I am a lark and my partner Mr.D is an owl. It’s not because I am as happy as a lark, or because he is as wise as an owl, although both clichés fit. As far as I know, Facebook hasn’t yet had a quiz to determine which bird one is, and if one popped up in my news feed I’d be afraid to take it after finding out that if I were a dog I’d be a pit bull.
Nope, it’s all about our circadian rhythms. I’m a morning person even now, in retirement. I’m up and at’em at first light, down in the kitchen brewing coffee, cooing at the cats rubbing my legs and feeding the goofy terrier who is ineptly balancing on her hindquarters in anticipation of breakfast. By 10:30 PM I am past ready for bed, savoring appropriating the entire mattress acreage to myself before one, two or three other beings claim their fair share. Dan, by contrast, routinely sleeps until 9:00 AM and goes to bed closer to midnight. He is in charge of letting the dog out for a last pee and insuring that both cats are inside, safe from marauding foxes and prevented from terrorizing small sleeping animals and birds. (PS — Mr.D got Great Dane on the dog quiz. Jealous.)
While the saying goes that opposites attract, I don’t think we are well suited for one another primarily due to our sleep patterns, although they do afford each of us alone time at bookends of the day. As we age, we each have nights when the sandman forgets to sprinkle one of us. Lying awake, listening to the sleep noises of as many as four other beings, one can sometimes fantasize about using pillows for other than their intended purpose.
It’s interesting that sleep researchers have nicknamed morning people after a species of bird known for its grounded nest, beautiful song, and ability to learn as many as thirteen other vocalizations. Larks are favored pets in Asia and I saw and heard many in their ornate birdcages perched either on windowsills or hanging like lanterns from balustrades in Hong Kong and Vietnam. Poets have immortalized the lark as the harbinger of dawn, the gatekeeper of the space between heaven and hell, torpor and consciousness, ignorance and enlightenment. A humbling charge for this tiny feathered creature! On the downside, larks are a favorite delicacy in some parts of the world, eaten bones and all, and not just by cats.
I wonder whether larks, too, sometimes have nights of fitful sleep. If so, do their minds wander as mine does, from semi-consciousness to moments of clarity? Do they too suffer from the indecision of whether to rise (if not shine) or try to induce somnolence through a combination of will and relaxation techniques? I suppose I do feel a bit bird-brained at 2:30 AM as I review every possible thing I could add to my to do list or try to recall the main plot points of the dream I just awoke from.
My sleep patterns are, not too surprisingly, often ill-adjusted during times of transition. I well remember realizing that newborns first sleep through the night as a survival instinct, natural selection having chosen those who did so just before their mothers, psychotic from lack of sleep, flung them against the cave walls. In menopause I would sometimes awake in a puddle of sweat, needing to change not just my PJs but my sheets. At the time of my divorce I spent many an anxiety riddled 3 AM hour diverting myself by working a New York Times Sunday Crossword in a book I kept by my bedside. And of course we all know about jetlag.
It turns out that one’s circadian rhythm is probably inherited. I got mine from my father and my grandfather, both of whom — like me– could fall asleep instantly and sleep through the night for a solid seven hours until their late middle age. I clearly remember Papa napping on the davenport in the sunroom of my grandparents’ house. What I didn’t realize was that he never actually went to bed at night, leaving the big mahogany sleigh bed to my Nana, thereby sparing her his restlessness and insomnia. And now my aged father has as his primary medical complaint his own nighttime wakefulness, for which he is perpetually overmedicating himself, causing a chain reaction of other problems like impaired cognition and wobbly balance.
Will this be my fate? Will I lose my morning warble? My groundedness? Will I become not a songbird, but a misunderstood pit bull, snarling at strangers from the cumulative abuse of lack of sleep, banned from apartment buildings and public places because of my supposed unchangeable evil disposition?
I think not. I’m not much of a napper now, but I can learn, just as I have learned to really let go during the savasana phase of my yoga practice. After all, my pit bull profile tells me that I’m sincere and extremely versatile, and larks are one of the smartest members of the species, able to mimic the tones and behaviors of other birds. And who really cares whether one sleeps between 2 AM and 5 AM or between 2 PM and 5PM? Whole cultures do this in the form of a siesta, and medical research has it that this is a partial explanation for the longevity of Mediterranean and Latin American populations.
My grandfather, the expert napper who just went with the flow instead of trying to change it, was the sweetest most loving man, like Dan, a Great Dane “ genuinely humble . . .extremely smart . . . approachable . . . the kind ruler of [his] own kingdom.” So, chronotype is not destiny. Circadian rhythm is not fate. All twenty four hours are there to be lived whether as a misunderstood but lovable and fascinating pitbull or a happy song-filled lark. Or maybe both.