Thursday, January 04, 2024

The pleasure of quitting

“When you feel small and invisible 
or stretched-too-thin-and-all-used up, 
when life feels too hard to live 
and pain feels too much to bear, 
when guilt and shame and 
self-condemnation feel too heavy to carry,
go outside and stand barefoot 
in the stardust-speckled dirt 
with your face tilted up to the universe 
and whisper to your wounded heart,
'This is not how my story ends. 
There is so much more to life than this moment,
these hours, this day, this season of my life. 
It's my story. I get to choose.
It doesn't end here;'
And then take your pen in hand 
and write the rest of your gorgeous, 
shredded, pasted-back-together story 
however you choose to write it. 
And remember, you're not alone. 
We're all writing our own jacked up stories 
our own way, too. 
Welcome to our tribe of misfits and outcasts 
and rebels and dreamers. 
We are the story-weavers. 
And we're all on this ride through the galaxy together.” 
― L.R. Knost

Freedom Debate: Konstantin Kisin vs Ash Sarkar 

McKinsey to pay $78 million in U.S. opioid settlement over its work for drug firms like Purdue Pharma Plaintiffs accused the consulting giant of contributing to the deadly drug crisis by helping design deceptive marketing plans and boost sales of painkillers.

Fortune Teller

Smithsonian magazine shares Thirteen Discoveries Made About Human Evolution in 2023, like “Homo sapiens were in southeast Asia thousands of years earlier than expected.”

How to Build a Small Solar Power System. “This guide explains everything you need to know to build stand-alone photovoltaic systems that can power almost anything you want.”

Great list from Kent Hendricks of 52 things he learned this year, including “mice don’t like cheese”, “most of the pasta made in Italy is from wheat grown in Yuma, Arizona”, and “human fingers can detect objects as small as 13 nanometers”.

From the science, tech, and health editors of The Atlantic: 81 Things That Blew Our Minds in 2023. Like: “You have two noses, and you can control them separately via your armpits.”

Sleepless — the uses of insomnia Annabel Abbs looks at how a mostly female cast of writers, artists and scientists have used sleeplessness to fuel creativity

Who hasn’t woken, sleepless, in the ticking dark? The small hours, so-called; those long minutes after midnight and before dawn can feel pinched, claustrophobic. I must get back to sleep, you think, head grimly buried in a suddenly lumpy pillow, fears expanding as time squeezes tight. 
So it was for Annabel Abbs in the aftermath of her father’s death. He had died suddenly — not long after Abbs’ stepfather had also passed away, in a nursing home where no visiting was possible thanks to Covid restrictions. A double bereavement in a dreadful time, and her “wild, monstrous” grief rendered her sleepless.
Yet as the long nights bore down, Abbs writes that she began to discover a strange new freedom. The darkness around became “a downy protective skin, a soft pelt in which I could lose myself . . . It gave me space and secrecy, silence and anonymity.” And she began to interrogate how others — writers, artists, scientists, but most especially women — had entered their insomnia, made use of it, investigated it.
Our obsession with a solid eight hours may be relatively recent: Abbs points to research by the historian A Roger Ekirch, who discovered patterns of “biphasic sleep” in texts that predate the advent of electric light. People would go to sleep at dusk, wake in the middle of the night, do a bit of this or that, and then happily go back to sleep. In more modern times, Virginia Woolf was plagued by insomnia. However, as she herself said, she made “creative profit” of those nights, able to complete her final novel, The Years, “owing to the sudden rush of 2 wakeful nights,” as she wrote in her diary in August 1934.
Along with Woolf, Abbs gives us Louise Bourgeois and her “insomnia drawings”, and Sylvia Plath with her penchant for “that still, blue, almost eternal hour . . . before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles”, as the poet wrote not long before her death. Why should we be more creative at night? Research indicates that the chemicals that wash the brain in the hours of darkness release inhibition, and this dysregulation from the ordered daylight world creates what Abbs dubs the Night Self: freer, wilder, less inclined to follow the rules.
The author’s concentration on the experience of women is pointed: women have always had to follow the rules, particularly at night. Her own earlier work (notably Windswept: Why Women Walk, published in 2021) has focused on women and wellness, but for a woman, walking at night is a very different experience than a stroll taken in the afternoon. 
In the new book, Abbs goes out on the South Downs with Caroline Whiteman, a “night-walking guide” who takes her charges out into the darkness, having instructed them to avoid clothing that rustles, chafes or squeaks. Whiteman is blunt: women don’t walk out at night because “we’re terrified of being raped and murdered.” Charles Dickens could stride for miles at night and never worry about a thing; George Sand had to dress as a man to do the same. Abbs’ experience of walking with Whiteman is exhilarating and transgressive.
Sleepless is a multi-faceted book: part memoir, part cultural history, part popular science. On occasion, writing of her personal experience of loss, Abbs’ language becomes a little slack. “Grief is like an eclipse,” she writes of being thrust unexpectedly into its shadow; yet in the 21st century we know the sun will return, and swiftly, while the same cannot be said of the pain of losing those you love — even though Abbs at least finds a way to deal with her suffering.
But there is much to enjoy here. If you, like me, have berated yourself for your inability to go back to sleep, this book will inspire you to get up, light a candle, and experience your own Night Self.

Sleepless: Discovering the Power of the Night Self by Annabel Abbs John Murray, £16.99, 243 pages