China = Insomnia

(but I’m writing lots of music)

Last week’s song


This week’s new song Most of my life, I’ve had difficulty sleeping—elementary school, junior high, high school, throughout college—try as I might to shut my eyes, relax, turn off my mind, invariably I would remain awake. As a kid I’d  most often stay awake worrying about school; sometimes I’d imagine biking adventures or playing in the woods; occasionally, I would hyper-fixate on whether Aaron Massey really liked me (for a minute in fifth grade), or if Heath Higgins thought I was cute (yes). I spent one or two nights a week sleepless, alone in my bedroom, sometimes remaining awake a couple days in a row.

In college, insomnia was my task master, a despised yet necessary friend. At one point I had three part-time jobs and a full course load—insomnia helped me juggle (for better or for worse) all the maddness and maintain a 3.98 gpa.  Often at home by 11:00 or earlier (if I wasn’t working) but having given up on sleep, I’d remain awake through the wee hours studying, thinking, writing. You would think this biologically-wired penchant for late nights would make me a natural party girl, loud and outgoing as night becomes morning (I’m a singer, a performer for heaven’s sake!), a network-nista, right? No. In my oddly-wired brain, insomnia and social interaction are mutually exclusive.  Insomnia is both safe harbor and lonely hell—when I can’t sleep, I think and imagine, focus, and problem solve, but I can’t do this with people—these sleep-deprived bouts of creative problem solving necessarily require that I go it alone. I may very well be a freak of nature.

But in 2004 when I moved to Humboldt, I discovered I could manage my insomnia. At home in Humboldt, I sleep so well yet remain creative in my artistic and problem solving endeavors. At home, when my head hits the pillow, anytime between 10 and midnight, I usually don’t re-emerge until daylight or until the alarm wakes (unless I’m really, really stressed, then it’s insomnia as usual). Home? Forget the trees, my bike, the ocean, Old Town Coffee & Chocolates, all my music pals—right now, what I’m missing most is sleep. China, it seems, has re-awakened my life-long struggle with insomnia.

new song

I’m not the only one struggling with this—several of us here battle with it nightly, including my downstairs neighbor, Mihn, a Chinese man from Xinjiang a rural province in northwest China.  A few sleepless weeks ago our paths crossed when we both, separately, were out trying to walk the insomnia beast into submission. We found each other walking our demons late one Friday and continued together along the streets of Xi’an sometime after midnight. On our walk there were many people burning piles of paper, thick black smoke rising.

“Mihn, what’s going on? Why are all these people burning stuff?” I asked.

“This is a local custom,” Mihn answered, “In China, there are several celebrations and customs that follow the Chinese lunar calendar. On the first day of winter, it’s different each year—this year it’s closer to the beginning of November, sometimes it’s more

Big Goose Pagoda, Buddhist monk

in the middle of November, it’s all according to the lunar calendar. But many people burn paper money, not real money, ‘piaou zi’, so their elders, ancestors, dead family members will have money to buy warm clothes for winter. They are burning money for those in the afterlife so they can buy winter coats to keep them warm.”

“Winter coats?” I asked. “They need winter coats to keep them warm?”

As we continued, all along the sidewalks on both sides of the street, groups of people hunched and huddled over burning piles. Where streets intersected, even more people crowded the corners. Street corners, alley ways, sidewalks all illuminated with shifting, dancing orange flames as smoke carried love, prayers, and wealth to those in the afterlife.

“Piaou zi, piaou zi, piaou zi,” cried a tiny Chinese woman, withered and pushing a three-wheeled cart heavy in front and sagging on each side with replica yuan. “Piauo zi, piaou zi, piaou zi,” she called again.

“She is calling out ‘piaou zi for the dead’,” interpreted Mihn. “The tradition is to burn paper money, but in recent years, they’ve started making paper and cardboard cars, shoes, miniature houses, so families can burn and offer those to their relatives. It’s considered a great respect to burn money or whatever you would want your dead friends and relatives to have,” Mihn concluded. “You might have noticed, but a lot of people are burning at the street corners? To honor their family members, living relatives go to intersections of busy streets, paths, roads where their loved ones traveled. Many people think their spirits can find the money and prayers easier if they burn at crossroads. That’s why so many are on the corners.”

We continue, watching all the families engaged in this tradition so late at night.

“Mihn, what if you want to pay something forward?” I asked. “What if you have an item of clothing that you would like a loved to have once they pass, but they aren’t dead yet? Can I burn something for future use?”

“What?” Replied Mihn, looking at me, trying to understand what I meant. “You want to burn something for someone who’s still alive? I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think that would be considered an insult to the spirits. It might be very bad luck, too.  Wait until they’re dead, then burn whatever you want to for them.”

“But Mihn, what if I go first? What if I die before this person, and I can’t get this to the spirit? I don’t mean to insult, here, I’m just trying to be practical. Isn’t there some sort of credit system with this just in case, just in case?” I ask with focused sincerity. “Just in case I go first—this person may never really know, otherwise, my love and respect…”

“Josephine,” Mihn takes a big breath and looks at me, brow furrowed, eyes focused, “ it’s time for you to go to bed. You are too affected by something. The smoke has got you. We must go home, and you must go to bed. Bedtime for you, Josephine. You have to go to sleep.”

We walked home, but sleep wasn’t waiting.

So, I wrote a song.

winter coat

Last week’s Nightingale