I cannot remember the last time I slept for more than four hours at a stretch. Surely, it has been weeks. I have long been a “wide-awake-at-3-a.m.” insomniac. I fall asleep with ease, but most nights I switch on my bedside lamp to read through the chatter in my brain.  I drift off for another hour or two before my internal alarm wakes me by 4:30 a.m and the day begins.  But lately, during a summer that has brought major changes to our quotidian routine, coupled with anxiety over surgery and the restless nights caused by summer’s heat, I have tossed and turned since… since…

Last night I trundled off to bed shortly after 9:00 per usual, to curl up with a book for a few minutes, certain that several nights of poor sleep would allow me to drift into oblivion in short order. Not to be. As soon as I felt sleep flowing in and I switched off the light, my brain revved into high gear. Back on with the light, open up the book, try the routine again. This went on until well past 10:00, when at last weariness vanquished the thoughts that pestered me.

Brain on again at 1:00. Read, doze, fall asleep. Brain on again at 3:30. I tried all my usual tricks: reading, counting down from 100 in French, progressive limb relaxation. Nothing doing. I turned off my alarm, which was set for an early morning trek to the gym, knowing I needed sleep more than I needed to lift weights. Brain on again at 4:50, so I gave it up and headed out- at the very least I’d have the satisfaction of a pounding run and tricep dips even if the rest of the day meant fighting the near hysteria of the sleep-deprived.

My fellow insomniacs, do you have vivid memories of Great Sleeps? Those precious nights that slipped by softly, giving way to suns that pushed their impatient light past your curtains even as you huddled deeper in your blankets. You must recall waking in daylight, feeling delicious and calm, your limbs heavy with the fullness of solid rest, your brain sated with sleep.

July 2003, Toulouse would be one of those Great Sleeps for me.  All of France was in the grip of a heat wave that would continue well into August, leaving scores dead in Paris and thousands of acres in southern France razed to charred soil by wildfires. On that midsummer’s day I journeyed from Tours in the lush Loire Valley to the heart of southwestern France, already gasping from the intense heat. I arrived in Toulouse  in the late morning and spent the day hugging the shadows of rose-colored buildings and seeking relief in the cool marble and dim light of cathedrals as I walked through the city on a self-guided tour.  I subsisted on lemon-flavored Perrier and tulip cups of sorbet aux ananas, drifting down searing streets until the sun sank into the Garonne and it no longer felt safe to wander alone.

The hotel pulled me with an inhale of sterile, but blissfully cold air.  Once I secured the shutters on windows overlooking a cement courtyard, my room was as still as a  tomb. Shortly after 9:00 I sank into bed with the cold air wafting down onto my skin like a balm. And I knew nothing more of that night.

Waking the next morning, I saw my shutters rimmed in pale gold. I was triumphant, knowing I’d slept at least past dawn- the sunlight was too vibrant for the earliest morning hours. I rolled over and squinted at my watch. 10:30. It couldn’t be. 10:30 was the hour of college students about to be late for English 201. 10:30 was the hour of the hung-over, whose bellies seethe with acid and mouths reek of rotted bile. 10:30 was half a farmer’s day gone by, was mid-morning tea break, was morning news programming descended into game show banality. What had I missed, lost in the bliss of dreamless sleep? Nothing. Not a thing.

Except that I was about to miss brunch in the hotel dining room, which ended at 11:00. As much as I was paying for this room, a “free” meal was not to be missed. And I was famished. With no one there to share in the exaltation of my 13-hr sleep orgy, I slipped into yesterday’s sweat-limp dress, scuffed into my sandals and slipped down the stairs to the lobby, feeling like a Let’s Go hosteler looking to cop a meal. I grabbed the last of the mango slices and shook out the dregs of the muesli bowl into my own.  The breakfast of a sleep champion.

Tonight, again, I hope for oblivion. The weather is cool enough that a soak in lavender-scented bath water shortly before bed will be part of my sleep strategy. No wine, no movies, a dense classic novel that will take me at least until Lent 2011 to finish, for I can barely read five pages without mindlessly drifting beyond its Alpine peaks and Edwardian dialogue. A day off tomorrow, so no alarm, no meetings to stew over, no displays to build in my mind’s eye, no orders to write.

To sleep: perchance, to do nothing more than that. Ay, there’s the rub.