Night Math

Reckoning With the Darkness

Author: Sandra Miller (page 1 of 2)

Write Like You’re Giving Birth

“Write from your guts,” I told my creative nonfiction students on the last day of class. “Don’t ignore the pain. Don’t act like it isn’t there and try tiptoeing around it. You have to write your way through your own dark woods.”

I recalled the excruciating experience of back labor when giving birth to my son. His head was positioned against my lower spine as opposed to the normal, on-top-of-the-cervix way, so whenever a contraction came, instead of him pounding down to open said cervix, his head struck my spinal cord, igniting the nerve center in a ripple of unmitigated agony. After twelve hours of useless back labor, I accepted a drug. “Yes-fucking-please.”

Bam! Ka-Pow!

My cervix went into overdrive and, in one hellish, body-wracking hour, blew open to the requisite ten centimeters, which meant it was time to push the baby out.

But instead of pushing, I stopped. I resisted. I clenched at every contraction, stealing myself against the pain that felt like a reckless trucker was driving his semi through my uterus.

“Push into the pain,” the British midwife urged in a high, clipped I know best voice that left no room for compromise. “When it feels the worst, Sandra, that’s when you must push the hardest.” She had Birkenstocks and long gray hair that would have loved a little Miss Clairol. She was kind, smart, and sensible; I wanted to kick her in the face.

“I don’t know what that even means,” I cried between gasps. “How do I push into the pain?” I actually thought that if I argued enough, I could altogether avoid having the baby.

“It means,” she explained, “that when the contraction is at its worst then you must push the hardest. Don’t shirk from the pain.”

I’ll shirk you! I thought as I felt the onset of a killer contraction and longed to rail against it. How to do this? How do you leave your fingers on the burning stove, or step more deeply onto the tack? How does a person embrace her worst fears and invite more? How does she choose a life of writing pain?

“Now!” the midwife, urged. “Push now!”

I shut my eyes and swallowed back my resistance. With my jaw locked, I pushed my hardest—or so I thought—screaming until tears streaked my face. I did that five more times through five more contractions, the pain so unrelenting that I feared I might die. I pushed as if my life depended on it.

When the baby still didn’t come, the midwife, her face betraying alarm as she watched the monitor, reached for a pair of surgical scissors. “We have to get the baby out now!” she announced. No time to numb me, just the sharp snip of raw flesh like an electric shock on my perineum. My child was in danger. His heart rate had plummeted, and, at that point, only I could save him.

And then, my boy.

Write into the pain, I tell my students. Just when you want to write around the Catholic pretense that hides the abuse, or the sight of your mother in a pink bathrobe dead on her bedroom floor, and how that day, for the first time ever, you touched her cheek and forgave everything; just when you want to ignore the acrid taste of blood, the colorless gray of loss, or the married lover whose forbidden lips, if for only a few minutes in the back of his beat-up Honda Civic, answered every prayer you ever whispered from your lonely bed; just when you want to skip a part because it’s too shameful to remember, then you absolutely have to remember it. You have to feel it wracking your body like a baby that will die if you don’t push now. Sit with each scene until it spins through every pain receptor and is ready to pull you down and drag you back and forth through your longest night, again and again and again.

Because I promise you this: if it doesn’t hurt at least a little, you will never birth your best writing.


Trump Got You Up?

As the Trump administration prepares to take office, my insomnia has been getting a whole lot worse. And I’m not talking about the Orange One’s Late Night Tweets keeping me up. I’m talking about them possibly annihilating us.

I’ve been waking up at my usual 4:30am wondering if our president-elect was waking up, too, maybe mindlessly reaching for his phone to Tweet out his disdain for how the Nazi’s were unfairly portrayed in “The Sound of Music” revival, then accidentally hitting the “Nuke China” button instead. Yeah, I know it doesn’t work that way, but the 4:30am brain is a weird thing.

