The witching hour.
It’s when you wake up in the middle of the night - in my case it’s usually 4am or thereabouts - and the mind starts to work.
And it never goes to hopeful, uplifting things. I don’t know why, but that’s when the dark thoughts visit. That’s when I lie awake and worry about money or sickness or plans gone awry. Not plans that actually have gone awry, but plans that might go south. Future tripping. The wreckage of a future that may or may not come.
It has never been easy to quiet my mind. It seems to run in the family. I remember a long time ago, when I was so small that my dad would carry me around. He would carry me around before dawn in that old house in Yonkers. We’d stand at the front window and look out onto the dark, dead-end street and he’d say quietly, “Are we going to make it?”
He was really saying it to himself. He was a child of the Great Depression and those dogs of financial fear hounded him for a very long time.
I’m not sure if those same worries hound me as much as they did my father, but I wake up at the same ungodly hour and don’t have a toddler to inflict my own fears on. I’d never wake up the dog at that hour, although I’m sure he’d be there for me. I let him sleep. He spends all day on watch, on patrol, and comes to bed only when he knows I’m down for the night. He deserves to sleep. We all deserve to sleep.
Or do we?
The witching hour. It’s a little after 5am now and I woke up thinking about the traffic ticket I got on my bicycle earlier today. I stopped at a light and then slowly rolled forward. The multitude of e-bikes, illegal scooters and the general madness of a delivery-based economy were screaming by me in both directions, against the lights, against traffic and against the rules of the road. But up in front of me loomed a large cop. He stopped me, demanded my license, gave me a lecture and then wrote me a hundred and ninety dollar ticket. I spent the rest of the day ruminating on the idea of injustice.
“THERE IS NO JUSTICE” read the tattoo on the arm of the grizzled old BLM information guy in Needles, California all those years ago. My friend Peggy and I noticed it next to his other tattoos, all from Vietnam, and I have often wondered what prompted that message. There are so many possibilities. People do bad things every day to other people. They abuse their partner and then lie about it. They rehabilitate their rotten public reputations. They virtue signal on the news or among their social media followers. The appearance of truth, justice and virtue is important, but the reality - the “walking the walk” part - is more elusive. Revenge and hatred seem to be the only animating forces these days. Righteousness goes hand in hand with foul deeds.
You can eliminate someone so easily now. You can erase their digital history, rewrite your own, then take another Xanax or Ambien. You can have another drink and send another bomb over the horizon and another burst of lies out into the world. Nobody’s reading any of this, anyway. People are too obsessed with their own problems, their own personal witching hours. Sometimes the witching hour never ends.
I don’t sleep as well as I did when I was younger. I wake up with dark thoughts. Like maybe we have not evolved as fast as we’d like to think. Science - not the junk science I read about these days, but real medical science - has given us longer lives than we had a few hundred years ago, but humans were not really meant to live past the age of 40. Procreate and die young. That’s the magic formula that kept the planet from getting too crowded for millennia, but we had to go and screw that up with medicine.
I had high hopes when this pandemic started. I thought, “Finally! A mass extinction event that will save the planet!” Alas, humans proved once again too wily to just go gently into the night. Maybe climate change will do it. Maybe bad politics and evil politicians will hasten our journey into the netherworld, leaving only a few dozen billionaires, who will then realize that a world without their fellow humans is not worth living on. The thing is, I don’t hate humans. I just don’t like mean people, vindictive people, people who hurt other people. I don’t like greed or jealousy or unkindness. I don’t like liars and hypocrites.
Yes, the witching hour can sometimes turn into a long, dark night of the soul, but it’s good to have a soul. Better not to be one of the poor, tortured bastards whose souls are so broken that they need to cause misery. There is no nobility in hatred. I’m not even sure there’s any nobility in survival. Altruism? Maybe. Sacrifice? A topic for a future rant. Zorba the Greek said, “Life is what we do while we’re waiting to die.” We can spend our time maligning others and playing the victim. We can lie, cheat, steal, and live in hurt and misery. But the only real nobility is in kindness. As a dear friend's kindergarten teacher told him, “Don’t be a dick.” I absolutely LIVE for those moments when my normally shattered faith in humanity gets restored. It doesn’t happen every day, but I cry when it does happen. Religion doesn’t really help me much, but small acts of compassion do.
In the meantime, I’m left with my thoughts at 5:30am - the witching hour. I don’t usually have nightmares. I don’t wake up screaming. I just wake up and start to think, to brood, to remember. And the only thing that helps me is to write. Or to put my face in the dog’s fur and remember that he thinks everything is okay as long as we're together. And he’s right. Or I’ll remember one other person’s goodness, or the kind acts of a few. Life may be short, but it’s longer than just one bad hour.
The light of day often works wonders. It’ll put a coat of paint on the bad thinking. I don’t take drugs or drink. I don’t want to get lost or fuzzy. I have to rely on the evidence in front of me, not in my head, to remind me that life can be beautiful in spite of whatever bad things exist. It’s the curse of overthinking that gets me, but not every time.
I'll shut up about the bad politicians and greedy billionaires - at least for the moment - and I won’t dwell on the people who do terrible things next door or on the next block. I’m not a victim. There are enough real victims to go around - victims of social policy in this country and abroad, victims of war and torture in Ukraine and countless other places, victims of crime and evil and hunger and injustice. I have it good compared to much of the world and I’m not going to blame my psyche for taking me hostage on anything. I’m not going to blame my childhood or yours.
It’s just a bad night’s sleep. Life is basically a short beautiful ride. It’s a high speed ride, although you don’t know just how fast it's going until it’s over. It can have some terrifying turns and bad crashes, but the ride is all we have. The scenery and the company. I don’t want to miss the road flashing by all around me. I can only focus on this one single moment. And then I’m going to have to get up and edit this stuff through the prism of sunshine and coffee. Life is not a haunted house.
Road maps, forgiveness and redemption can come later. First I have to walk the dog. We're a team, you know.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.”
I loved this so very much, Paul. I am not a worrying kind of person, normally. It does happen, but, mostly I am a "carrying too much in my head" person. Whether in random thought or in worry, it takes you away from the life in front of you. Thank you for bringing us back to the quiet comfort of what is possible and awaits us every day. Lovely. Tabby (and the photos are magnificent)
Thank you Paul, this was a beautiful, insightful piece. Kindness, truly is the greatest gift.