What keeps me up at night is… | American Portrait

Mountain Lake PBS has partnered with the Adirondack Center for Writing, a local organization dedicated to bringing people and words together, to share PBS American Portrait prompts and collect unique stories from ACW members in our community! Continue below to read some of these featured submissions, each adding to the great mosaic of the American Portrait, and our collective understanding of the experiences and perspectives in and around the Adirondacks.

What is American Portrait?

PBS American Portrait is a multiplatform storytelling project aiming to capture the American experience. This project explores the everyday lives of real Americans: the diverse ways we work, play, and connect with those around us. By creating a nationwide platform for storytelling, American Portrait helps us see the ways we are different, and the ways we are alike.

How to Participate:

Adirondack Center for Writing Submissions

[accordion clicktoclose=true tag=h3]
[accordion-item title=”An Ordinary Life: Sleeping by Eilene Susan Wenner” state=closed]

The only thing that keeps me awake at night is “not breathing.” Since birth I spent most of my first year of life in the hospital due to breathing problems. My first several years of life were spent in a medicated room to keep my lungs from pneumonia and bronchitis. Inhalers had not yet been invented and I survived by maintaining dust-free, carpet-free, bedroom and sulfa-drugs.

I, eventually, could identify “triggers” or “colds” that could escalate into bronchitis, such as cats and chlorinated pools. My foray into competitive swimming was brief, since all practice and competitions were held in chlorinated pools (go figure that nobody races in lakes, or rivers—I can swim safely in lakes and rivers, apparently fish-poo doesn’t bother my lungs).

As long as I breath, I sleep soundly and deeply. I grew up in a bedroom next to a trucking company and huge cargo trucks drove under my bedroom’s open casement windows. I never heard them. I, somehow, incorporate the noises into my dreams. The only thing that apparently annoyed my family, and now me as an older person, is that I cannot sleep past 5 a.m. in the morning—that was another reason I got my own room—nobody wants to be around my “chipper-happy” self at 5 a.m.

My dream-life uproariously humorous and fun. I like the people in my dreams, they are likable, and the beauty of them is that THEY LIKE ME! We have fun. Humor seems to be the theme, so I thoroughly enjoy going to bed and going right to sleep. None of them are real people in my life—I don’t dream of family members or friends. These are all strangers who I meet in dreams and we have a great time.

The serious problem about sleeping so soundly only surfaced when I moved into an apartment that had two of the bedroom walls as “casement windows.” One night a thief “axed down the door” under my bedroom while the windows were fully open. The police, kept repeatedly questioned me how I could possibly NOT KNOW someone was chopping down the door right under my windows. I couldn’t explain it.

That same apartment building housed older persons who occasionally “left things on the stove longer than they should have.” I have the same cooking skills—the whole neighborhoods I have lived in will comment they “heard I was cooking.” My older neighbors and I have the same problem of perhaps not remembering we put dinner on the stove—boiling eggs, at least, give a warning by giving off a particular odor before they actually EXPLODE all over the kitchen.

I can say with confidence and certainty that apartment building gave me healthy attitude about “material belongings.” I never knew when I would come home and find the fire company hosing down the building. Whenever I was out with my friends and heard the fire company whistles blow, I would ask my friends if they would mind a “drive-by” my apartment, just to see…. Likewise, whenever I went on vacation (I went to Europe two or three times a year) I would have a talk with myself about how to react if “the fire company didn’t get to the building in time” and all my stuff had gone “POOOFFFF-GONE.” The up-tick to that time of life is that I won’t go berserk if I lose all my belongings—my only concern is my pets, and the plan is we all get thrown out the window, the parrots can fly, and the dogs and I can go onto a porch roof.

Here’s the reason for the dogs. As I said, I don’t hear things when I sleep, including “smoke alarms” or fire company whistles, or fire trucks horns. People who come to visit me, and stay over night will grill me how I could sleep with the fire company sounding all night long. I just don’t hear the noise—I’m in my happy-dream-place with my friends and my breathing machine (oh…I forgot to tell you doctors tell me NEVER-EVER sleep without my breathing machine—I could die. The machine doesn’t make white noise, it just keeps me breathing—apparently I forget to breath when I’m in my happy-sleep-mode—with my friends, who like me, and we have fun).

