Maybe you’re 12 and it’s the first night of your summer backpacking trip — the only “sleep-away camp” you’ve ever known — and you suddenly realize you’re sleeping next to strangers, in a strange tent, in a strange place, with nothing in common except for your sleeping bags.
Maybe you’re 16 and your parents have gone away for the weekend, leaving you truly home alone for the first time ever; getting into bed, you feel the joy and excitement that had just this morning invaded your bloodstream like a quick poison now draining from your veins, and it dawns on you that being home alone in an old, dark house isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Or, maybe you’re 21 and undeniably single for the first extended period of time in your entire non-adult life — no more backslides, your emotional hang-ups are finally off the hook — and out of the blue it hits you like a ton of bricks: it’s just you — you, and the cold pillow beside you.
Maybe it’s not the first time you’ve experienced such a moment; maybe it’s just the first time in a long time. Either way, it’s going to shake you. Your heart might flutter in the I-feel-like-I-have-an-epileptic-frog-inside-my-chest sort of way, your palms might start to sweat, or you might start scrolling through your phone to look for someone you could potentially talk to (and subsequently say “goodnight” to).
If you’re me, you’ll have checked off all three in a matter of seconds. You’ll put down the lifeless rectangle that is your phone and start going through your mental Rolodex, which is far superior in its ability to connect people to visual memories. One by one you’ll cross off everyone in your family (because it’s 2 a.m. and they’re all asleep), and you’ll do the same with your closest friends (who, if not sleeping as well, are either studying or smashed and slurring words). This will leave you with none other than an abundance of acquaintances whom you certainly cannot just call up or track down on a whim for the purpose of this nightly exchange.
Bon nuit, buenos noches, buonanotte. Saying “goodnight” is a verbal ritual so deeply ingrained in patterns of human interaction that these words of evening departure are often no more than flung absently at one another as we slump off to bed. It is a ritual that rides the coattails of darkness and signifies the end of another day. It is a farewell to the sun, the momentary end of a to-do list, and the last sip in your lukewarm teacup. Etymologically speaking, the very term “goodnight” can be traced back not only to a dual salutation and valediction, but also to the 16th Century term “godbwye,” which is a contraction of the beneficent phrase, “God be with ye.” In this sense, our nightly exchanges are deeply rooted in the recognition that even in the depths of solitude, we are not alone.
And so, as I embark on my journey to the land of Zs, I think back to my earliest days, to Goodnight Moon and welcome the embrace of the midnight sky:Goodnight stars, Goodnight air / Goodnight noises everywhere.