Photograph courtesy of Flickr/Mark Forbes.

6 Compensations for Sleeplessness

1. The Sky. Trust me when I tell you that the most stunning part of a sunrise comes way before those predictable smears of oranges and reds. In the night’s east, watch the blackness for the outline of a cloud to brighten. That’s the signal for what occurs next, a lightening so gentle you might barely notice it until you look up and see that the sky has already paled, is now almost translucent. When those more famous colors finally appear, you might come to feel, as I have, that they are as showy as drummers banging snares, especially compared to the fleeting delicacy you have just witnessed.

2. A Community. If you wake in these early hours, as troubled sleepers do, I recommend leaving your house to take a walk through the dark. You will not be walking alone. There will be others, some who look like hunched shadows, some with beams of light radiating from their foreheads, and soon you will notice how the same figures retrace the same routes night after night. After enough nights, start offering a slight nod to such companions, then progress to a wave, then eventually try saying hello in your croaky predawn voice, because a single word, spoken in such hours, easily equals a thousand in the daylight.

3. The Ability to Not See Clearly. Of course, on these predawn walks, you could stay within the city limits, hugging the safe circles of streetlamp light, but I hope you’ll decide to turn down a darker road at least once or twice, taking a side trail, say, into the woods that border a cemetery. At first you may bring a headlamp, but perhaps there will come a time when you turn it off, trusting that it’s okay to not always see the path that you’re on — you’re going somewhere even if you can’t see exactly where.

4. The Presence of Certain Sounds Amid the Absence of Other Sounds. Sure, you can hear the crickets at ten in the evening, but at that time the world is still bustling noisily along. In predawn, though, no one bustles. Listen: the crickets sound different when there are only crickets — they’re more harmonic and confident — and if you wait, you might hear the first bird of the day setting the pitch.

5. The Night Forest. Be prepared: those trees whose cheerful leaves and mosses seemed to welcome you in the daylight will care less about you in the dark. Please don’t be offended. Forests have their own priorities, which have nothing to do with us. It is useful, however, from time to time, to feel out of place in the forest, to remember that we are only visitors and not even invited ones at that.

6. The Value of Nonproductivity. In the beginning, when insomnia first found me, I had fantasies of using the extra time to clear my to-do list, but awake in the night I find it difficult to motivate myself to pay a single bill. Most times I’m in limbo, my mind fuzzy and incomplete, so, instead of bills before my walk, I’ll spend an hour watching the rooftop of my house, which does not need to be watched. In these moments, I probably do not look like I’m participating in world-changing work. But here’s what I know: watching the dark is, for me, a way to tell the night, “I’m here,” and, “I’m listening,” and, “Look at me,” and “Look.”

Debbie Urbanski is a writer, nature lover, and human whose stories and essays have been published widely in such places as The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Best American Experimental Writing, The SunGrantaOrion, and Junior Great Books. A recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, she can often be found hiking with her family in the hills south of Syracuse, New York. After World is her first novel.


  1. Fantastic
    Captures what a night person feels, wanting to be up at night in the darkness, especially the woods. Hearing the birds at dawn
    , seeing the night sky, smelling the forest.
    Not missing the hyperactivity of the day.
    Thank you for elucidation us night people’s happiness and observations.

  2. When sleepless unwillingly, whether due to illness or worry, it may occur to us that there are others – many others – sharing similar predicament at that very moment. We are a community of sorts – not connected by any familiarity with one another, but by our solitude and whatever degree of unease made us alert. Despite our isolation, there is consolation – some comfort – that we are all awake, all preferring otherwise but accepting of and enduring our condition. Together though separate.

  3. There are colors in the sounds. Listen intently and they radiate. I have been close enough to know this. Stillness can be unsettling to those, like me, untrained to the harmonies to be found in quietness. My first response is to fight the consciousness that comes with sleeplessness. It is unruly. I like my colors to be within the lines. I have learned that! To steal a phrase, I know why the caged bird sings. Embracing the moments sleepless brings has a price. Learning to let the colors communicate their own frequencies perhaps is the reward. I hope one day to know.

  4. Loved this essay. What I attend to when I’m sleeping outside in a sleeping bag, is that in between moment of light to dark and dark to light. I know I heard the world take a deep breath in those moments.
    There is a hush of the day sounds and a hush of the night sounds and in that hush, breath.
    Pat Murphy

  5. I have taken to running at 5:00 a.m. and find myself loving the solitude. I do an urban run, yet I have encountered coyotes and skunks, along with cyclists, truckers and early commuters. I am there when the city awakens. This took some getting used to, but now I can’t see waking up a different way.

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