While driving through the Minnesota countryside with my husband and children one warm spring day, I pointed out some black sheep grazing in the distance.
"Black sheep!" I remarked with a laugh. "I never count those when I'm trying to fall asleep at night."
My son Hank looked out the window at the sheep, too. "Sure you do, Mom," he replied. "Those are the sheep that keep you awake."
I smiled at the time, but the more I think about it, the more I have to agree with Hank. I suspect that everyone has a few dark thoughts, or black sheep, while lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling and waiting for sleep to come.
Worries that we're able to ignore during the light of day have an uncomfortable way of making themselves known in the still of the night.
And Hank is right: Black sheep are far more effective at keeping me awake than counting all the white sheep in the world are at helping me fall asleep.
They also have a remarkable talent for springing up out of nowhere: Why didn't I visit my grandmother in the nursing home more often? How on earth am I ever going to pay off all our charge cards? What was I thinking when I volunteered for that project I know nothing about? What is going to happen next?
All of these are black sheep, thoughts that belong just about anywhere except under the covers with me – if I ever hope to fall asleep, that is.
The question is: How do I get rid of them? That is, how can I send those black sheep back to their grazing field where they belong?
Why can't I focus on the good that happened during any given day, instead of the bad? I don't know. But I'm doing my best to find out.
An excellent place for me to start, always, is with my children. Every time a negative thought disguised as a black sheep pops up at night, I try to replace it with a thought about one of my sons, the two people in the world who invariably can make me smile no matter what else is going on around us.
I can also usually replace some more of those black sheep with thoughts of my husband. After 27 years of marriage, I still look forward to being with him more than anyone else I know.
Then there's extended family and friends and even a couple of cats who are far more entertaining – not to mention sleep-inducing – than any old sheep could ever be.
After family, friends, and pets, it's pretty easy to segue into another favorite category: food.
Thinking about the perfect pizza or an endless bowl of hot and sour soup might make me hungry, but it also makes me very happy to start planning our next dinner out.
What I'm doing, I guess, is putting that age-old advice into action: adding up my blessings. And not so surprisingly, counting blessings can soothe the most savage of sleepless nights.
A bonus of counting your blessings is that they don't have to be big ones to make you feel better.
A blessing can range from something as mundane as watching snow fall to as wonderful as watching your child graduate from junior high.
So tonight, as I lie under the blankets next to my husband, listening to the sounds that a perfectly quiet house makes when everyone in it is supposed to be asleep, I will be busy remembering so many fluffy, soft blessings that I should be sound asleep in no time.
I think it's going to work even better than warm milk.