A Tri-Phasic Man at 4:30 A.M.

A couple years ago I read somewhere that human beings are wired to be bi-phasic sleepers. Our bodies want to have one long stretch of sleep at night and a nap in the afternoon. In recent months I’ve morphed into a tri-phasic creature with the following pattern: 1.) 11:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., solid sleep; 2.) 4:30 to 5:30 a.m., resting wakefulness and occasionally prayer; 3.) 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., first nap; 4.) starting between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. depending on commitments, second nap.

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My napping buddy is getting old.

My early morning wakefulness has taken on a routine of its own. Kathy is on one side, curled on her side and facing away from me, and Watson is on the other, facing away. My choice, then: spoon with wife or spoon with dog. Resting on my back isn’t an option because they leave me with about eight inches of mattress. I could shove Watson to the floor, but I have a weird impression that sharing my pillow is “I love you” in dog language.

So I sling my arm across Kathy’s waist, rest my face close to her hair, and wait for my left arm to go numb. Then I pry myself loose, hold myself aloft with one arm, flip my girth to the other arm, and with boxers and t-shirt a twisted mess, lower myself as if with a hydraulic jack. “Hi, Watson,” I whisper, kissing his soft ear. “I sure do love you, old buddy.” He responds with a long snort. Eventually I can’t get my right arm comfortable and reverse the process. Adding panache to this deal is cat Baby Crash, who’s generally curled up on the bed’s southern hemisphere.

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Baby Crash napping on my legs.

And so it goes until my first nap arrives at 5:30 a.m. The temptation is to get frustrated, but that only insures that sleep will never return. My hour awake, then, has evolved into a session of drowsy mindfulness. Just seven hours ago I gave thanks for Kathy, how loving and skillful she is with her cancer patients, how she’s content to put a roof on our house or remodel the bathroom while I cook, how she loves me even though I can be a bummer to live with. I gave thanks for Watson, too, my faithful napping partner.

This morning was routine, with two exceptions. As usual I woke up wedged in at 4:17, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t feel the weary anxiety behind my sternum that’s been plaguing me. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his students to smile at their non-toothaches. (Translation: You don’t appreciate being pain-free until your molar’s screaming. So why wait? Enjoy your non-toothache now.) So I smiled at my calm, for however long it’s going to last.

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Take this scene, multiply by three thousand, put in an echo chamber, and you’ve got my dog snoring. (Credit: Kevin Shafer / Corbis)

And I was entertained by a snoring concert in surround sound. Kathy and Watson were both in fine form. For minutes at a time, they snored in call and response. Each brought her/his own talents to the pillows. Watson has a lot more nostril to work with than Kathy, an advantage he uses to full effect. When he inhales, a rattle starts at his cold nose, reverberates up his boney snout, and echoes in his throat and sinuses. The result: you’d think a couple thousand lions are gnawing warthog carcasses in the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Kathy has lip dexterity on her side. This morning—and I swear I’m not making this up—she had one exhale that went wee-wee-wee-wee-wee. “How the hell did she do that?” I wondered from my wee portion of the bed. Another exhale was so surprising she heard it herself and woke up briefly. If you were to have a snoring competition, Kathy would have won first place in the Dainty Division. The very tips of her lips fluttered together, making polite raspberries—like a little bitty car with a rusty muffler.

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Hey, bub, get a new muffler on that thing. It sounds like my wife snoring. (Credit: Peter M. Fisher / Corbis)

I couldn’t help laughing. “Are you kidding?” I said.

Her groggy response: “Yeah, it had to happen.”

Umm. Okay. Go back to sleep, dear.

Eventually Kathy and Watson settled into the sighs of deep sleep, and I floated toward a last hour of oblivion before my iPhone’s Goldberg Variations alarm started the day. The last thought I remember was of grandson Cole, my present blue ribbon of gratitude. He reminds me that no matter how often I stub my emotional toes on standard upsets, I’ve no excuse to complain. I’ve lived long enough to be a grandparent, had the chance to rest my lips on that baby’s head and breathe in his pure, fragile life. That’s grace enough for one lifetime.