So, if it’s early morning and you’re here at, maybe you can’t sleep for some personal reason (college admissions letters, anyone?) or maybe the President-Elect has you a teensy bit worried about things like, oh say, his desecrating of the Constitution and you losing all of your rights as an American citizen.

Well, here’s what I say to that: Donald can try and steal my country, but he’s not getting my sleep.

So, what can an insomniac do, as she tosses about,  wondering how hard it could possibly be to move anywhere else in world? And the short answer is, not right now because there’s work to do here.  I have to do something. You have to do something. We all have to do something—pronto—or rather,  bystro, which is the Russian word for fast, and since the President of Russia helped put Trump in office, maybe it’s time to learn the language.

But first I have other things to do. At night, my job is to  sleep. In daylight hours, I will continue to call and email my senators, and sign those petitions which my friend Lisa says is like agreeing to an epidural when you’re already in the transition phase of giving birth. Ha! Yes, Lisa. But for me those petitions are a psychic scream for freedom, more like Jojo in “Horton Hears a Who” leading the Whovilles in the cry of Yopp! and hoping enough voices will make a big enough clatter to save the speck. Because right now I just want to save this speck of a planet from Destruction by Donald. (Wouldn’t that be a great name for an orange-tinted cologne that smells like Big Oil and bullshit). So here I go: Yopp!

Join me anyone? Yopp! Yopp! It worked for the Whos.

Let’s Yopp ’til the Orange One drops.

Look here to see how yopping actually worked in South Korea.


Our Dance With Leonard

The story of our marriage began with a song, ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’

Mark and I were married on a moody August evening in 1997 on the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At the end of our ceremony, with the sun setting behind us, we recited the lyrics to the Leonard Cohen song “Dance Me to the End of Love,” ending with these lines:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in

Touch me with your naked hand

Touch me with your glove

Dance me to the end of love

I insisted we leave out the third verse that begins, “Dance me to the children who are asking to be born,” because I feared we’d jinx what I wanted as much as I wanted a life with Mark—to start a family together.

RELATED: A Brief Encounter With Leonard Cohen

Well, nothing got jinxed, and the following year, Mark and I stood on that same rocky coast and introduced our baby boy to the ocean. Two and a half summers later, our daughter was born and we spent our fourth anniversary staggering around at a Rhythm and Roots festival in Rhode Island with an almost 3-year-old and an infant. As we navigated the sticky summer crowd, trying to rally in that halfhearted way exhausted parents do, Mark hit his breaking point, opening an unusual chasm of mean.

“They call this dancing?” he scoffed as we watched the floor fill up with couples doing some cheerful cross between a shuffle and a swing. “This is not good dancing.”

“So what’s ‘good’ dancing?” I countered sharply. Bleary-eyed from being underslept for three years, I was primed for an anniversary fight.

RELATED: We Belong Together

“Good dancing is what they did at my high school in New Haven,” Mark said. “Those kids could dance.” He nodded at the dozens of earnest couples twirling about. “This is ridiculous.”

In that moment, I didn’t like my husband’s searing judgment of someone else’s joy. I didn’t even like my husband that much. “I’m leaving,” I said, and headed out with the kids, certain that I’d never dance with Mark again.

Mark followed us out, the music filling the void of our pissy silence until we both paused, slightly stunned. One of the groups in a nearby tent was doing a bluegrass take on “Dance Me to the End of Love.” While I had adored that song since its release in 1984 on the “Various Positions” album, I had never ever heard anyone cover it. But there it was, inserting itself into our anniversary anger, reminding us of the words spoken on the shore four years earlier: Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove. Dance me to the end of love.

RELATED: The Last One Carded

“Goddamn Leonard Cohen,” I said.

Mark smiled, “Yeah. He probably expects us to dance, too—the bad way.”

That night, we did dance, on the sand, with all the forgiveness and gratitude that a long marriage requires.

