In Praise of Napping

In Praise of Napping

I should say in advance that if you turn your nose up at napping, you take issue with Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK and Jackie, and Ronald Reagan. You also question geniuses like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali.

Eleanor Roosevelt (Credit: Wikmedia Commons)

With such an illustrious list of practitioners, you’d think that what the Spanish call a “siesta” would be beyond reproach. Not so. Back in 2011, when fatigue in airport control towers caused a series of near misses, Federal Aviation Administration chief Ray LaHood said, “We’re not going to pay controllers to nap.” Even when presented with proof that sleep breaks would be beneficial, the chief remained humbug on the idea.

For LaHood and millions of Americans, the phrase “caught napping” conveys what we really think. The first word all but accuses the second of laziness, lack of ambition, even delinquency.

Home economics guru Martha Stewart damned naps with faint praise when she said, “I catnap now and then, but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.”

As an armchair expert and connoisseur, I can assure Stewart and all novices of the simple arithmetic. Reclining + Cogitating = Insomnia. And Insomnia ≠ Napping (feline or otherwise).

Margaret Thatcher, who got “zizz” from her personal assistant, Cynthia “Crawfie” Crawford. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I have too much empirical evidence on my side to be swayed by detractors. Still, why does lying down on the couch in St. John’s pastor’s study for what Margaret Thatcher called a “zizz” embarrass me a little? The short blasts of rest that kept Thatcher sharp during the Falkland Islands War should embolden me.

As should her legendary predecessor, Winston Churchill, who actually put on pajamas and slid between the covers for at least an hour, usually longer. He claimed the rest helped him squeeze 1.5 workdays into 1.

His rationale was almost poetic: “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”

Winston Churchill in 1941: imagine his scowl without a nap. (Credit: Wikipedia)

He was arguably the world leader most responsible for defeating Hitler. In retirement, between midday oblivion and glasses of Johnny Walker Red with a splash of water, Churchill wrote a 1,600,000-word history of World War II that earned him the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature.

If you’ll admit that I’ve built a solid case thus far, I’ll return the favor with my own concession. Some recent studies have indicated a connection between long naps and premature death as well as the eventual onset of diabetes and heart disease. If you want to follow up on these leads, be my guest. I can’t help but wonder if some folks whose siestas drag on until dusk are dealing with major, health damaging stressors.

If you don’t think stress can plunge you into full-drooling REM sleep every afternoon, let me bend your ear. I first acquired my taste for naps thirty years ago when a series of challenges pointed out my limitations in every theater of life.

When some situations demanded emotional chops, I had a glass jaw. When others called for firmness and discernment, I employed what one Buddhist teacher calls “idiot compassion.” As a young father, for example, I mistook permissiveness for easy-going wisdom.

Yogi Berra in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In short, for a good thirty years I lay my beleaguered self down, as did baseball great Yogi Berra, who took “a two hour nap from 1:00 to 4:00.”

Thankfully, realities that used to sap my spirit have mostly gone on hiatus, and looking a full day in the eye no longer requires hiding my head under the covers halfway through.

Rest at midday has become a sweet blessing. A few weeks back I had a late lunch at daughter Elena’s house. Grandsons Cole and Killian were deep in their usual dramas of make believe, so it was a surprise when the former said he would join me for a nap.

One of my favorite nappers, Cole, three years ago

We sprawled on his single bed, my eyes closed and his fixed on a Magic School Bus cartoon. Occasionally I watched his features in profile, his delicate eyelashes and waves of red hair.

After fifteen minutes, he said, “I’m getting up, Pop,” and headed to the living room.

Ms. Frizzle and her students talked on the bus. My loved ones laughed and chattered down the hall. I wasn’t tired at all, but kept still in gratitude for an old habit begun out of desperation and aged into surprising joy.

And I saw that it was good.

Killian, napper in training

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Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Blogger’s Note: I had this post almost ready to go yesterday. Events conspired against me, though. Since A Napper’s Companion is thus far a gratis gig, the scrumptious words that follow had to wait until this morning. Enjoy a day late. Peace, John

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Grandson Cole practicing sanity and wisdom . . . before his red hair came in

Thirty-five years ago at Behrend College in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mr. Michael Tkach did me a life-changing service. His persuasive writing class convinced me to become an English major. I was a milquetoast Business Management student, but once Tkach—pronounced tack—made me wrestle with fallacies, my major took a hairpin left–English it would be.

My former professor is now a friend, and today I owe him a second, albeit more quiet, thank you. The following Facebook message from Mike just landed in my box: “National Napping Day! I didn’t know about this, but I thought you might.”

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“Joven Dormida” (Sleeping Girl) by Antonio Cortina Farinos on Wikimedia Commons

I do, in fact, know about today’s sane and gentle observance, always the day after our clocks spring forward an hour, but without fail I forget. According to wowktv.com, “William Anthony, Ph.D., a Boston University Professor and his wife, Camille Anthony, created National Napping Day in 1999 as an effort to spotlight the health benefits to catching up on quality sleep. ‘We chose this particular Monday because Americans are more ‘nap-ready’ than usual after losing an hour of sleep to daylight saving time,’” said Dr. Anthony, also known as the Napmaster General, in a BU press release.

