my knees and sleep cycle could do with a bit more typical summer warmth.

Counting sleep never helped me combat insomnia. Too bad, because goodness knows that our recent trip to Northumberland provided plenty of material. There were more sheep than people thereabouts.


Alas, no sheep thrills for me.

I've written before about how traditional meditative practices are a no-go for me, either. I respect the process, but for me spiritual awakening, peace and conscious awareness are found on other paths. A deliberate attempt to focus on something is more likely to send me online at 2 AM to research abandoned oil derricks. That's not necessarily a bad thing...except it's 2 AM and I'd rather be asleep.

Brilliant Cutoff Viaduct, Pennsylvania Railroad, Washington Boulevard in Pittsburgh
So no sheep-counting. No meditating. What I find myself doing on those sleepless nights is contemplating ruins. It seems fitting to do so, given the shambles of my ruined Circadian cycle. But in truth, for as long as I can remember I have been haunted by a particular dreamscape. I find myself in the wee hours when I should be sleeping ruminating on images of man-made symmetry, contrast and, yes, even collapse. That too seems fitting, for even in my waking hours I am drawn to architectural skeletons, to caved-in roofs with weeds sprouting between the tiles, to boarded-up buildings, bridges and the bones of infrastructure against landscape.

Somewhere I read that time stands still in a building without people. That's a clever variation of the philosophical debate about falling trees being soundless if no one is around to hear them. But I like the idea of empty structures being waiting vortexes. What we see as a result of the vicissitudes of time and wear on a structure is in fact story-making made manifest. There is beauty in a ruin for the sheer visual stimulation of it, parts and whole. But that joy is compounded for me when I imagine what might have gone before: what the structure was like when time flowed with the lives that surged over its walkways, through its doors, behind its windows, between its walls, beneath its intact roof.

When I worked in sleep research, I inevitably was called upon to address patient or subject concerns about the meaning of their dreams. Now as a teen, my friends and I pored over a dream interpretation dictionary, but my patients got no such psuedo-Jungian parsing of their dreamscapes from me. I instead helped to define and interpret the emotional content of the dream without getting into why it specifically featured, say, a chipmunk eating a hot dog.

(Sometimes a chipmunk eating a hot dog is just a chipmunk eating a hot dog, after all. Far be it from me to laboriously deconstruct the magic of that image. Alas, no chipmunks eating hot dogs populate my personal dreamscape. Yet.).

The great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, Cairo Egypt
It's tempting to connect the disparate images of my dreamscape but I'm not sure what causes a particular scene to imprint on my brain. There are soothing, relaxing perspectives that I regularly gravitate toward, to be sure. But there's no identifiable connection between the images I see in my dreamscape slideshow, other than the (un)natural precision of engineering past and present. Bridges, overpasses, window frames and shadows, grillwork, ruined abbeys and castles, these are the types of images that flick through my mind in slide-show fashion as I wind myself down to sleep.

I imagine that the parade of images is the closest I can get to how my autistic nephew views the world, he who obsesses over photo albums and frames the world with his hands in a rectangular shape, freezing a moment to savor. These images of mine are not stagnant any more than my nephew's mental photographs are; they are imbued with impressions and accompanying sensory input.

These, then, are my illustrated bedtime stories.  The images are posted here in no particular order. I invite you to devise your own plots to go with them.

As for me, I still have miles to go before I sheep.
Dolbadarn Castle, Snowdonia Wales

Synagogue, Capernaum Israel

Off the Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem Israel

Crusader-era ruins, Safed Israel

The Abbey of St Mary, York England

City walls, York England

Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh Scotland
Melrose Abbey, Melrose Scotland
Cabildo Upper Gallery, New Orleans Louisiana
Shop window, Williamsburg Virginia

Great Tower, Bridgnorth England
Cloister, Mont St-Michel France

Carnegie Library of Oakland, Pittsburgh PA

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