Eight years later, I gave Mark an early anniversary present: tickets to see Leonard Cohen at the Wang Theatre in Boston. We gripped hands as the 78-year-old performer literally danced onto the stage to the angelic strains of that familiar Greek chorus opening: La la. Lalalalalala.

I had wept at concerts before, but never like when—two minutes in—Cohen’s graveled voice was chaffing at a place inside me, one that held my love for Mark and hope that we had a lifetime of dancing ahead, Cohen-style, with the dark juice of passion, the clinging to each other in panic, and kisses that wear down the curtain of time.

Cohen once said he found the song’s seed in learning that in certain death camps a string quartet was forced to play beside the crematoria as prisoners were being killed. If you’re confused about how such an image could turn into a love song, then you don’t understand Cohen’s masterful ability to blur the lines between sex, death, passion, torture and the transcendence of the heart in our blackest moments.

A week ago, at midnight, I lay curled on the bedroom floor in fetal position. “I can’t!” I cried. “I can’t live in a country led by a bigot.” Mark lay on the floor next to me and held me, dancing me through the panic until I was gathered safely in.

Two nights later, we were out with friends when my phone alert told me Leonard Cohen had died at age 82. We raised a glass to him and shared stories of what his songs and lyrics meant to us. Mark and I would remember how we saw him in concert at the Wang a second time on a cold December night in 2012. How his music, whenever we played it, beat like a shared heart.

That night, Mark and I went home to a quiet house and put on “Dance Me to the End of Love.” With our teenagers out with their friends, we danced each other around the living room.

Seeing The World, Not The Wall: Election Lessons From Death Row

wallSeeing The World, Not The Wall: Election Lessons From Death Row

by Sandra A. Miller
Cognoscenti 11-18-16

A few years ago I profiled death row inmate Damien Echols for a national magazine. After a badly bungled police investigation, Echols, 18 at the time, was sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

The harrowing details of Echols’s nearly two-decade long ordeal in prison — 10 in solitary confinement — could erode anyone’s faith in our justice system, but that’s not the larger lesson I took away from the hours spent interviewing Echols, 41, who was released in 2011 when new forensic evidence was brought to light.

Echols said one of the most powerful things he did to get released was take his attention off what he didn’t want — dying on death row — and put it on what he did want: his freedom.

“The more you think about something, the greater the chance of it manifesting in your future,” Echols told me. “This is why it’s so important to remain focused on your desires, and not on your fears.”

“If a racecar driver looks at the wall,” Echols said, “he’ll crash into it.”
He used the analogy of a racecar driver who is trained to look at his instrument panel, the other cars, or the finish line, but never the wall. “If a racecar driver looks at the wall,” Echols said, “he’ll crash into it.”

I think of Echols’s words in times of despair when I find myself unable to fixate on anything but the bleakest possible outcome, and I make myself turn away. When my sister went through ovarian cancer last year, I’d peek at the wall now and then, but I wouldn’t let my attention linger there. Ditto for every family or professional problem I’ve faced.

But never have Echols’s words been more meaningful than last week as I spent the early hours of Wednesday morning watching Donald Trump become our next president. Like so many of us, I saw our country driving full speed ahead into a brick wall of bigotry, misogyny, patriarchy and racism.

But here we are, a week later, and it’s time to shift our weary focus. We must now task ourselves with altering what’s in our direct sight-line and see what we want instead of what we fear.

And what is that? What exactly do we want for our great country going forward? What do we hope to see unfold in the next few years?

Since the morning of November 9 I have been making my list:

I see people of every color, creed, race, religion and sexual orientation standing together in solidarity as our highest leaders hear our voices, then go to work in Washington to uphold our freedoms.

I see hydro and solar power plants fueling a nation of vibrant industry.

I see clear oceans, clean air and thriving forests.

I picture food service and childcare workers given respect and a living wage for their good, hard work.

I imagine a country with continued health care for all, and women in full control of their reproductive rights.