The host of a blog called A Napper’s Companion should have this date circled in red on the calendar. I have one defense: for me, every day is National Napping Day. Thanks, Mike, not only for giving me a great steer decades ago, but also for sounding the alarm about this holiday.

“National Napping Day is probably for amateurs anyway,” Mike concluded. “You’re a pro.” I wish, old friend. Dedicated volunteer is more like.

When I started www.ANappersCompanion.com almost three years ago, I shared piles of information to defend and encourage napping. If you’re intolerably bored, you can dial back many months and find more benefits of the blessed oblivion of midday than any reader could wish for.

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Jesus pleads. His disciples nap. “Christus am Olberge” (Christ on the Mount of Olives) by Andrea Mantegna (Wikimedia Commons)

But I don’t write much about napping anymore. First, the practice no longer needs any defense. Research rendered in snappy graphics are all over the Internet. Facebook crackles with exhortations and celebrations. Big business has slowly caught on to the wisdom of not only allowing naps but also dedicating space to them. Bill and Camille Anthony have served us well.

To date I’ve posted 179 essays on A Napper’s Companion, and one entitled “Napping Pods for $12,985: A Commentary” has been visited more than any other. By far! And much to my chagrin. I wish a couple of my other posts had attracted such numbers. WordPress sent me an alert yesterday that my stats were soaring. Cool beans, but nearly all the interest was in napping pods.

I’ve never even seen a pod in person, by the way. I remain a garden-variety napper who finds that a couch or bed works fine. A floor is okay, too, as long as I have a fluffy pillow. My siesta strategies haven’t changed over the years.

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“The Nap” by Guillaume Van Strydonck. Time was I could relate, sister. (Wikimedia Commons)

But circumstances have eased. Pitiful as it sounds, napping used to be serious. The last fifteen years or so have included intense, excruciating stretches, some of which regular visitors to this blog know about. During the worst times, knocking off for an hour in the middle of the day was essential. I either stepped off the planet into oblivion or imploded. Heck, I almost broke down anyway.

It would be nice to say that I’ve grown or gotten stronger, but I’m as vulnerable as ever, unequal to many gauntlets humans must run. But for whatever reason, swords and clubs are fewer these days, challenges that slash at my spirit mostly disarmed.

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Van Gogh’s “Mittagsrast (nach Millet)” (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m still devoted to naps not because I’ll fall apart without them but because they’re good for me. Some folks do well sleeping in one long session over twenty-four hours. I’m happy for them—really. Others’ schedules don’t allow a siesta, which is a shame if they’re tired.

National Napping Day has plenty of scientific support. I’m buoyed by the fact that my daily rest is blessed by research, but I’ll close my eyes in an hour mostly for subjective reasons. Napping is my way of kissing myself on the forehead and saying, “You’re trying to be a good man, John. Lie down and breathe.”

Happy National Napping Day and love to you all.

Is Your Ego Depleted? Try a Cookie and a Nap.

Samuel Butler, by Charles Gogin (died 1931), g...

Portrait of Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin (Credit: Wikipedia)

Victorian-era novelist Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a quotation machine, maybe because he jotted down his every thought. At least it seems that way. Here are a few samples:

  • Morality turns on whether the pleasure precedes or follows the pain. Thus, it is immoral to get drunk because the headache comes after the drinking, but if the headache came first, and the drunkenness afterwards, it would be moral to get drunk. (Huh?)
  • The whole life of some people is a kind of partial death—a long, lingering death-bed, so to speak, of stagnation and nonentity on which death is but the seal, or solemn signing, as the abnegation of all further act and deed on the part of the signer. Death robs these people of even that little strength which they appeared to have and gives them nothing but repose. (Aw, quit blowing sunshine.)
  • Never consciously agonise; the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Moments of extreme issue are unconscious and must be left to take care of themselves. During conscious moments take reasonable pains but no more and, above all, work so slowly as never to get out of breath. Take it easy, in fact, until forced not to do so. (Count me in.)
  • A piece of string is a thing that, in the main, makes for togetheriness; whereas a knife is, in the main, a thing that makes for splitty-uppiness; still, there is an odour of togetheriness hanging about a knife also, for it tends to bring potatoes into a man’s stomach. (The hell you say!)

Butler also observed that his parents were “brutal and stupid by nature,” which has a catchy, though dark, lilt. He wrote Erehwon, a novel I’m disinclined to read because, even though it’s satire, nowhere in reverse is ham-handed.

But all splitty-uppiness and low-brow moves are excused on the merit of a single Butler-ism: “Life is one long process of getting tired.” If the author had written nothing else, this eight-word string of togetheriness would make him a prophet. I’m only half-kidding. Some months back I ran across a New York Times article asking, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” Turns out Samuel Butler was speaking both spiritually and scientifically.

