Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sleep: a Job for Ghosts

Sleep. As a nursing assistant working the night shift in a large hospital, I have a complicated relationship to it. On the one hand, I worship it the way a farmer worships the sun - that is, as the mysterious fickle God of my art. On the other hand, I don't get much of it. So, despite all my attempts at equanimity I find myself eyeing sleepers with a sort of sideways glance, like a vampire at a drive-through.

One of the most paradoxical things about hospitals (especially big hospitals, which seem to be the only kind there are these days) is that they prize sleep as a central component of the body's healing process, while at the same time making it practically impossible for real live patients to get any. They are noisy, terrifying, and most importantly full of interruptions; on an average night an aide like me will wake up a patient at least twice simply in order to check his or her blood pressure. The reasoning behind why I do this is sound from a medical perspective: most of the patients on my unit are in a fragile state of health and therefore need to be monitored. But the actual consequence of this reasoning is paradoxical. We monitor the patients' health, but every time we do this we wake them up, meaning prevent them from healing as effectively as they would in a more quiet environment.

Real nursing, as far as I can tell, begins where the various manipulations that are typically help to be the profession's bread and butter - the pulse taking and medication-administering and catheter-inserting - end. In the aftermath of the disregulation forced on the patient by such interruptions the good nurse (or nursing assistant) creates something utterly different: calm. With meticulous art, he prepares the patient's room for sleep - and not just the literal room, but the other rooms floating inside it: bed, body, heart. The head-scratching and - I hate to put it this way, but so it goes - magical nature of his ability cannot be overstressed. I have seen it happen. Great nurses walk into a room and people start to relax. Relaxing, they begin to heal.

Nurses bring sleep: because of this, however, they are not typically great sleepers. Like Morpheus, they are imagined most of the time as watchers, lingerers, pausing in the corner of other people's dreams but never staying there long. Gennady Aygi, in his essay/poem "Sleep and Poetry", writes about the Russian poet Velmir Khlebnikov: "Unlike the other futurists, [he] belongs to the 'sleepers', the dreamers. But he is vigilant too, like a tempted saint." Are nurses similarly tempted by sleep? No doubt. But, the lure is bitter - for like all creators they buy their power at a significant cost. They can manipulate, but not participate.

The peripatetic nature of "runners-from-sleep" (to translate from an Aygiism that doesn't exist) links them with that other character of recent concern: the walker. Like him, they exist on an edge that may be made-up and may be real, between will and waste. Having sublimated their true fears (of surrender, extinction, regeneration), they move through the world without every being completely in it. Are they happy? No less than other people - though perhaps it is this very question that prevents them from resting, since it suggests that happiness will be found if only they keep looking.

"To speak means to be forever on the road," says Mandelstam; still, it's always interesting to ask how much sacrificers secretly enjoy their sacrifice, no matter how much they like to complain about it. Nabokov characteristically called sleep "the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals". My own relationship, for all its leer, is similarly patronizing. I don't want to sleep, because deep down I think of life as a race and sleep as time wasted, away from the fight (somewhere, someone is gaining on you). So I feel compelled to say that night nursing - that most sleepless profession - is actually perfect for me, since it lets me both have my cake (not sleeping) and eat it too (complaining that I never get to sleep). A job for prodigals, it posits the testamental division between prophets and false prophets, meaning those who can renounce their pride, and those who only pretend to. One group is sleeping, the other is not. But then the next question comes: which one?

Image: Chagall, "Poet with Birds", 1911. "The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping the sense of wonder awake in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in his long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep"

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