Night music

I love falling asleep to the sound of crickets. They are nocturnal, and I want to say the sound they make is a nocturne: music appropriate to the night, a type that is especially dreamy.

The crickets began singing this year in mid-August, and they are singing now. I’m sure they started a few nights before I noticed. A late-summer thing, their sound is soft at first, and then it gradually crescendos.

In the city we hear crickets but don’t often see them. They look like small grasshoppers. They are brown/black, with large, bent back legs for jumping. Their antennae, which are as long as their bodies, are their most telling feature.

It is a myth that crickets rub their legs together to make that familiar sound. Called chirping, or stridulation, the sound is made instead by strumming the stridulatory organ, a large vein along the bottom of each wing that is covered with teeth. With their wings up and open to help project the sound, crickets rub the toothed underside of one wing over the top of the other.

The males are the singers, and the purpose of the song is to attract females. I love it that there is a quieter, private song for actually courting a particular female cricket who has come near, and yet another brief song sung after mating.

The females have ears on their legs. Well, tympanic membranes, actually, which pick up the sound. The chirps are different for each species, which helps streamline the mating process.

Though crickets sing for a very particular purpose that has nothing to do with me, and though the word “stridulate” usually refers to producing a harsh, grating or shrill sound, I find the cricket song whimsical and soothing. I associate it with childhood. I grew up in the country, and nights were quiet. Maybe a neighbor’s dog would bark, the occasional car would go by on the road or a train would rumble off in the distance. But mostly night fell like a black blanket that muffled all sound. With such a blank aural backdrop, the song of crickets really stood out.

My husband has different associations with falling asleep as a child. His father would listen to Bach or Mozart or Beethoven in the evenings, and my husband, when he was just a little boy, left his bedroom door open a crack so the sound drifting up from the living room would reach him. He would fall asleep to that music, a thing that still comforts him.

When it comes to sleeping, my husband and I have very different styles. He falls asleep the moment his head hits the pillow, while I need a good half hour to settle in, review the day and let go. He snores, I do not. He rolls from side to side, a thing we call “thrashing,” whereas I don’t move much at all.

The sound and activity in the bed, in addition to the city sounds (jets, car doors slamming, traffic, sirens, people talking and laughing, music) mean that I have spent a fair bit of time in recent years trying to get to sleep. I’ve been frustrated about it, but have adapted, and lately I’ve been a lot more sanguine. When my husband snores and rolls, I know he is there beside me, and I cherish that.

A super-sensitive kid, I had trouble falling asleep even those quiet nights in the country. My mother sat on the edge of my bed one evening and told me she had read in Reader’s Digest about a Yoga technique. You begin with your toes, and you focus on relaxing them, and then you move up through your feet, your ankles, your calves, and so on, relaxing each body part until you either get to the top of your head or fall asleep.

This method, while it doesn’t work every time, often helps lull me. There have been many nights when I have fallen asleep before I have even gotten beyond relaxing my feet.

Calming your body is part of the work of getting to sleep, but of course quieting the mind so that you can even do the Yoga relaxation is quite another matter. I think about how the word stillness refers both to a lack of activity and a lack of noise. To fall asleep you need an inner stillness.

It occurs to me now that this thing we do every night, fall asleep, is a very private thing, even if we have a bed partner. It is a deal we strike with ourselves, agreeing to give ourselves over.

This is how it went the other night as I was drifting off: crickets, soft rain, crickets, rain, crickets.