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Cole: Grace enough for a lifetime.

I’m not sure how long my eccentric body and neurotic mind will go with this tri-phasic sleep plan, but as long as it lasts, I intend to receive it as a visitation. Before dawn I smile at what peace I have, breathe in more blessings than I deserve, and wait for my own snoring to return.

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Micro-Post: The Gentle Death of Anton Chekhov

(Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of short pieces–micro-posts–on stories/information of interest to nappers. I hope to offer a quick, entertaining read.)

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Anton Chekhov (Credit: Wikipedia)

Listening to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac this morning, I learned a few things about playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. If I’d have paid better attention in college, I’d have already known that . . .

  • Chekhov was a doctor, treating patients and writing on the side for eight years until he bought an estate forty miles outside of Moscow. There he wrote full-time while also giving free medical care to peasants in the area.
  • Chekhov wrote his most famous play, The Cherry Orchard, as a comedy, but Stanislavski intended to present it as a tragedy, with the actors “sobbing openly and dramatically.” “Chekhov was livid, and although he was seriously ill with tuberculosis by this time, he took an active part in the production to try to salvage the play. He traveled to Moscow against his doctor’s orders and worked furiously to revise and edit the play and supervise rehearsals.” The Cherry Orchard was a hit and placed Chekhov on the same pedestal with Tolstoy.
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Chekhov and Tolstoy at Yalta in 1900 (Credit: Wikipedia)

I suppose it’s hard to argue with success—to be celebrated for a work that you didn’t mean . . . that way . . . exactly. Shortly after the play’s premier in January of 1904 Chekhov listened to his doctor and went to a spa in Germany. I’ll let Garrison Keillor deliver the punchline:

“While in Badenweiler, [Chekhov] suffered a series of heart attacks. The doctor offered him sips of champagne, which was supposed to be beneficial to people with heart conditions. Chekhov remarked that he hadn’t had champagne for ages. He then turned on his side, closed his eyes as if to take a nap, and died.”

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In Your mercy, give us safe lodging, a holy rest and champagne at the last. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Anton Chekhov was only forty-four, but what a way to go: champagne on his tongue, a nap in his heart, and a gentle exit.

P.S. My book, Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is nearly ready for release. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for details.

Epiphany on a Planet of Cautionary Dreams

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Mary and Joseph still adoring Jesus on January 10th at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania.

It’s January 23rd: the magi have come from the East; knelt before the Christ child; offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and were granted their epiphany. Then, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” By January 6th, the Epiphany of Our Lord, I imagine most crèches had already been wrapped in old newspaper and set in a dark place for eleven and a half months of hibernation.

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Baby Crash enjoying the extended Epiphany.

The Coleman household has the strange habit of allowing the Christmas/Epiphany celebration to linger. It was only a week ago that Kathy put the ornaments, decorations, and snowmen in Totes, which now wait for me to lug them upstairs to storage. We’ve stretched the season into early February, but don’t have a set date for pulling the plug. When an afternoon or evening opens up in mid- to late-January, Kathy intuitively knows it’s time to go back home to our normal country.

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Stop and breathe, John.

I know Christmas/Epiphany has to move on, but I miss the spell our living room casts on me in December and January. Give me reds and greens. Give me lights that hold me back like a mother putting out her hand to keep her child safe when she brakes hard. Give me “good tidings of great joy,” even if the tidings are inconspicuous: You have a warm, dry, lovely house on a planet of cautionary dreams. Stop and breathe. Pay homage.

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Peter Paul Rubens’ “Massacre of the Innocents,” 1636-1638 (Credit: Wikipedia)

There is one jab to the solar plexus between Christmas and Epiphany. On December 28th, many Christian churches commemorate the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. The Gospel of Matthew recounts Herod’s indiscriminate attempt to kill Jesus, the promised King: “[Herod] sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” No historical evidence of this slaughter exists, but current events keep proving that Matthew’s account may not be factual, but it’s true.

