I know romanticizing sleep deprivation is a little foolish. I am not speaking of just any sleep deprivation; I am speaking of the kind you knowingly bring upon yourself when you are young and carefree, the kind that puts you in a dream-like state, replaying snippets from the previous night. If you have ever had a late night with good company, you know what I am talking about. From delirious schoolwork sessions with friends at 2 a.m. to bringing someone over to spend the night, there is something unique about the interactions you share with others late at night, a uniqueness that warps space and time around it.
If you have experienced this kind of late night, then you know the physical discomfort the next morning that completes the experience. It is your consequence, your humble sacrifice for a good time. I move through those mornings like an animal waking from hibernation: slow, dreary, hollowed out in both mind and body. This is essential—the exhaustion ringing through my bones fuses the cherished memories of the past night into a part of me.
Robert Bly wrote in “Winter Poem,” “I love you in slow, dim-witted ways, / Hardly speaking, one or two words only.” Perhaps sleep deprivation is my dim-witted way of professing love, not during those late-night moments with my friends, but alone in the morning after, quietly squinting on my way to a late breakfast. Perhaps my mind is only slow and hazy because I lost pieces of it the previous night, and I, with my dim-witted love, want to keep the lost pieces there as an excuse to return again and again. In the same way, every wave of exhaustion in the morning carries me back to the previous night, again and again.
I have a journal full of pieces of paper that I have collected through the years: a polaroid of people who I no longer talk to, ticket stubs, a letter from a friend, a piece of unused hot pink napkin from a dinner with a beloved high school teacher. Once in a while, I lay them out like debris washed up by the ocean, drying off on the shore of my desk. Running my fingers across the edge of these flimsy pieces of paper—the glossy polaroid, the crisp and curling napkin, the folds of the letter that grow more tender with each read—I remember laughing and drying off the polaroid in a bowling alley, marveling at the pink napkin with my teacher, and opening an envelope to the first letter written in Mandarin I’d read in ages.
Like sleep deprivation, these pieces of paper are my ways of remembrance. When I was in those moments, I was too timid and self-conscious to tell my friends how much I love them, or my teacher how grateful I am for her. Instead, I saved pieces of paper as evidence of these memories, and as promises that I will continue to ruminate on the things they signify. So years later, I still stay up late into the night to profess my slow, dim-witted, silent love by sifting through these memorabilia. Perhaps as a way to make up for all the love and gratitude that couldn’t reach my lips when the events were happening, I drag on the lifespan of these events in my memory, visiting them over and over again through pieces of paper, re-tasting, re-experiencing, re-imagining their significance. As if by knowing the texture of these fragments like the back of my hand, I can engrave the people they represent into my mind, where I can finally profess my love to them again and again.
In the same way, I try to feel the texture of my sleep deprivation: the lightheaded walks to breakfast, tired and uncertain footsteps, and absent-minded mistakes throughout the day. Unlike the late-night moments, my sleep-deprived days are slow and long enough to spend turning over every detail of last night in my mind, to re-experience them more fully than I could in the moment.
I was deep in the sonorous belly of a concert hall. Under the beams of vibrant stage lighting, confetti glimmered as it fluttered down to the crowds on the floor. From the balcony, I stared in awe at the artist, whom I had watched through a screen for years and years, whose lyrics I knew by heart, and who was now standing before me under the gleam of the spotlight. As she began the long final note of the song, the lights started to fade out, and ripples of excitement in the crowd grew like a long inhale.
At the cusp of it all, I looked away from the stage and the crowd and the shimmering confetti. I was suddenly and acutely aware that I was standing between two friends in a large crowd, under the high dome of a dimmed concert hall, watching an artist I’d loved for years. It was hard to believe that traffic was still flowing steadily outside, or that anything existed outside at all when the small cosmos in this room was about to spin so brightly and beautifully and intensely that I could only bear to focus on the things immediately around me.
When the moment finally crashed down and the cheer cascaded through the hall, I shifted my gaze to the painted dome and held on to my almost empty Poland Springs bottle. I didn’t dare look down to the stage or the floor—it was all too much. Instead, I watched the dome paintings melting into the dark and felt waves of vibrations concentrated in the flimsy plastic bottle in my hands. The cold, hollow plastic translated the crowd and the music into a language that matched my capacity for understanding, a language that hangs around the translucent edge of every important experience in my life. It is embedded in the small plastic bottle I gripped at the climax of a concert, in fragments of paper from cherished people, in the aftermath of late-night conversations. It is an indirect language that reduces and compresses large emotions into tangible pieces that can be contemplated and processed slowly, long after the event or people have moved through my life. It is often in this language that I can finally find understanding and expression for my slow, dim-witted love.
I know it is a bit foolish to hold on to things in this way. Without all that nostalgia, all I am doing is complaining about my sleep deprivation at Ratty breakfasts, keeping scraps in my journal, and obsessing over a plastic water bottle. Perhaps all of this romanticization is only to justify my inability to simply be in the moment, but I feel that there is something much more lasting about the aftermath, the paper mementos, and the peripheral view, like the negative space in each composition that grows more endearing the longer you look at it. As far as I am concerned, I want to keep that slow and dim-witted love, to mull over every experience in bits and pieces, long after the moment has gone.