I can never sleep on Sunday nights.
I've tried it all - within reason. Dimmed lights. Extinguished screens. Abandoning 'real' coffee for decaff, from midway through the afternoon. Music. Relaxation exercises - learned strategies of breath. Reading - endless reading - reading until I suddenly realise it's so late that it's starting to be early. But somehow the cacophony of anxieties about the week ahead are a night-long dawn chorus in my mind, chirping and singing loudly and insistently, and keeping me awake. What sleep there is leaves me unsure whether I've slept or not, the anxiety of wakefulness merging with the horrors of bad dreams.
And yet, at 4am one Monday morning in January, I woke from a dream so astonishing that it made the rest of the night, lying awake, feel worthwhile. I dreamt that Seamus Heaney was teaching me to fly an old-fashioned kite. The handles were crossed pencils; after the flying ended, we wrote poems. I'd clearly been thinking about some of my favourite of Heaney's poems - A Kite for Aibhín, from his late collection The Human Chain, perhaps, written for his grand-daughter, or the earlier poem for his sons, A Kite for Michael and Christopher. Both poems are moving: they always were, but become even more emotive still after the poet's death. Both pieces show the passing on of traditions from generations; in the poem for his sons, Heaney sets the young boys in place to handle the kite - "You were born fit for it" - in a symbolic rite of passage in which kite-flying becomes a metaphor for the serious care and griefs of adult life. In the later poem, the kite unexpectedly takes flight alone:
"The string breaks, and - separate, elate -
The kite breaks free..."
Today, five months beyond the poet's sudden death, the unexpected breaking free of the kite seems poignant. The soul breaking free of the encumbered, ageing body. The poetic legacy breaking free from the finite, human writer. The rising beauty of tributes to the poet masking the intense sadness of the death of the man, back in August as the summer evenings dimmed.
Almost to capture that dream in time, to remember it, I composed a tweet, right there at 4am. When I looked back, a couple of hours later, a few other wakeful people had commented on it: one person had suggested that perhaps it was a prelude to a creative day. I hoped it might be, as I tried to rise through Monday morning exhaustion like a kite escaping tangled strings, held in inexpert hands. But what happened later that day has left me at once lost for words and reaching for a keyboard or a pencil. At lunchtime, I received a small, handwritten envelope. It contained a simple memorial card, the sort that families send in appreciation of messages of sympathy following a death. Returning for the Autumn Term with the news of Seamus Heaney's death, I felt as though the historical shadow the news cast had dominated that first term's lessons. In the English Department where I work, we all felt lost - as though someone who meant more to us than the author of so many set texts was gone. Our students wrote poems in tribute, ranging from deeply moving to affectionate satire. Borne on their enthusiasm and with a tenuous connection of my own, it somehow felt right to write to Heaney's family: we had lost a favourite writer, but they had lost a husband, father, grandfather and more. Receiving that simple memorial card today was the kite breaking free from the poet's hands, as he shows one final time how inspiration moves beyond the person behind it. He passed the kite from his hands to his sons', teaching them the skilled complexity of making flight look easy. In turn, he passed the skill to his grand-daughter, years later - yet gravities defied him, and the kite took flight alone. Heaney describes the "Air from another time and place" in the shifting air pockets between generations, the rituals of childhood repeated, yet still unique. As father, grandfather, he seemed to love recreating these moments, passing on experience and letting memories fly free. As a poet, he reminds us too how writing will go on beyond his lifetime: the string may break, but the air from any time or place can be breathed in learned strategies of inspiration. And we write.
Writing this now, as light dims on a winter afternoon and birdsong echoes outside, I feel the crossing pencils, which formed the spindle of the kite I dreamt about, poised solid in my hands. I'll never write like that, any more than I'll ever silence Sunday night choruses of anxiety. But perhaps there's something to be said for trying. After the flying ends, we write. Our words take flight.Suggest a correction