Ok, the reason I have dogs, knowing that nothing wakes me up, including fire alarms, is that SOMEONE has to alert me that the house/ building near by is burning down or someone is axing down the doors. Dogs, or at least all my dogs, learned that the only way to wake me up is to body slam me. All of them learn quickly that gentle tapping, or staring intently at me only works after 5 a.m. when I am feigning sleep so I don’t have to get out of bed to take them out. All my dogs, (except for gentle Scarlette Sky, who’s my cavalier king Charles—she can sleep 22 hours a day, and night) learned how to body slam me totally off the bed to get my attention. So I feel confident that if there is an emergency, like someone chopping down a door, or fire alarms going off in the house my dogs will get me out of bed and awake—they are very smart and light sleeping, alert dogs.

I did’t think I could use “this week’s prompt” to write anything about what keeps me up at night, but alas, I’m reinventing myself as writer, and I had lots of stuff to write about.

[accordion-item title=”Can’t Sleep by Duane L. Herrmann” state=closed]

Wood mites eat

paper under bed,

cockroaches feast

on companion dead,

silverfish climb

up the wall beside…

Clothes hang to dry

whipped into frenzy

by wild wind,

and flower opens

calls in colors:

“I’m here! I’m here!

Look at ME!!”

While doormat screams

“Don’t step on me!”

Sounds keep me up,

awake at night…

or, NOT!

[accordion-item title=”Lullaby and Good Night by June Hannay Kosier” state=closed]

Unfortunately, there is nothing that keeps me up at night. I try my darndest to stay awake, but just can’t do it. I am asleep by 8:30PM, sometimes earlier. I have no need to count sheep.

I am a child of the 50s. Television was new then and people would watch it on nine or twelve-inch screens. I got into the habit of watching TV every evening at that time. Now, I look forward to watching PBS shows such as All Creatures Great and Small, Miss Scarlet and the Duke, and Finding Your Roots with Henry Gates. Antiques Roadshow is another favorite. I love mysteries and look forward to watching Midsomer Murders, Death in Paradise or Shakespeare and Hathaway and Vera on our local PBS station Saturday nights. Sadly, I don’t know the endings. I always fall asleep no matter what I do to stay awake. The “sleepy man” is not my friend.

Sometimes, I take a nap in the afternoon thinking it will make me less sleepy at night. I often drink a cup of coffee around 7PM and later I eat an apple which is supposed to work like caffeine. The crunch of an apple is also supposed to wake one up. I avoid foods high in tryptophane such as turkey, meat, salmon, eggs and milk for dinner. I have never had a glass of warm milk before bed. Warm milk does not appeal to me. No chamomile tea either. I leave the bright, overhead lights on in my bedroom. B complex vitamins are supposed to increase energy and stamina. I take a B6 pill each day and I am on B12 injections for my pernicious anemia. They don’t seem to do much for my nighttime energy or stamina. Even having the TV on loudly does not keep me awake. I don’t dare read a book. I wish the “sleepy man” away and I even say a prayer that I stay awake “to watch my shows”. Nothing works.

When I was in college, I was a night owl. I could work on a term paper all day long, but I did my best writing and most of the typing between 1 and 3 in the morning. My first job was working the evening shift. Then, I graduated from college and started working as a hospital nurse which required getting to work early in the morning. I still could stay out late to party and get to work the next day. I am not sure why my sleeping habits have changed. Is it because I am getting older?

I do go to bed to watch TV at night because falling to sleep in my lazy boy is not fun. I hate to wake up and then have to get ready for bed. A warm shower and being cozy in bed do not help me stay awake, I know.

It is said that a person sleeps 25 years in their lifetime. I think I must sleep more than that.

The good thing about today’s TV is that there is Spectrum channel 100 or “On Demand”. Most of my favorite shows are available here during the day. Also, I have set the TV to go off automatically at 11:00.

Apparently, falling asleep early is not a common problem because I could not find any quotes on the internet about it. There were a few quotes about falling asleep while driving. I avoid going out at night.

To quote a favorite poem “To all a good night.”

[accordion-item title=”Peepers by Edward Pontacoloni” state=closed]

What keeps me up at night is fear that the sky is falling. That, and the hoot of the barred owl with his whocooks, whocooksforyouall just as I’m beginning to fall asleep, just as I’m putting the peepers out of my mind. Don’t get me started on those peepers!

Otherwise, if it ain’t the barred owl, it’s the coyote, especially in mating season, when one howl sounds like a dozen, yip, yip, woo, woo, woo, awooooo, yip, yip, woo, woo, awooooo. Like that. A real sleep depriving cacophony. And, those peepers! You do know what they are, don’t you…the peepers? 

But, mostly it’s the fear of the sky falling. Not of the moon falling, mind you. I don’t think that the moon can fall to the earth. I think that, if the moon felt like falling, if it just let go of its mooring, for example, then, instead of falling, it would just float away like a balloon to who knows where, maybe to Mars or to Jupiter. 

