Restless Brain Syndrome: I’ve had it bad lately. Typical onset: about five a.m. Starts with: review of dreams, none of which ever make much sense, but all of which seem to crescendo up to some cliff-hanger moment that wakes me up. I can’t keep swimming this river: there’s no more water! And wait: why am I wearing a slip? Who even wears slips anymore?
From these traumas, my brain moves restlessly towards the saving light of consciousness, only to find a whole new casserole of dilemmas. My husband is right: we’ve got to get rid of that storage unit. It is ridiculous to have a storage unit. Speaking of Rustin, his latest film review ends with him saying he doesn’t think he’ll want to see Lincoln again. I couldn’t agree less. Speaking of presidents trying to work with congresses, what about that fiscal cliff? Speaking of fiscal cliffs, I fear our checking account may be approaching one…
After enduring this for a while, I start bargaining with my brain. OK, Brain, you’re awake: so let’s stop tossing more leftovers into the casserole and address these food groups one at a time. How about we start by clearing the table of the stuff you can’t personally solve, like the fiscal cliff? In this phase, my restless brain tacks back and forth between wanting to get up and make a to-do list and wanting to cocoon deep into the pillow and see if I could somehow find another five minutes of sleep.
While this Restless Brain syndrome is nothing new for me—or for, oh, billions of other humans—there are seasons when, collectively and individually, we’re more likely to catch it. Like the flu, the restless brain favors winter: it’s dark, it’s cold, we’re cooped up with our worries. The charming ways in which our homes tend to crumble in this climate suddenly matter: a gap in the window frame is now a gateway to an arctic breeze; that tiny paint bubble has morphed into a peeling blister. Deadlines that were far away—fiscal cliff, college application, colonoscopy—suddenly loom like lethal icebergs. And in winter, we spend more time reading, seeing movies, staying on top of the news—all of which is good, but much less conducive to a good night’s sleep than the hiking, swimming, gardening of summer.
Lincoln is very much a brooding, winter film. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays President Lincoln as a man with a crushingly restless brain who paced the halls of the White House, night after night, through the Civil War’s dark seasons of slaughter. Of course he couldn’t sleep. The problems he faced make the fiscal cliff standoff look like teens playing Truth or Dare. What was so moving about watching Lincoln not sleep was: I felt like we could see him turning over every scrap of his own life experience, every trip to every battlefield, every conversation with constitutional scholars, as he worked out what he felt was his defining dilemma: how to ensure that slavery would indeed end—legally, constitutionally, finally—when the war ended.
Now, we have a whole pharmaceutical industry out there, luring us to end our insomnia with this pill or that one. And truly, none of us can not-sleep forever. But I sometimes wonder if part of the problem is: we try to move too quickly through the screen-centric tasks of our days. We don’t allow ourselves time to brood, pace, tell stories, think. So our restless brains make us do it at five in the morning. Maybe it’s not a syndrome. Maybe it’s just—the way we’re wired.
Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.