We have to get involved and take action. But first we have to see that world, with as much clarity as we have been considering the devastating alternative.
I see police forces cooperatively working with people of color to use restorative justice to keep all cities safe.

Stop talking about what you don’t want and focus on what you do.

When Echols was in prison he refused to consider the possibility that he would never be released, even while standing ankle deep in sewage in solitary confinement with no reason to believe he could change his fate. He simply would not look at the wall.

If we don’t want to live in Trump’s America, we have to be the change we want in the world. We have to get involved and take action. But first we have to see that world, with as much clarity as we have been considering the devastating alternative. We’re going to have to invoke the powers of our imagination to create that reality and spread that vision from coast to coast, from north to south, and the entire heartland in-between. Then we’re going to have to drive like hell to get there.

Night Clubbing

I have some pretty strong theories of people who are up at night or too early, strong like a Manhattan on the rocks with Angostura bitters and a dark cherry. We tend to think of ourselves as worriers, as tossers and turners, but that’s selling it short, that is ignoring the depths of our night clubbing souls.

Dressing up circa 1986. Even then I longed for my past life in the 40's.

Dressing up circa 1986. Even then I longed for my past life in the 40’s.

I know that in a past life in the 1940’s I spent my late nights and early mornings in jazz clubs like the Copacabana or the Stork Club or backroom bars in New York where I drank French 75’s and danced on the tables with men named Chuck and Gene. I’m only 52, but I’d still rather listen to Strangers in the Night sung by Frank Sinatra than just about any contemporary song I could download this instant from iTunes. Give me a red dress and a silver cigarette case. Give me some décolletage, a lanky, dark-haired soldier, and leave us to punish the parquet at El Morocco.

During the two years I lived in Japan, my Scottish boss, Angus, would take me to Shinjuku Ni Chome,  a hidden corner of Tokyo peppered with gay clubs and love hotels that catered to the subculture of a city that was mostly overrun by rule-followers. In a dimly lit, second-floor pre-war bar, the mama-sen with her face colorfully made up like a showgirl half her age, greeted “Angus-san” with a wink, and brought him his bottle keep: Scotch Whiskey with a distinguishing metal chain looped over the glass neck.

Over hours, we would get slowly, deeply buzzed on Scotch on the rocks until we were slouched across our high corner table, Japanese voices whirling in the smoke around us, the night passing  as nights should, with the intimate companionship of another night owl.

This may not be your past night life, but it was mine, I feel it still when I’m called to hop on the T and head to  Wally’s Cafe in Boston’s South End  or Ryles Jazz Club just down the road in Cambridge. My pulse changes and my feet start to shuffle when I hear those syncopated rhythms that take me back to another time, another life when morning hours were spent, not tossing and turning and staring at the clock, but in night clubs with friends and strangers and jazz and gin and kinship.

But that’s my story. What past life is keeping you up?

The Lonely Darkness vs. The Dark Alone

Here’s my most recent post on the Brevity Blog for writers. A great place to visit in the middle of the night.

By Sandra A. Miller

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 Or, if you happen to be up at 4am, visit her blog,, where Sandra reckons with all things nocturnal.

Who’s in?

My son’s favorite teacher has been in the audition process for real Jeopardy, and it’s a bid deal. You have to be fast and smart and alert and normal and a little quirky and, yeah, that’s not what we’re talking about here. The fantastic news with Insomnia Jeopardy is that anyone can play!! Okay, not anyone, but anyone who has seen the early morning hours a few too many times and practiced these categories over and over from, let’s say 3:30am to 4:55am. And you thought you were wasting your time thinking about all those jerks who wronged you though the years. Well, wrong. You were just practicing for Insomnia Jeopardy!!!

Counting Sheep, er, Sleep

A six-finger night means success!

