Who better than a sleepless writer to explain the distinction between the Lonely Darkness and the Dark Alone? Allow me, if you will.
The Lonely Darkness is tossing in bed until your useless, 800-thread-count sheets turn warm with worry and that Tylenol PM bottle—despite you swearing off sleep aids—beckons from the bathroom shelf. The Lonely Darkness is 2:38 am and dreams you can’t return to and the cruel trick of a bone-tired body and a churning mind, hopelessly bad at getting back to sleep, but effortlessly good at remembering affronts and dread diseases that run in your family.
The Lonely Darkness is every fear you’ve had since the pregnancy stick showed a plus sign. It’s teenage children. Their college applications. Your sister’s cancer. That unwritten book. The Lonely Darkness is the insomniac’s principal’s office where you are furious to have been sent yet again, while fully aware that the true punishment will come in your workday, as sleep-deprivation tortures you into stupidity. The Lonely Darkness is your epic demon.
Then there’s The Dark Alone.
The Dark Alone finds you waking up in a house hushed with the silence of a sleeping family. You peek at the clock—5:12 am—and count forward on your fingers from 11:30 pm. What? Six hours if you round up! (And you always round up.) Energized by this rare sleep achievement, you roll out of bed and reach for your sweatpants dropped on the floor the night before. You slip them on in the searing darkness of your bedroom, and, still sightless, feel around for your Rhode Island sweatshirt hanging inside the closet door. If you’re lucky, you can extract two mismatched socks from the clean laundry pile in the corner. If not, you resort to yesterday’s stretched, slightly pungent ones on top of the hamper. Sometimes you even like those better.
Finally, wasting no time, you steal out of the bedroom where your husband, who has missed maybe a dozen nights of sleep in your 21 years together, will not wake up for two more hours. Although he’s spent some time in The Lonely Darkness, he knows nothing of The Dark Alone. This is your territory.
Downstairs you rinse out the only mug you will use at this hour—the cracked purple one your kids painted a decade ago at Clay Dreams—and brew your dark roast (the beans, the heat, the cool dash of cream) that will taste better than absolutely anything else you put to your lips all day. Nearly trippy with gratitude for sleep and caffeine, you will carry your mug to your office, set it on your desk, open your computer.
And there they are, the thoughts, seeded by quiet, watered by dark roast, they grow in the fertile soil of the morning hours. They thrive in The Dark Alone, not unlike the way plants require sun. They vine and flourish. They flower. They fruit.
In the Dark Alone you may only write for one hour, but it is always the most productive hour of your day when nothing comes between you and your words. No one’s worry or radio. No cellphone. No child. In these morning hours, you will be awed by the power of your ideas to bloom, bold and vibrant on the stalk of your genius, growing in size and strength, until all at once the sun, like a burglar, breaks through the crack between shade and window pane. Still tapping away, head bent to the sound of your inner voice, you try to ignore that thin band of brightness, but then you hear an alarm clock upstairs, then another. Soon a symphony of rap and radio and shower noises ensue while you rush to hold onto what is fast slipping away.
Minutes later the light is full up, cast across the to-do list on top of your inbox. Your daughter stumbles downstairs. “We’re out of cereal!” she shouts. And your son needs a ride to early band. Your husband, who only ever wears matching neutrals, wanders into your office. “Does this tie match?” he asks.
“Perfectly,” you assure him. And with those first words, the spell is fully shattered.
“What time did you get up?” he asks.
He winces when you tell him. He doesn’t understand.
With that, you kiss him good-bye, shut your computer, and step beyond the now blurred boundary of The Dark Alone. You toast a frozen waffle for your daughter. You tell your son you’ll drive him. You check your phone. You nibble a cracker. You look at the house, the mess, the clock. The darkness hid a hundred needs, the way the light spares nothing.
Already you miss the Dark Alone, your secret place of creation. You can only hope it will be there again tomorrow.
Sandra Miller‘s essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in over 100 publications including The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, Spirituality and Health, and Glamour Magazine which produced a short film called “Wait” based on one of her personal essays. Kerry Washington starred. You can find out more at SandraAMiller.com. Or, if you happen to be up at 4am, visit her blog, www.nightmath.com, where Sandra reckons with all things nocturnal.
(originally published in Brevity Magazine)