Unicef reported last December that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution regarding the Central African Republic: “Action must be impartial and swift to stop the targeting of children, to protect schools, health facilities and transit centres, and to provide care and support to victims—with no impunity for the perpetrators of these outrages against children.” So suits pass edicts, and mothers weep for their children and refuse “to be consoled, because they are no more”—in Newtown, Damascus, and Bethlehem.

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Homage at Abiding Hope on January 23rd. The magi have come so far, and I’m putting off asking them to leave.

The whole Christmas/Epiphany story, with the shepherds “sore afraid” and the star “at its rising” and Mary wrapping her son “in swaddling clothes,” conflates with Rachel’s “wailing and loud lamentation” and leads me to shamatha in Erie, Pennsylvania. Cultures and centuries away from a child lying in a manger in the city of David, I keep epiphanies coming with calm abiding and leave a tree and crèche standing in my soul.

This practice is more about disposition than decoration. If only I could receive the simple, moving, miraculous story of Jesus’ birth without qualifications: Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a stupid census; Jesus was born alongside manure and slept in a feedbox; an angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee with wife and son to Egypt to escape Herod’s threat; and—like I said, more truth than fact—a king slaughters pretty ones to fulfill a prophesy.

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Come, dry bones of Rwanda, rise and dance in my soul. (Credit: Sascha Grabow)

The problem is, I can’t tolerate sanitized stories. Edit out or ignore the darkness and danger, and Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives are insulting, and the Coleman family’s celebration is ignorant and selfish. What does it say when I tear open presents on Christmas morning while at least one arm of my spirit isn’t cradling Rwanda and Littleton? How comforting is the artificial tree beside the fireplace if it withholds its glow from distended bellies and limbs abbreviated by machetes?

The point: I’m in no hurry to get the living room back to its usual arrangement. If nothing else, a nap on the couch with a fire going and the tree lit is a rare blessing. Sleep isn’t required. It’s enough to doze, let the colors blur through half-opened eyes, and listen to the wood’s snap and crackle.

I’m a challenging person to live with. The Christmas/Epiphany living room needs no excuses; it’s beautiful and that’s enough. There’s no particular reason that it couldn’t be an embracing escape from planetary absurdity and rage, from each day’s disappointments and injuries–this and no more. So why do I insist on complicating a peaceful sanctum? Because my Epiphany shamatha whispers, “Invite everybody in. Let them have a safe place, even if that place is your soul.”

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A lone snowman remains on the mantle: “Welcome. Come in from the cold.”

This morning in the car, Micah and I learned on National Public Radio of an innocent who will visit my spirit tonight as I sit by the fire. Reuters reports that “a 20-year-old woman in eastern India was gang-raped by 13 men on the orders of a village court as punishment for having a relationship with a man from a different community, a senior police officer said on Thursday . . . . Police said that her male companion was tied up in the village square, while the assault on the woman happened in a mud house.”As we rode in silence, I looked over at my son. He was shaking his head, eyes closed—momentary curtains drawn against evil.

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It’s warm here, distant daughter. I’ll put a blanket down for you. Rest. You’ll be safe.

The father in me speaks words that will never reach the young survivor in her hospital bed: “Holy Child, come sit on the hearth. Bring your forbidden lover. I’ll put lights back on the tree. Cry and scream if you want. I’ll keep the fire going, bring tea for your aching throat, warm bread to feed your broken body.”

My Indian daughter will be staying indefinitely. In my spirit inn that sings and sighs, where the tree and crèche live a seamless Epiphany, joy is sacred only if there’s room for every traveler’s wounds and tears.