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Sigmund Freud: love those glasses (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mulling over an impressive, scary body of research, Times science columnist John Tierney fleshes out Butler’s claim. “Decision fatigue,” he writes, “is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy.” Baumeister and his colleagues have conducted studies in recent years demonstrating that making choices is measurably and significantly tiring.

  • Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University looked at the parole system in Israel and discovered “by analyzing more than 1,100 [parole board] decisions over the course of a year . . . [that a prisoner’s] probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day.  Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.” So basically a considerable hunk of a human being’s life can hinge on judges’ glucose levels and their reluctance to nap, both of which—some carbohydrates and/or twenty minutes of rest—might bring about a fair as opposed to a weary, pessimistic verdict.
  • And decisions don’t have to be monumental to be draining. Tierney: The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice . . . . So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.
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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The life decisions that wear us down like a tire with the steel belt showing through are everywhere. One researcher, Jean Twenge, who found the process of planning her wedding exhausting, gave her colleagues a great lead for a study. A department store in their vicinity was holding a going-out-of-business sale, so she and others went, bought junk like mad, and messed with subjects’ heads. “When they came to the lab, the students were told they would get to keep one item at the end of the experiment, but first they had to make a series of choices? Would they prefer a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one?” And so on. Other subjects were asked to view and comment on the same articles without making any choices among them. “Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can.” The deciders averaged twenty-eight seconds, the non-deciders sixty-seven.

Tierney’s compilation of examples of ego depletion and decision fatigue goes on at length:

  • Research conducted at German car dealerships found that customers could be worn down by the number of options to choose from, and “by manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2000 at the time).” Note to self: next time you make a complicated purchase, go in ahead of time, get the list of choices, and decide at home.
  • Here’s something to keep in mind if you ever grumble that the poor are mostly to blame for their troubles: “Shopping can be especially tiring for the poor, who have to struggle continually with trade-offs.” Dean Spears of Princeton University “offered people in 20 villages in Rajasthan in northwestern India the chance to buy a couple of bars of brand-name soap for the equivalent of less than 20 cents. It was a steep discount off the regular price, yet even that sum was a strain for the people in the 10 poorest villages.” Their decision fatigue was considerable, “as measured afterward in a test of how long they could squeeze a hand grip.” Life is one long process of . . . trying to be strong. Is it any wonder that people who don’t have enough money to make ends meet sometimes make what appear to be foolish choices, like using food stamps to buy filet mignon? Always having to distinquish wants from needs is exhausting and leads to oh-what-the-hell mistakes.
  • The irony of decision fatigue is its antidote: glucose. Several Baumeister et. al. studies demonstrate that people are able to exercise willpower and make wise short- and long-term decisions when they’re given a blast of glucose. They stick with problem solving tasks longer than the glucose-deprived and make more prudent, less impulsive financial decisions. Even dogs are well-served by carbohydrates. “After obeying sit and stay commands for 10 minutes,” University of Kentucky researchers found, “the dogs performed worse on self-control tests and were also more likely to make the dangerous decision to challenge another dog’s turf. But a dose of glucose restored their willpower.” The shortcoming in this equation for diabetics like me who are constantly trying to lose twenty pounds is obvious. As Tierney puts it, “1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower. 2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.” Dang!
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Eh, no thanks. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Baumeister (along with co-authors Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Rice) summarize the sad reality in a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Of course, they believe so. Here are a couple snippets from the abstract:

  • People who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolates subsequently quit faster on unsolvable puzzles than people who had not had to exert self-control over eating.  
  • Suppressing emotion led to a subsequent drop in performance of solvable anagrams.  (So it’s not just about making choices, but trying to control ourselves in any way that depletes our ego.)
  • These results suggest that the self’s capacity for active volition is limited and that a range of seemingly different, unrelated acts share a common resource.

In short, then, thinking makes us tired, and when we get tired, stupid statements come out of our mouths and dumb and sometimes harmful decisions come out of our brains. No wonder many of us walk around yawning and saying, “I need a nap” Life is one long process of getting tired. The active self is a limited resource.

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Homeless Russian men napping on their blankies–no milk and cookies. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Fulghum’s folksy advice is grounded in science, and we should listen: “Think what a better world it would be if we all—the whole world—had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap.” Judges in every country should have a couple of Lorna Doones and a siesta for the sake of the afternoon docket. Folks in the market for a car ought to sip orange juice and nap before talking to a car dealer.

As for myself, I have the midday rest part down. The problem is, I don’t know how to eat just a few cookies.

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Not Lorna Doones, but I’d eat them. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Socks, Pasta, a Memory of Heroin

IMG_0539This Memorial Day weekend I spent an hour sorting socks. The only detail that makes this chore noteworthy is how long I put it off. Eighteen months? Two years? I don’t remember. Why so long? The short answer is, “My son was hooked on heroin, got arrested, and spent ninety days under house arrest.” Micah was a free man as of January 28, 2013, but when you’re a felon, freedom is relative—no driver’s license, no job, hours in group therapy. You’re free, but your penance is lengthy and leaden.

