I wake up in the middle of the night, usually between 2:30 and 3:00. “Breathe in, breathe out,” I tell myself to still the thoughts scampering around my mind. I get up, go to the bathroom, and return to bed in hopes that deep breathing and exhaling will relax me enough to get back to sleep.
The light from my clock radio is keeping me awake. I see the light from a streetlamp filtering through our bedroom window. What’s that blinking light in the bathroom? It’s John’s razor, signaling that it’s recharged. It used to blink from my vanity until it bugged me so much we moved it to the bathroom. I don my sleep mask in hopes of returning to dreamland. No such luck.
Finally, around 4:00 a.m., I give up and climb the steps from our bedroom to the kitchen. “This place is lit up like a motel,” I mutter to myself as I go from room to room, switching off lights. No matter how many times I remind our daughter to turn off the lights, it seems she often forgets and leaves the light on in every room. Memories from my teenage years come to mind. My dad was the one who went through the house before bedtime, grumbling that every light was on. He and I kept late-night hours. My mother went to bed around 9:00, and I wondered why she got sleepy so early, just when I was just getting cranked up to finish my homework, after helping run dinner over to my grandparents and aunt’s home next door, practicing piano for the requisite 1 hour, and maybe watching a little TV.
Now, 40 years later, I have turned into my mom. Julie, 22, looks at me incredulously when we’re watching TV together and I nod off. I finally get up and say, “Well, it’s time for me to go to bed.” She cannot comprehend the fatigue that has overwhelmed me when her youthful energy is rising.
I light a candle and gaze at the flame as I sip a cup of coffee, knowing this night I will not return to sleep. I name some of the matters on my mind (sometimes I write them in a journal; other times I write a letter to a trusted friend who understands my early-morning ramblings).
I pull out a book of poetry and look for something that resonates with me at this hour. Ah, there it is.
You Can’t Have It All
by Barbara Ras
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look of the black dog,
the look that says, If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled,
and when it is August, you can have it August and abundantly so.
You can have love, though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys …
You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who’ll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they were meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia,
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy ,,,
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender, …
And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.
Barbara Ras, “You Can’t Have It All” from One Hidden Stuff. Copyright 2006 by Barbara Ras. Published by Penguin; appears in Caroline Kennedy’s She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems (pp. 237-238), copyright 2011 Caroline Kennedy; published by Hyperion. I did not request permission to reprint, as this blog is read by only a few people.
Already my breathing has slowed, the thoughts in my troubled mind have hushed, and now it’s 5:00 a.m. Time for a second cup of coffee and a little more reading to really start my day.