Let’s take a minute to talk about night math. If you’re a kindred  spirit in insomnia, you already know what it is, but you’ve perhaps never named it. Allow me:

Counting sheep? That’s for getting to sleep. Night math is counting sleep.

Counting sleep is what happens when you wake up early in the still-dark hours and want to know how much sleep you got. So you turn to your fingers to do the figuring. It goes something like this.

Hmm, well, I went to bed around 10:30am, so, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30.  (You’re holding up three fingers, but now have to skip forward because you non-voluntarily took two-plus hours off from sleeping between 1:30 and 3:30.) So, 4:30,  5:30, 6:30. Okay, 6:12am is the actual time, but when counting sleep you always round up just to feel like you’ve had more. In this case, you award yourself 18 bonus minutes of sleep.

If you’re using two hands, that’s probably a good night. So you look. Two hands. Six fingers. Six hours of sleep. Success!

That’s what I mean by night math. Well, that and so much more. Keep reading.

Midnight Treasure


On the mornings like today when I’m too under slept to write, I slip on my boots, throw  a coat over my pajamas, and wander down the Minuteman Bike Path behind my house. With only the light of the moon to guide me, I look for things, lost or dropped, twinkly or bright.

I’m not above picking up shreds of candy wrappers, broken ear buds, or an empty nip bottle—one cinnamon-scented wiff takes me back to high school like Proust and his madeleines—and  pennies that wink at me through the darkness. Even jagged shards of glass,  like pieces of fallen stars, go right into the pocket of my worn wool coat.

Above are some of my recent finds, all plucked from the ground and added to the box  in the back of my closet, my trove of found things found that has been growing for decades. When we pay close attention, clues appear in the oddly clarifying midnight of our lives.img_1968

This morning as I walked and searched, the inky black bike path opened into the muted light of Spy Pond, a popular spot in our town for recreation and reflection. A steady drift of pond visitors plus two million people travelling this path annually means  plenty of dropped items: bottle caps, beads, game pieces, belt buckles, baby shoes, doll heads. I have discovered some of my best clues along this stretch, often in these early morning hours.

And here is what I found on the bike path this morning: a tarnished three-ring gold earring, true treasure. I often find bits of broken jewelry, but a whole gold earring has it’s own little magic that will go into my pocket and stay there in the daylight, like a promise.


Late Night Friends

photo-on-10-14-16-at-5-34-am-2I mostly love the Dark Alone of 5am when I’ve had enough sleep (read: 5-6 hours) and I can tiptoe downstairs to brew my coffee and stir together some words in the silence. But there are those mornings when a writer needs company, and that, my fellow insomniacs, is what a corn snake is for.

Meet Whitey Bulgie who received his name eight years ago, long before the infamous Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger had been discovered to be living the life of an unassuming senior citizen (albeit one with a stash of guns and crazy amounts of cash hidden in the walls of his Santa Monica apartment) and it seemed that he could be just about anywhere.

My son who was obsessed with South Boston crimes at the time gave our snake his/her (we have no idea what sex it is because that would require exploratory surgery) name based on the fact that 1. It’s white 2. It gets a huge bulge in its belly when it swallows one of the mice-icles we feed it. 3. Whitey Bulgie is a cool name for a snake.

In spite of the fact that this is our family pet, I’m really the only one who cares about it. But ask any human mother to a reptile pet. Reptiles don’t greatly intrigue and aren’t particularly interesting, until you’re hanging out together in a dark room and 5am. That’s when it gets fun to release your four-foot albino corn snake and play. See how cuddly Whitey can be.

Now here’s the other thing about snakes, they are a powerful spiritual symbol, a multi-faceted metaphor for rebirth. Think shedding of old skin and renewal. Serpent is also a symbol of that kundalini energy coiled at the base of your spine until it is beckoned upwards through the chakras, opening you to consciousness.

But we’re not going to put that pressure on Whitey Bulgie this morning. Right now my gender neutral snake and I are just hanging out, having fun.

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