The clean Micah (for almost a year now) is fantastic. With the drug and its relentless, frantic acquisition gone, he’s growing into the twenty-one-year-old man I figured might be under all the junk. He’s not a roaring maw of rage and narcissism. His wardrobe is now polychromatic. He’s patient, generous, quick-witted, and curious. He’s still a slob, but his Titanic is restored, afloat; I’m not about to rearrange his deck chairs. The future is hopeful.

1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a...

1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a year before his death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But as anybody who witnesses a loved one’s addiction knows, life consists of one emotional butt whipping after another. I pulled the afghan tight under my chin every afternoon and received what Edgar Allan Poe called “sleep, those little slices of death.” He loathed them. I loved napping as a protest against reality.

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Shredded Basement Paneling, a Scar of Micah’s Worst Months

Days and siestas are much improved as of May 29, 2013; still, mixed in with the relief and stability of Micah’s recovery is residual pain from the past. In the way a marathoner’s body needs time to heal after 26.2 miles, my mind and spirit continue to ache now and then from those times Micah smashed objects in his basement bedroom or paced around the house with clenched jaw and trembling fists. I’ve done some reading on PTSD and wonder about myself. (The particulars of Micah’s, wife Kathy’s, and daughter Elena’s experiences are theirs to tell, so I’m not going into them.)

One sign that I’m healing has to do with socks. An hour seems like nothing, but for however-long-it-was I couldn’t gather up sixty scrawny minute’s worth of energy to pair them. Some people get rid of stress by cleaning. Not me! For whatever reason, then, a couple days ago I dumped that basket on the bed and sorted. Since Micah was in the habit of wandering around in stocking feet, most of the pairs were the sickly gray of dirt that doesn’t yield to bleach. Some were salvageable. Nearly all of them needed to be washed again after multiple seasons in the basement—they smelled like a bunk at summer camp. Random artifacts hid between the folds and in the toes.

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The Throw-Aways

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A Few of My Pairs, Emancipated

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Random Items: BBs, a Bracket, Wood, and What-the-Heck?

Part of me wants to be ashamed of putting off such a simple chore, but as today’s slogan goes, “It is what it is.”

As socks piled up during Micah’s fury, non-perishables also accumulated in the Coleman household’s black-hole-of-a pantry. A couple months ago I reached in and discovered that every time I went to the grocery store a pound of pasta rappelled into my shopping cart. I’d basically been shopping unconscious. “In case we’re out,” I must have thought. We’ll be in good shape with angel hair, linguine, egg noodles, and shells for a while.

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Got Starch?

I asked Micah to read this post before publishing it, and he approves. (He did suggest one change. I’d described above the bunk at summer camp as dank, but he reminded me that word doesn’t just describe moldy caves.) Last night he was catching a smoke on the front porch when I told him through the screen door that I was proud of him, of how well he’s doing. “You know, Micah,” I said, “a lot of what I’m writing about now is what’s going on with me.”

He answered with selfless insight: “You had to live through my addition. You ought to be able to write about it.”

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Micah in December of 2012: Six Months Clean and Experiencing House Arrest’s Cabin Fever

Like I said, the future is hopeful. Micah’s earning back his freedom and learning patience and persistence. I’m healing slowly, waking up to all the socks and pasta that have been keeping vigil as I lurch toward normal.

My Hungry Ghost Will Have Eggs Benedict, Please.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

I first met Hungry Ghosts a couple years ago while riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor from Philadelphia to Orlando. I was reading Savor by Thich Nhat Hanh and R. Lilian Cheung, who write, “Buddhism describes creatures known as pretas, or Hungry Ghosts, who have insatiable appetites for food, drinks, or other cravings. They are desperate beings who are always hungry, with tiny mouths; long, narrow necks; and distended bellies. Though they are constantly ravenous, driven by the desire to eat, their tiny mouths and necks prevent them from swallowing the food they ingest.”

On the unhappy way to see my father and step-mother, both of whom were suffering from dementia, I immediately recognized myself as a member of the Preta family. The train rocked, jerked and clattered, but it may as well have been a monastery. Since everybody was a stranger, the journey was mostly conversation-optional, which was convenient. I wasn’t in a chatty mood. The condominium complex where my father and step-mother lived struck me as sterile and surreal, like something out of a Tim Burton movie—irk! And the two people I was traveling to visit were sure to repeat themselves constantly and bristle at my encouragement to move into an assisted living facility. Maybe because I was bracing myself for the forty-eight cruddy hours ahead, the insight that the Preta clan’s DNA twined in my soul wasn’t depressing. As long as I was in a dark space already, why not uncover a little brokenness? It was as if Savor were diagnosing me with a condition I knew afflicted me, but couldn’t name.