So, I don’t fear the moon tumbling out of the sky when I try to fall asleep at night. Although, if the moon did lose its tethers and float away, then I would be afraid that it might not come back, and that would keep me awake all night. I’d be perseverating. 

Anyway, think about it for a minute. Wouldn’t fear of the sky falling keep you up all night? I mean, how would you get away? Where could you hide? I can’t think of anything more frightening than the unavoidable, inescapable falling of the sky, and that’s why it keeps me awake at night. Most nights, anyway. Otherwise, it’s the peepers.

Now don’t be confused. I’m not talking about falling stars here either. Falling stars don’t keep me up at night. I’m not afraid of falling stars. I even sleep outside during the Perseid showers. I like them. I have a fallen star that my kids gave me one year for father’s day. I keep it in my pocket to save for a rainy day. 

Nor do I fear the possibility of clouds falling. Even if a cloud did fall, it wouldn’t hurt or anything. Clouds are soft and fluffy, and they tickle, but they don’t hurt. Even if a cloud falls and hits you smack dab on the top of your head when you’re not wearing a hat, it wouldn’t hurt. It may mess up your hair, if you combed it, but I don’t have that problem.

So, it’s the peepers and the fear of the sky falling that keep me awake at night. I lay there at night, under my red, wool blanket, with my head on my soft, feather pillow, tossing and turning, fearful that the sky will fall, and listening to the loud, relentless, incessant, reverberating peeping peeps of the peepers.

Of course, it is at night time that I am trying to sleep, and it just so happens that that is when the peepers come out to peep, at night. So, you may think that if I tried to sleep during the day, then I would not have the peepers keeping me awake. Thus, you may say that, if I still can’t sleep, then it is really only the fear of the sky falling that keeps me awake.

But, that’s just silly. Who can imagine the sky falling? That’s nuts. The sky can’t fall. In order for something to fall, it has to be subject to the gravitational field. Gravity may explain why the rain falls or the snow falls, but, not even Isaac Newton could postulate the sky falling. So, a fear of the sky falling is totally irrational. It’s what they call a phobia.

I’m not an irrational kind of guy. I don’t do phobias. So, if it is not a fear of the sky falling that keeps me awake at night, then it’s got to be just the peepers. The dang, relentlessly reverberating peepers,

peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peeeep peep peep peep peep peep

peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peeeep peep peep peep peep peep

peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peeeep peep peep peep peep peep

peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peep peeeep peep peep peep peep peep


[accordion-item title=”Sparky’s Wine Bottle by William Gilbert” state=closed]

A psychologist on the radio said that as we grow older we tend to remember things pulled up from the deep recesses of our minds, events and images, we thought had been long forgotten. I’ve discovered I can usually remember short snippets or soundbites of my earlier days but rarely see the big picture. And some of these disjointed, fragmented stories from my past cause me to lie awake at night as I try to fill in the missing pieces.

This was the case when, totally out of the blue, I found myself still awake at 2am a few nights ago thinking about Sparky and trying to focus, in my mind’s eye, on the wine bottle in his hand. I can see Sparky perfectly and I can see the blue wine bottle, but I can’t bring the label into focus. And not knowing, not remembering, the name of the wine is driving me nuts…and robbing me of my sleep.

Sparky and I shared an Army barracks room. The first time we met he said he was surprised they had assigned him a roommate given the fact that he had just gotten out of rehab. He told me he was nineteen and got heavy into drugs in Nam. He didn’t look much older than sixteen and except for a few whiskers on his upper lip didn’t have any facial hair at all. His bloodshot eyes were the most brilliant blue I had ever seen and his fair, unkempt hair was so blond it was almost white. He was very thin and not much more than five feet three inches tall. He looked like a momma’s boy but deep inside dwelt the broken soul of a spent old man.

“All the guys in my unit were stoned most of the time” he told me. “I suppose that’s how we kept from going crazy, or blowing our own brains out. Hey, want to see a picture of the first gook I killed?” And with that he produced a wrinkled photo of dead Charlie flat on his back in a rice paddy.

Sparky was too young to buy booze and when he realized I was over twenty-one he said “I’ll buy if you fly.” I didn’t drink more than the occasional beer so he had to tell me what to get.

“Make sure you get that specific kinda wine. Gives the best buzz.”

There was a pond on post with red-winged blackbirds perched on cattails and large boulders surrounding it. Sparky liked it there because he said it made him feel at peace. We would spend as much or our free time as possible hanging out there. He would talk and I would listen. And we would drink wine.

