This morning I awoke with some ideas about how I can develop something I am working on. We are often aware of waking up, the gradual accumulation of senses bringing us slowly to consciousness, but not the other way around – or maybe that’s just me. And yet, that area between awake and asleep can often be a very fertile area where our minds are free to wander, sometimes bringing us jerking awake with good ideas or, more often, just slipping seamlessly over into unconsciousness. But how aware are we when we pass from consciousness into unconsciousness when we drop off to sleep? Even if I try to be mindful of the slide into sleep, I just don’t notice it. Do you?
In fact, for me, the only time I can recall the slide is when I was fainting after severely bending back my thumb just before going on to play in a concert. It was my own fault – a group of us (early twenties, – should have known better but still only playing at being grown up!) in a lovely village called Thaxted in Essex, which hosted (hosts?) an amazing music festival with superb soloists and an orchestra of young semi-pro players culled from the music colleges of London (although I hailed from the Royal Scottish Academy).
We had not been required whilst the Labeque sisters did an amazing duet stint, which was followed by the interval, so we had adjourned to the pub across the road and were playing silly jumping games over the churchyard wall which was just over knee high. I was being slightly superior and not joining in whilst the lads did their standing jumps from the pavement over the wall, but goaded and cajoled, finally gave in to peer pressure, lifted my long skirt up to my knees and jumped. It was a clear jump, but unfortunately, I was wearing heels (not a usual occurrence) and my weight toppled forwards. I put out a hand to save myself but landed on my left thumb, bending it backwards beyond even its own double-jointed ability! Oooooooh my word – the pain.
I was assured by the men present that it was similar to being kicked somewhere the sun don’t usually shine! It blossomed like a hot, fiery flower, engulfing me entirely. My vision turned into a red tunnel, then got gradually darker. Once the lads stopped laughing and realised I was hurt, they hauled me into the vestibule of the church and sat me on a bench, head down between my knees. Their voices seemed weird – a long way away and kind of blurry and muffled. The interval was nearly over and they were wondering who they could tell and what would they do – I was the only oboe on my part and we were to play a Tchaikovsky symphony next. I felt sick, my hand was a throbbing entity hanging off the end of my arm and my thumb was in its own kind of hell. Somehow I managed to put my stoic hat on and a voice from the depths insisted I could play. It was my left thumb, right? I didn’t actually have to use it, did I? It’s only the support for the instrument. If I could rest the oboe on my knees, I could play, couldn’t I?
Well, the lads got me on to the stage and I sat down, with my oboe on my knees. I usually play with a very upright stance – arms up, oboe just under a horizontal position – it suits my teeth and jaw shape, raises my rib cage and allows me to get a lovely tone – but this was totally impossible. I had to hunch over, resting the oboe on my knees and trying to focus on producing any kind of sound!! Thankfully on this occasion I was not playing 1st oboe, and Tim who was playing 1st for the day (who hadn’t been part of the madness outside) didn’t have a clue what had happened. He was concerned because I looked a little weird (the cellists who were part of the possé said I looked green!) but as long as I could do the job, he didn’t want to know! Well, it was a waking nightmare.
I played ok, apparently. I don’t remember. All I remember is the music looking a long way away, down this long dark tunnel. I could only see a little bit at a time, and had to concentrate really hard to stay focussed on this tiny circle of music at the bottom of the tunnel and staying conscious. I had to try to push away the awareness of pain and stay connected to that little focal area at the bottom of the tube. I had to breathe and play at the right time, with the right notes in the right order and at the right dynamic. Thankfully, I had played this particular symphony lots of times and knew it well. And amazingly Tim, although casting anxious eyes at me from time to time, was totally unaware of the precarious situation I was in so I couldn’t have done too bad a job!! The cello section kept one eye on me to see if I stayed on my chair as I swayed from side to side occasionally (or so they told me afterwards). I’m sure if there had been time, there would have been a book on whether I stayed sitting or keeled over!! Afterwards, they rushed over to me, packed up my oboe, and supported me to the car and drove me back to London.
That thumb took a long time to recover from its wrenching, and I learned not to give in to peer pressure and do something I thought was stupid in the first place!! But I also learned that I could hang on to consciousness even when close to fainting because I was so determined, at least on that particular occasion.
It’s a weird place to be, between consciousness and unconsciousness. My perception of time totally changed. I can’t say exactly how, but all that existed was that small circle at the bottom of the long red tube, and the black notes that were all I could see in the small circle took all my concentration to keep in focus. My perception of sound also totally changed. I’d never heard Tchaikovsky underwater before, and probably never will again!! It ebbed and flowed like tidal waves of sound, sometimes clearer, individual instruments and musical lines, and sometimes more a wall of sound merging into a mush of aural movement. And the pain. That was like a living, breathing thing, changing in intensity every second, striving to take my awareness away from the little circle of notes, trying to compel me to fall into the embrace of the heat and pulse and shout of pain. I was vaguely aware of feeling very sick all the time, but the focus of my concentration forced that to the background.
What a memory!! Wow! And out of a single random thought this morning about where awareness and sleep align!! So, what are your stories? Are you aware of the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness? What does it feel like for you?
And, taking it back to where I came in, which is more fertile in your mental wanderings? In the lull before falling asleep, or in the slowly arising consciousness of the morning?