I don’t have a tiny mouth, narrow neck, and distended belly, but I am frequently ravenous and occasionally desperate. And, sadly, I can swallow lots of food and drink. My real relation to the Pretas, though, is the way I sometimes eat: quickly, mindlessly, excessively. It’s not pretty. I’m much better now than I used to be, but as the saying goes, “Two steps forward, one step back.”

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Triple the Hollandaise, Please! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Today was one step back. Two dear friends and I shared breakfast at Perkins Family Restaurant, and I went at my order like a Hungry Ghost: eggs Benedict, home fries, and potato pancakes. Since I engaged in a modified fast yesterday (diabetes makes a strict fast difficult), I started dreaming of this meal over twelve hours in advance.

And, man, was it good. Perkins has fantastic hollandaise sauce, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I ordered extra on the side. The home fries were crisp, the potato pancakes with salt, butter, and sour cream were—I’m just going to say it—almost sexy. Were my eyelids fluttering as I ate? Were my eyeballs rolling back? Maybe.

When I finished the first half of the eggs Benedict and home fries, the mindful, buzz-kill side of me said, “Wow. That was great. And actually, you’re full. You could stop now, take the rest home.” Ha! By the time I had one pancake left I was uncomfortable. But the company was great, the conversation light, and ten minutes later I looked at that lonely pancake and thought what all we Pretas think: “Ah, what the hell.”

Hell is right. After exorcising myself from Perkins, I sat at church in the pastor’s study in a stupor, too full of fat, salt, starch, and chicken embryos to think. If it’s possible to be drunk on food, that’s what I was. The work got done, but I’m not sure how. The only thing that kept me from napping at 10:30 a.m. was that it really would have been an abuse of the company clock. My congregation is great to me, a gift not to be taken for granted.

But when normal siesta time came around, I was a bloated, white walrus in boxer shorts, slack-jawed on my bed at home. (For your own safety, don’t try to picture it.) Four hours after pushing the cleaned plates away, I still felt like I was with-child. Sometimes when you overeat, you can feel food sloshing around in your stomach, right? No sloshing here. There was no room for liquid or air. My whole torso was a sad, weary, dense wad of breakfast.

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Carl Brutannanadilewski of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a Brother Preta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Here it’s important to pause and confess–the point of this post–that a siesta isn’t always a glowing expression of good health. Some afternoons, sleep is an expression of disappointment and self-loathing—that’s only a slight exaggeration. I napped lustily a few hours ago not only because the Preta in me was exhausted, but also because I was tired of myself. As everybody knows, the weaknesses that keep circling back to you again and again are a drag. Just when you think you’ve left a struggle behind, it shows up in dirty sweatpants and a wife beater and sprawls on your couch in all of its whiskery, flabby glory. Tiring, very tiring.

It’s nearly 7:00 p.m., but nothing for me anytime soon—still full. Maybe some soup later on. The nap did help, and I did get to start my day by laughing with friends, for whom I give thanks every day. I’m grateful that my Hungry Ghost isn’t a frequent visitor anymore, but when he arrives, the truth is, sometimes he gets the better of me.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

A Siesta in the Brothers’ Peace

IMG_0367I’m looking out at spring from the third floor of the Retreat House at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Compline finished half an hour ago with the monks chanting in the dark sanctuary their love song to Mary, and now the birds outside my window are singing their own love song as the light grows thin; farther off, a mourning dove says something truthful. The only discordant sounds belong to a few of my fellow retreatants, who aren’t sure what all the “keep silence” signs are about. No matter. It’s Monday evening, and from now until Friday morning, I’m in a place founded on a Christian version shamatha—calm abiding. Shh. Keep quiet, inside and out. Listen.

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Photo Credit: Stahrman

A retreat in the rolling hills of Kentucky–or anywhere, for that matter–isn’t for everybody. Slowing down, closing your mouth, and hearing what you’ve been trying for years to shut out can make you squirmy, claustrophobic. Your spirit can feel like your feet do after wearing roller skates for a few hours: numb, unreliable. What sane person would actually take vacation time for shamatha and the emotional reckoning it invites? And who would choose calm abiding as a career?!

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Photo Credit: The Abbey of Gethsemani

If you’ve never visited a monastery and only read a description of the monastic routine, you might think cloistered monks are squandering their lives. Wouldn’t it be better for the three- or four-dozen men who live at Gethsemani to leave the enclosure and get their butts into the trenches and help the poor? Isn’t praying and remaining silent and making cheese, fudge, and fruitcake a waste of a human being’s seventy or eighty years on this planet? Some say so.

What many find hardest to understand about a monk’s vocation is this: monks believe that they stay in one spot and pray not only for themselves, but more importantly for my sorry carcass, your probably much more healthy and well-adjusted carcass, and our crazy world that keeps busy shooting and blowing up innocents. Daffy, but true. I once saw a video in which a brother from the Abbey of the Genesee said that the day he believes he lives as a monk only for himself will be the day he leaves the monastery.