I had pulled guard duty one weekend and it was 8 pm before I got back to my room. I opened the door and flicked on the light. Sparky’s bed was stripped and the blankets were neatly folded at the foot of the bed. I opened his footlocker and it was empty – all of his stuff was gone. The next day I knocked on the First Sargent’s door.

“Enter” he grumbled. He looked up from his desk and glared at me.

“Top, what’s happened to Private Franklin?” I said.

He looked back down at the paperwork on his desk and said “Discharged. Anything else?”

“No. Thanks Top.”

That was nearly fifty years ago. I never saw Sparky again but I can see him as if it were yesterday.

I just can’t read the label on the wine bottle.

[accordion-item title=”Taxing Sleeplessness by Mary Perrin Scott” state=closed]

Sleep comes easily for me

Once my head hits the pillow

I am lulled into a sweet slumber

January arrives in 2021

Sleep jarred awake by worry

Tax time will arrive all too soon

What to do? What to do?

Worry sets the stage for sleep disruption

A fifty-three-year marriage and

I have no idea about tax prep process

My husband worked for H&R Block and AARP

He can always do our taxes

With COVID looming high

I began to worry. What if he can’t deliver?

The US Government and NY State

knocking at our door worries me

Awake, awake, toss and turn

What to do? What to do?

He says, “It’s time for you

To learn the trade.” Awake, awake

Worry spirals out of control

Am I capable of doing our taxes?

Awake, awake, panic, panic, panic

The reports arrive, documents gathered,

Stacks of papers pile up

Study, sift, review I must

February arrives, awake, awake

Slowly learning the tax routine

Maybe, maybe I can do this job

My brain would like me to say, ”No!”

My intuition says, “You can conquer this hill.”

Epiphany! I can, I must, I will!

Asleep, asleep, asleep at last!

[accordion-item title=”What keeps me up at night is by Candice Wagener” state=closed]
What keeps me up at night is parenthood. Before becoming a parent, I used to sleep through the night effortlessly, sometimes sleeping as late as noon. Shortly into my first pregnancy, however, I was being woken up by kicks and cramps and spasms. Then it was cries and feedings. Times two. Now they’re older, but they still wake up occasionally to blow their nose or go to the bathroom. And I wake up, too, even though I don’t usually need to assist in any way. I’m also constantly amazed how I can be sheerly exhausted by the end of the day but then, once I lay my body down in bed, all I can think about is the “what ifs” and worries that I’ve pushed aside all day to get things done and take care of my family. Suddenly I am lying wide awake, staring those what ifs in the face. This has only gotten worse since March 2020. I long for a good, solid night’s sleep. Will it ever come again?

[accordion-item title=”Wide Awake at 3:00 A.M. by Linda Freedland” state=closed]

I’ve never been one for lying awake thinking about all the things that could, should or would go wrong in the upcoming days, weeks or years. After completing my routine chores of making beds, getting breakfast and lunch, meeting my husband’s computer needs, cooking dinner and cleaning up, and finally, riding my bike and doing some writing, I don’t tend to suffer from insomnia.

There used to be so much to keep me up at night. Long gone are the worries and anxieties of where our son was, or why hadn’t he answered his cell phone? It was, after all, 10:00 at night? And okay, yes, he was a senior in college, but still, you worry. No, those days are gone, thankfully. Only to be replaced a few years later by his move to Denver and his penchant for night skiing, involving driving from Denver into the mountaintop ski resorts after work and driving back home late. This proving what every parent knows; you never stop worrying about your child no matter what his or her age. I still worry but the pandemic, getting our shots and the political and moral state of our country has replaced some of those. But even they don’t keep me up at night.

What does keep me up at night is my husband – but not in the way I know you’re thinking. My husband is a night owl. He climbs into bed an hour or two after I’ve gone to sleep. He’s neither silent nor careful about waking me. He’ll lie there a minute or two, then roll over to ask me, “Are you asleep?”

Well, yes, I was until you woke me up. At this point, I’m a bit cranky and I ignore him. But that does not deter him. Oh no. Mistaking my silence for encouragement, he proceeds to go over, in miniscule detail, all the things that keep HIM up at night. By the time he has unloaded his litany of woes and worries onto me, he’s fallen asleep.

I now lie there, wide awake, worrying about his worries…which are usually worse than my own. Having given up on the sheep, I reach for my book.

If you enjoyed these stories and want to keep reading, visit the PBS American Portrait website to find this prompt’s page and more!