A Letter to My Grandson

Dear Cole:

Thanks for yesterday. Lunch with you and your mom was fun. Getting your diaper changed with that irritated tookus was a drag, but you were a good sport. And holding you after nursing time was great. You were, as your mom put it, boob drunk. Congratulations and enjoy it while it lasts because the intoxication options of adulthood are a dead-end and won’t do your immune system any good.

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Work that smile, boy. Work it.

You’re starting to track the people around you, which is a blessing you’ll understand decades from now, if you’re lucky. Today, January 9, 2014, is your fortieth day on earth. Your pastor grandfather can’t help thinking of the wilderness and Noah’s Ark.

Last night, when your grandmother and I stopped to see you, I believe you finished leaving the agape-nave of your mother’s womb. You awoke from the long om nap that gives life. You seemed to me for the first time genuinely, authentically awake, aware as I understand awareness.

And you looked at me for at least ten seconds—in infant time, this probably equals a week. I mean, you laid one on me. It was luscious. It was a twice- or thrice-in-a-chunky-man’s-life look. It was a Joe’s-Cheese-House-in-Marinette, Wisconsin-15-year-old-sharp-cheddar look. It was a four-days-on-the-schooner-Victory-Chimes look. It was a week-of-solitude-in-a-hermitage look. It was an everybody-in-the-family-is-doing-fine look. You get what I’m saying, Cole? You looked the wind out of Grandpa. That look could’ve raised the Titanic from the ocean floor. Powerful look. Amen! Hallelujah!

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Titanic. Should I inform National Geographic of your powers? (Credit: Wikipedia)

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In your carseat, dreaming you’re Yoda. “RMS Titanic, you will surface.”

Or you may have been negotiating with a gas bubble or savoring Mom’s milk on the back of your tongue. If so, I’m glad to have been the object of your gaze, a visual mantra. But I don’t think so. I think you saw me and heard me. At this point, I suppose your mom, dad, grandparents, aunts, and uncle are all big-screen faces drifting in and out of focus and cartoon voices trying to tell you something.

This morning, little buddy, I figured out what we long for you to know. I had so much trouble getting out of bed that I prayed lying on my side. So tired, Lord. Some parts of life lately have been disappointing, persistently sad. So I opened myself to the Sacred Presence as best I could. A song from church when I was a teenager came into my head, so I let it play:

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From Psalm 51

Restore unto me thy joy, thy free spirit. That was the prayer. Joy and freedom! Then I thought of you, thought of how many people are picking you up and staring at your eyelashes and speaking strange words and singing my-grown-up-heart-is-bursting-nonsense songs. And whispers. And kisses on your head—such a scent. And fingertips brushing your cheeks.

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Nice lid, pal. Just don’t wear one like it in high school.

I’ll ask your mom and dad to save this letter for when you’re a teenager having a terrible day. You’ll feel like nobody understands you and the world is harsh. On that day, read this and hear what we’ve all been telling you. Hear these words that are so merciful and urgent that they get caught in our throats. We want to write them on your spirit before loveless authors line up to inform you that you’re a loser and your mother goes moo.

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You don’t always drink from a bottle, but when you do, you prefer expressed.

Hear these words today, Cole, that we mimed and rocked into you before you could hold up your own head: You are beloved! Sure, you’ll fail others, and they’ll return the favor. If you end up like me, pain and worry will sometimes make you want to find a remote cabin and disappear.

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Dick Proenneke’s cabin in Alaska, forty miles by air from the nearest town. No roads. Visiting it is on my bucket list. Want to join me? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Close your eyes, buddy. Breathe. And trust me: our lips kissed you are beloved into your sweet head; our eyes stared you are beloved into your face as you slept; our hands anointed you are beloved on your pink bum with Desitin and on your neck with an old cloth diaper after a good burping; our hearts made you-are-beloved drum beats against your chest as we napped together.

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Your Uncle Micah is trying to tell you something, Cole.

Understand? When you blessed me with a long look last night, I blessed you back with the first and eternal truth of Cole Martin Thompson: You are beloved! Remember.

Love,

Grandpa John