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Photo Credit: Stahrman

This belief that monks live for others is made concrete by their hospitality. I don’t know the exact number, but I’m guessing there are thirty to forty pilgrims with me in this Retreat House, which is attached to the monastery proper. We each have our own bedrooms and bathrooms, and there are also rooms available for men in the floors above where the monks themselves live. How much will this stay cost me? Depends on what I can afford. Money’s tight right now, so I’ll leave a check for $100 when I leave. The meals alone, simple but tasty and hearty, are worth more than $100. If I left nothing, I’d never hear a word about it. The next time I come here, I hope to give much more.

Of course, I didn’t take vacation time for a retreat at Gethsemani because of the bargain. I’ve come here to rest, to get centered, to tend my sanity.

The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani

Around 2:15 this afternoon I spotted the spire of the abbey church. I got out of the car, grabbed my bags, and walked toward the Retreat House. Within twenty seconds I’d entered the silence. When the lay receptionist saw that I was the Rev. John Coleman and handed me my key, he told me about how I could concelebrate the Eucharist—something a Roman Catholic priest might want to do. Sweet old guy, really.

“Well,” I said, “I’m a Lutheran pastor.”

He smiled. “Aren’t we silly? All these divisions.”

“Yep,” I said, “we sure are.”

“When you’re elected Pope of the Lutheran church,” he said, “you can change all this.”

We had a good laugh, and I took the elevator to my room.

After leaving my bags, I headed for the sanctuary balcony, where I sat down after the conclusion of the prayer period called None, which ended at 2:30. Five monks were still praying quietly in their seats. I prayed with them for a few minutes and wondered if I could live their silence, day after day, month after month, year after year. No.

And by prayed with them I mean sat long enough to honor what they were doing. I assume they were giving God—or whatever name you want to assign eternal grace and mercy—room to take up residence in their spirits.

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Guest quarters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After watching over them on the balcony, I went back to my room and lay down on the twin bed. For much of the eight-hour drive from Erie to the-middle-of-nowhere Kentucky, I mentally reviewed all that I planned to sort out and accomplish at Gethsemani. The closer I got to the abbey, the more I was convinced that I needed to let go. For my days here, there should be no plan, no agenda. No shoulds!

The monks who spent so many hours in prayer, together and alone, knew they didn’t possess wisdom themselves. The best they could do was sit still and let wisdom come to them—or rise up within them. Whatever.

On the twin bed in my room, I closed my eyes at 3:00 p.m. And in this place of letting go created by hundreds of monks, I slept for an hour. Then, for another thirty minutes I lay there, breathing deeply, neither asleep nor awake. I got up grateful.

The brothers have prayed in this place for over 150 years. I took my siesta in the embrace of their peace.

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Intense Turkish Coffee and Our Primary Nervous Flux

Honoré de Balzac, by Nadar

Honoré de Balzac, by Nadar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I obviously love my daily siesta, but there are people who never even consider resting at midday. My brother Ed is one of them. He’s a CPA, relaxed, well-adjusted, and says he never remembers taking a nap. Another might have been Honore de Balzac, a French novelist and playwright who, according the The Writer’s Almanac, drank twenty to forty cups of “intense Turkish coffee every day” and smoked lots of pipe tobacco. He claimed to have once worked forty-eight straight hours interspersed with only three hours rest, but in the end all the caffeine probably killed him.

Balzac’s essay “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee” parses his obsession with and dependence on coffee: “Coffee affects the diaphragm and the plexus of the stomach, from which it reaches the brain by barely perceptible radiations that escape complete analysis; that aside, we may surmise that our primary nervous flux conducts an electricity emitted by coffee when we drink it.”

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Portrait of Honore de Balzac (Credit: Steve Hammond)

And Balzac was all about his “nervous flux” sparking. He favored drinking coffee before eating to maximize its effect. As the acid eats away at the “stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae,” “everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

If coffee had this effect on me, writing would be the last thing I’d want to do. I have plenty of agitation of my own. Other than an appreciation for wine and beer, I’m a chicken about stimulants or depressants. About twenty-five years ago, just before daughter Elena was born, I smoked hash with some friends and had the mother of all panic attacks. Ever since, I’ve been phobic about any drug that might make me lose control and freak out. During a bout with bronchitis a few years ago, I took cough syrup with codeine but couldn’t bring myself to use the prescribed inhaler, which might have messed with my temperamental heart rate. In short, my “primary nervous flux” generates too much electricity as it is. I need to power down, not ramp up.

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A Powering-Down Aid

Whether my powering-down siestas contribute anything to humanity is doubtful, but nobody can say that coffee didn’t work for Balzac and world literature. He wrote almost one hundred novels, short stories, and plays, and according to Wikipedia, his work influenced Proust, Zola, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Faulkner, and Kerouac.

