Squeaking Into the Darkness

Here I am at 2:30 in the hot summer Sunday AM, the squeaks from my 300 RMB mini bicycle echoing through the empty polluted streets of Beijing, looking like an idiot, exposing my lean non-Chinese figure with tight work pants and a Banana Republic shirt raised above the belly button to limit further drenchings of sweat, Taobao fake 3M pollution mask aface, bike seat raised to the max and still not high enough. Sanlitun is buzzing as usual tonight, but within a matter of minutes I ride from bright club avenue to dark, desolate road. I’m slightly afraid, yet that feels 5x better than sitting in a noisy gay bar where I feel nothing but pop beats and awkwardness. The late night dramatics of a solo bike ride in a gigantic city kind of hit some special inner escapist note.

Here I am at 3:30 in the hot summer AM, the squeaks of the cheapest possible IKEA bed frame provided by the apartment agency resonating through my small room, capturing ridiculously subtle private movements such as taking an almond out of an almond bag, which I do one at a time, likely audible to my Chinese couple neighbors. Although I just showered, my room’s AC is not strong enough to prevent a further wave of sweat on my lower back and face and annoyingly my hammies, so now it feels like I’m getting a cold as I watch a Chinese soap opera to try to learn Chinese the way many Chinese people learn English, but I’m really just reading the English subtitles. I eventually switch to VPN’ed Netflix, whose original Star Trek episodes are loading excruciatingly slowly, and yet I guess the five whiskey sours I downed and the hookah I hit quite heavily have given me these bursts of energy and patience that are completely unwarranted for such a retrospectively lackluster American 60’s TV show.

Here I am at 4:30 in the hot summer AM, the squeaks of the desk I have switched to painfully audible as I enjoy crunchy Chinese Skippy with stolen hotel chopsticks, for some reason watching another episode of Star Trek with large headphones, which I think amplifies the chewing noise. In no way do I feel sleepy, but I decide it’s time to hit the sack now to avoid waking up in the PM. I watch recaps of American baseball games to get in the mood, and while there are 162 games, seeing the Cardinals’ loss instantly puts that mood into a depression, but more like a childish pout than a full-on adult depression, and I finally fall asleep with bad thoughts in my mind.

Here I am at 7:30 in the hot summer AM, and nothing, something something too tired think squeaks. Please coffee. Wake up. Wish more sleep.

Here I am at 8:30 in the hot summer AM, back at it again with the bike and the squeaks thing, coffee recently imbibed somewhat quickly. Severe lack of sleep and surprisingly only slight hangover aside, I am ready to get up and go on this Sunday, to accomplish meaningful things, to figure out my life before work tomorrow. I park the bike and head inside my first stop, caffeine and I walking in together with a determined smile.

Here I am at 1:30 in the hot summer PM, stumbling out of the bank trying to figure out why it’s so difficult to send $500 home, starving to the point where decision making is no longer possible, no actual meal-serving shops in sight, still many more things on the list, dinner plans being one of them, and what with transit times and the time it takes to digest food and not be in a trance, I realistically will have like 30 actual minutes to get something done, and I really miss living in a smaller city. At this point, I realize the squeaks have probably ended for the day.

Here I am at 10:30 in the hot summer Sunday PM, biking through the streets again, wondering where the weekend went, questioning my choice to live in this city, but as I stop thinking for a moment, I hear the squeaks of this silly bicycle, the ones I thought had disappeared for the day. I laugh, because the squeaks are the reason I’m here. I made the choice to be the person who gets into nonsensical adventures, the person who faces seemingly unnecessary adversity, and this place has definitely fulfilled those whims. For that reason, I will gracelessly, inelegantly, but eagerly continue squeaking into the dark night, wherever in the world that night might be.


Seeing Darkness in a New Light

I was two or three years old when I started to enjoy bringing chaos into the world. My sister was napping on the couch, and I thought, as a designated destroyer, it was my unmistakable duty to mess with the status quo. I went over to the couch and pulled her right eyelid open. I saw her eye, and I assumed an eye open was equivalent to being awake. However, when I let her eyelid go, she kept sleeping as if nothing had happened. ‘I must be in complete control of her sleep! I need to hold her eye open longer!’ So I did. She stirred slightly but rolled over and went right back to sleep. I realized she woke up only because I was playing with her eye; this was when I learned that sleep goes beyond the eyes. Eyes don’t “close,” they just get shielded by eyelids. ‘Fascinating! What is sleep, then?’ In my insomniatic childhood, this led to years’ worth of nighttime experiments.

