How I learned to sleep on a spaceship



Fifteen years ago, I developed a strategy for insomnia. When I had trouble falling asleep, I’d think about that scene in Return of the King when Frodo awakens after delivering the ring to Mount Doom. After a months-long journey to Mordor, during which he suffers emotional and physical devastation, he wakes in a beautiful bed with plush white pillows and a soft, supportive mattress. His nightgown is clean and white, and nearby, his favorite wizard keeps watch, puffing gently at a pipe. In the face of insomnia, I would imagine myself in that glorious place of well-earned rest. It helped me fall asleep. . .for a while.

I’ve always hated to sleep away from home. The borrowed blanket is never heavy enough, there aren’t enough pillows, and the noises aren’t right. We hate to make demands on our hosts, but beds are a highly personal concept; I once dated a woman whose house was impeccable and stylish, yet in her bedroom, for sleeping, she kept a cage of springs. Her two pillows were flattened artifacts that from what I could tell, existed only to mark the head of the bed. A pillow shouldn’t be symbolic. Even in Mordor, Frodo would have asked for a better pillow.

My overnight bag was in tow the first time I discovered what she slept on, so it was awkward to make my excuses and drive home in my pajamas, but I’m old enough to recognize a doomed sleeping situation when I see one. There was no care in that bed—but even if there had been, it’s highly unlikely that two people would require the same sleeping conditions, which is probably why, over the past decade, people have begun to re-think the convention and healthiness of couples sleeping together.

Babies are given the ultimate consideration when it comes to sleep. Entire routines are executed at bedtime that invoke all five senses. They’re washed in lavender baby-bath, rocked, sung to, swaddled, and equipped with white noise. White noise machines create “sound blankets,” a fitting name for what they do, because white noise is a sort of heaviness, and a silent room a sort of exposure. It’s hard to ignore that humidifiers, city traffic, and other sounds people use to fall asleep, all mimic the womb. So, why do we pretend that as adults, falling asleep is as simple as lying down and hoping for the best? I bring my own pillows–and sometimes my own duvet–when I sleep away from home, these days, and at first I was worried it made me “high-maintenance,” but the sleep industry wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar endeavor if sleeping were as easy as simply taking screens out of the bedroom. When it comes to sleep, we’re a high-maintenance species.

bedphones in their natural habitat

Far from eliminating screens from my bedroom, screens have become my main pathway to sleep. My whole concept of bedtime changed when I discovered that white noise could be more than just a waterfall. YouTube has an endless selection of ambient noise videos that have become more and more sophisticated and tailored to individual needs. When I’m in a strange bed, the starship quarters video gives me enough cover to actually sleep (Star Trek fans will recognize this sound). There are even special headphones (“bedphones”) so side-sleepers like me can wear them comfortably all night long.

YouTube’s ambient noise and relaxation videos are different from old-school relaxation CD’s because besides the visual element, there’s also an emotional element to the comfort. Would you sleep better in front of the fireplace at 221b Baker Street? In the Hogwarts library? There is now a lovingly crafted soundscape for everyone. The Game of Thrones “Cercei’s Chambers” video includes a lot of the same elements from Frodo’s Rivendell bedroom I used as a sleep-aid so long ago—golden light, stillness, gently wafting curtains, slowly curling smoke, the sounds of an ordinary day outside.

LauraLemurex, YouTube ASMR artist

For the coziness and relaxation of being soothed to sleep, ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos are another path. If there’s a patron saint of the sleepless, I’m certain it’s a woman with a microphone, a soft-spoken voice, and her own YouTube channel. These videos typically feature an artist who speaks directly to the viewer, usually in a whisper or soft-spoken voice, with the effect of a tingly, euphoric, relaxed sensation in its viewers. It’s the feeling you get when someone plays with your hair, whispers in your ear, or taps their fingernails on a surface.

People worry endlessly about the human connection we’ve lost in the digital age. But videos and podcasts are made by people who have experienced sleeplessness and crafted scenarios in meticulous detail—anticipating very human needs—to help other people sleep. And these people have intuited that what it takes, sometimes, is a voice in our ear whispering, “It’s okay. It’s okay. Everything is going to be all right.”

Forget accusations of being the princess made famous by that troublesome pea: we’re adults, and no one else is going to put us to bed. On the mornings it feels impossible to get up, I put a glass of water on the nightstand before I leave for work. I make my bed, plug in the laptop, and leave it on top of the covers with my favorite headphones so that all day, I can think about the tableau of coziness ready to receive me at home. It’s what being loved feels like. Self-care is the topic du jour, but there’s something to it, because as Dorothy Parker wrote in “Inscription for a Bedroom Ceiling”:

Daily dawns another day;
I must up, to make my way.
Though I dress and drink and eat,
Move my fingers and my feet,
Learn a little, here and there,
Weep and laugh and sweat and swear,
Hear a song, or watch a stage,
Leave some words upon a page,
Claim a foe, or hail a friend—
Bed awaits me at the end.

Deena Lilygren lives, writes, and indulges her many obsessions in Louisville, Kentucky. She is an Associate Professor of English at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College. She graduated from UofL with an MA in English Literature and just completed an MFA in creative writing at Murray State University.

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