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Portrait of Ewelina Hańska by Holz von Sowgen, 1825, miniature on ivory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the final year of his life, Balzac married Ewelina Hanski, whom he loved for many years, though she was married. Her husband Waclaw died in 1841, but it wasn’t until 1850 that Balzac was able to marry her. “On 14 March 1850, with Balzac’s health in serious decline, they drove from [Ewelina’s] estate in Wierzchownia (village of Verkhivnia) to a church in Berdyczow (city of Berdychiv, today in Ukraine) and were married. The ten-hour journey to and from the ceremony took a toll on both husband and wife: her feet were too swollen to walk, and he endured severe heart trouble” (Wikipedia). Five months later, Balzac died at fifty-one. “His wife had gone to bed and his mother was the only one with him” (The Writer’s Almanac).

Would a daily hour of oblivion have tempered the great author’s lust for caffeine? Maybe, but his work flashed out of his “nervous flux”; Balzac wouldn’t have been Balzac without coffee. Sumus quod sumus (we are what we are).

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Balzac’s Tomb (Photo Credit: Joop van Meer)

“I Don’t Know! Ask the Horse!”

In Savor, Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung tell the Zen story of a horse and rider: “The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the rider is urgently heading somewhere important. A bystander along the road calls out, ‘Where are you going?’ and the rider replies, ‘I don’t know! Ask the horse!’”

The horse represents our habit energy, “the relentless force of habit that pulls us along, that we are often unaware of and feel powerless to change. We are always running.” I’ve decided that my life depends on understanding my habit energy—the silly, mindless actions and words that litter each day. I eat too fast, drink too fast, drive too fast. I worry too much, talk too much, eat way too much.

Thich Nhat Hanh says I should talk to my habit energy: “Hello, my habit energy. I know you are there.” Plentiful daily siestas and over twenty year’s worth of contemplative prayer are putting me in touch with my silly horse. Writing about napping and other sane practices helps, too.

Last night, as wife Kathy and I walked our happy black dog Watson around the block, we calmed our habit energy long enough to check out little flowers on a neighbor’s fence.

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This morning I prayed in bed from 6:00 – 6:30 and intended to dress and dive into the day—much to do. But oncology-nurse-wife Kathy woke up with a knot in her back, so instead of getting right to work, I did my best to massage away what felt like a concrete ping pong ball beside her shoulder blade. (Masseuses have my respect. Subduing stubborn muscles takes strong hands and forearms.) The delay turned into a blessed twenty minutes. Once the knot was worked out, she leaned against me, and we breathed in, breathed out. The cats relaxed with us.

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Today’s work includes trying to find good words for someone who lost a loved one to cancer, visiting a woman with lung cancer, and asking prayers for a six-year-old girl who was in an ATV accident a couple days ago and is still unconscious. “Change and decay in all around I see,” says an old hymn. So it is.

When I pray, rest in the afternoon, and—even in this moment—breathe, I can’t help feeling we’re all in a great lap of grace and mercy. All of us. The world’s evidence is against me. Habit energy tells me to clench up, to struggle and strain. No. For too many years my harried horse has been galloping my body and mind where it pleased. Life project: pat the horse on its big nose and train it to carry me slowly through my lovely, crazy days.

What I Almost Hurried Past

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James Wright (Credit: Wikipedia)

James Wright’s (1927-1980) poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” is a must read for every siesta lover on the path of mindfulness. The poem is short, and the title covers a lot. The speaker of the poem beholds the beauty of the moment: “a bronze butterfly”; cowbells “in the distance of the afternoon”; “a field of sunlight between two pines”; “a chicken hawk . . . looking for home.” Wright’s last line at first seems like a non sequitur: “I have wasted my life.”

I thought of James Wright, whose work I love, this weekend as that last line kept sounding in my head: “I have wasted my life.” I haven’t really “wasted my life.” A wealth of blessings surrounds me, and at fifty-one, I’m bold enough to accept that I’m a decent guy. But sitting in the Coleman family breakfast nook yesterday, I had a moment of awareness–shamatha, if you’ve read recent posts–that has graced my whole weekend. And this grace–what C. S. Lewis might call a mildly severe mercy–has made me wonder how much of my life I’ve wasted.

I’m a worrier. Give me a pimple, and I can turn it into a malignant tumor in a skinny minute. Give me a conflict, and I’ll work my stomach into an acidic lather. I’m better now than in years past, but still, as a wise friend says, I’m great at shoveling smoke. How many blessings have I walked mindlessly past because my guts were in a knot over minutia? Is it an exaggeration to say “millions”?

Yesterday (Saturday) morning, before I rushed off on some errand, words of wise wife Kathy slowed me down: “Did you see the flowers out back?” Of course not. So I went out the backdoor for five minutes and looked.

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I have wasted my life. But not wasted it beyond redemption. If I’m lucky, I might still have some great years left during which, like James Wright, I can lie in a hammock, so to speak, and receive the blessings scattered before me like jewels, only more valuable.