I started to enjoy examining the inside of my eyelids and seeing the way light got through. I created shapes and art forms, and if I closed my eyes harder, the shapes were completely transformed. My eyelids served as a projector screen for the images in my mind. This was wonderful at first, but then my imagination went another direction…

I don’t know how much of an effect the insomnia had on things, but I started having violent nightmares. They usually involved Chucky or Gremlins (both of which I was probably exposed to a liiiittle too soon) or Ursula from The Little Mermaid (who still haunts me to this day). These nightmares felt eerily real because the transition between awake and asleep was becoming less pronounced. In fact, it was virtually impossible to gauge my level of consciousness. I would be lying in bed creating a performance inside my eyelids, and when I took a break to look around in the real world, an image of a fictional monster or villain would suddenly appear on my wall. I was still very awake, though. An invisible man walked around in my room, and the only way to follow him was to watch his sunglasses. Kidnappers tortured me, snakes and spiders crawled around my sheets, and I had to fight for my life against the onslaught of bullets, arrows, and other ominous airborne projectiles suddenly materializing out of thin air. Yet my eyes would still be open, and I was in the same house I had always lived in. In a matter of moments, I would drift into an alternate universe, and the evil would follow.

By the time I was deep into these nightmares, I usually realized I was dreaming, but how was I to escape? Fear and inexperience clouded my judgment – I thought dreams were just a nighttime reality, and I had no choice but to endure the horror until, according to some set schedule, it ended.

I was already barely sleeping, and now I was so afraid of the nighttime that I wanted to sleep even less. I regretted needing an outlet for my intense imagination. I wanted the old normal dreams back. It had gone too far. I needed to change things, or I was in danger of losing my mind to fear (and a lack of sleep).

Flash forward a few hellish months. In my daytimes, I was starting to grasp the concept of boredom. I never napped in day care or preschool like the kids were supposed to because I was never tired (even though I only got about four hours of sleep a night), so in my waking state, I had to do something to pass the increasingly excruciating seconds. Thus I started daydreaming. I went wherever my imaginative mind took me, but I was still looking around the room to keep myself grounded in waking reality. I soon figured out my dreams could be fooling me by carefully placing the same surrounding objects in the same positions. Now I needed something those clever dream creators couldn’t touch, something more internal. It’s simple, but this is what I settled on: I closed my eyes as hard as possible and shook my head. If the world around me was still the same when I reopened my eyes, I was awake. Sometimes I was surprised when my surroundings had disappeared…

Most likely through repetition, I carried this over to my nocturnal life. I still had the same vivid dreams, but now I had an escape plan. Over time, I was able to wake myself up when things got really bad. Eventually, though, I took another route. Knowing that I was now much safer, I began standing up to the monsters. After all, I had nothing to lose. Once they were out of the way, I was able to go on incredible adventures. I tried to guide my dreams a certain way and found it surprisingly easy. I eradicated the villains and transformed evil into good, atrociousness into beauty. The nightmares dwindled then disappeared completely. I started sleeping a bit more, and I looked forward to the nightly journey. My waking hours were enhanced by the experiences I had in my dreams.

Fast forward to now.

It’s been about twenty years since I even thought about dreams. Once school, friends, work, and the real world were thrown into the mix, sleep became less fun. Stress took over. Nighttime became associated with anxiety. Anxiety about social situations, about homework, about the future, about the past. I had no time for dreams anymore. I dreaded waking up the following day, but tomorrow came quicker and quicker and quicker once I abandoned my dreams. I would drift into uninteresting slumber and, no matter how many hours had elapsed, I would wake up feeling like I didn’t sleep at all. My apprehensions would instantly pick up where they left off the night before as if it had only been a few minutes. If I did happen to remember a dream during this period, it would usually be an extension of a worry I was facing in the real world. My anxieties consumed my dreams, so I faced 24 hours of stress a day.

As you’ve probably been able to tell in this blog, I’ve been trying so hard to break free from the obstacles and trepidations in my mind, and I have seriously made progress. Unfortunately, I’ve had occasional relapses. There are triggers that start the whole depressed, self-loathing train again. I’ve experienced some slaps in the face in the job world, relationship world, and other worlds, and my fortitude is still being tested. In order to strengthen myself, I need to make further changes, and this is where I am currently focusing on dream improvement.

I sought an escape from my vivid nightmares as a child, but now I seek an escape from my dull nighttime meanderings as an adult.

I forgot about dreams; I completely disregarded that 33% or so of my daily life. I have been much closer to being dead than asleep. In order to get where I really want to be, I’ve got to place more emphasis on enjoying sleep and the dream state. I’m practicing relaxation techniques before bed. I’m trying to put myself back into the lucid, or at least vivid, dream state. My last expectations before falling asleep or no longer that of a vapid, forgetful stroll but rather of a sentient, stimulating voyage.

As much as I am looking to “wake up” in those hours I am actually awake, I equally need to “wake up” in those hours I am sleeping. I need to continue those nighttime eyelid exhibitions and work on attaining that “dream virtuoso” status I once held.

I just want to wake up feeling more refreshed, more alive, and more mindful of how to pursue my goals, and I think my efforts will have a positive effect.

I learned how to recognize and control my dreams twenty years ago, but what’s the point in having these valuable tools if I’m not going to use them? I’d rather let my imagination get out of hand and put those tools to the test than have no imagination at all.

Before I typed this last sentence, I closed my eyes and shook my head. Still here.