Maybe wisdom is settling in. This morning (Sunday) as I was walking to my car, I almost missed these blessings–almost!

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Even as I passed through the church office to the Pastor’s Study, I nearly rushed by flowers again. Michelle, friend and Parish Administrator, had these hearty blossoms in a vase:

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As I stood in the Pastor’s Study, I finally got the hang of it–that is, slowing down enough to give thanks for flowers spotted on the way to getting work done.

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Eight-year-old spindly poinsettias in the south window of the Pastor’s Study.

So what is life? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s what I’m hurrying past on the way to making sure my work gets done.

Churchill’s Black Dog and Pink Silk

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the Unite...

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955. Deutsch: Winston Churchill, 1940 bis 1945 sowie 1951 bis 1955 Premier des Vereinigten Königreichs und Literaturnobelpreisträger des Jahres 1953. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my recent post on Winston Churchill I listed the contents of his bar during the Boer War: “36 bottles of wine, 18 bottles of ten-year old scotch, and 6 bottles of vintage brandy (a drink he believed was essential to a stable diet).” And this was just a warm up for the drinking he’d do throughout his life. If he were alive, I’d ask him, “How did you excel as a world leader during one of your nation’s most agonizing hours while consuming enough liquor to knock out a team of Clydesdales?” Maybe his systemic alcohol reserve never got low enough for a hangover to set in. And beyond his effectiveness, how did he live to celebrate his ninetieth birthday? Little or no exercise, blubber around his middle, a cigar hanging out of his mouth, and more booze than water in his body: he never should have seen sixty.

Bipolar-lives.com’s Sarah Freeman reports that the Prime Minister didn’t drink only for kicks. Alcohol was also a salve for depression, which he called his black dog:

  • “Churchill seemed to be aware that his depression was a medical condition. In 1911 a friend of Churchill’s claimed to have been cured of depression by a doctor. Churchill wrote about this with some excitement in a letter to his wife, Clementine: “I think this man might be useful to me—if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now—it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.” However, Churchill was writing at a time before the development of effective medication, when the main medical approach to mood disorders was psychoanalytic. Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, wrote a memoir about his famous patient, emphasizing the black dog—it describes plenty of symptoms but no treatment. (Although when Churchill was almost 80, Dr. Moran did prescribe some speed to give Sir Winston enough of a boost to make a final speech in Parliament.)”

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    (Photo Credit: Henrik Jensen)

Freeman goes on to argue that Churchill suffered from manic depression. I quote and summarize her article here at some length:

  • “Combative in personal relationships,” Churchill also clearly fancied his own voice and could happily hold forth for four hours or longer, with some of this time devoted to sarcasm and bluster (as Lady Aster discovered on numerous occasions).
  • The business of state began around 8:00 a.m. when the Prime Minister awoke and concluded anywhere from 2:00 to 4:30 a.m., when he turned in. Sadly for his staff members, who were understandably put out, he expected them to be available at any time during this long haul.
  • “He worked from his four poster bed in the mornings, attended by colleagues and secretaries. One General described being summoned to a meeting a 4 am where Churchill appeared dressed in his bathrobe. He often distressed his staff by meeting with them while dressed in nothing but the pale pink silk underwear that he had personally tailored.  He would even walk around his house completely undressed or insist on conducting meetings from his bathtub.”
  • “At his death [he] left 15 tons of personal papers. Most of his income was derived from his writing, and he wrote countless articles, and 43 book-length works in 72 volumes.”

(I’m still recovering from the image of the portly Prime Minister in pink silk underwear with a stogie in one hand and a whiskey and soda in the other. It’s a wonder one of his aides didn’t snatch the cigar from his boss’s teeth and turn the lit end on his own eyes.”)

The extent of Churchill’s excess and foolishness, claims Freeman, is evidence of Churchill’s manic depression, as is his alcoholism:

“Research has demonstrated very strong links between mania and substance abuse. Studies show that bipolar people are much more likely than depressed people or the population in general to be alcoholic. Further, alcoholics are more likely than members of the general population to be bipolar. Do manic depressives self-medicate this way to gain relief from the irritability, agitation and restlessness of mania?”

The implied answer is, “Of course.” Freeman speculates that his ravenous consumption of not only alcohol, but “cigars, stilton cheese and rich desserts . . . smacks of self-medication and links Winston Churchill and manic depression.”

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Statue of Churchill in a Straitjacket in Norwich, England (Photo Credit: Glen Scott)

In the end I don’t care what mental health tag gets put on Churchill’s toe. What draws me to him is his blessed oblivion in the afternoon and his feat of containing his weaknesses and cobbling together an incredible life. I also admire how aware he was of his own fragility. “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is coming through,” he once told his doctor. “I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” (The original source for this quote is illusive.)

Churchill survived all his obsessions (you live to ninety doing what he did, you’re the winner!), and the black dog died before he did. I like to think those long naps kept him from throwing himself overboard.

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Victory! (Photo Credit: luxuo.com)