Napping in America

(published in The Examined Life)

The best nap I ever took was in a cabin in the northern woods of Wisconsin. My girlfriend and I had driven up the day before from our home in the Iowa corn, the landscape morphing rounder as we got farther north, the trees a deeper green, the air a richer mix. Arriving at the cabin lent to us by friends, Lois and I settled in, exhausted from the trip. In the morning, we awoke to light clouds floating on sheets of blue sky, the breeze from Canada lapping at our window.

A chili pepper from the garden exploded hot in our stir-fry at lunchtime. The afternoon stretched before us lazily. Lounging on the dock of the small lake, we spotted an eagle, large, presumptuous, presiding over the top of the tallest tree. Later a family of ducklings wriggled their way across the water before us.

Giving myself over to the laziness of the afternoon, happy, tired, I climbed between the sheets of the rustic old bed and poured my body onto the welcoming expanse of blanket and comforter, and was soon gone.

Nestled in bed in this pine-framed cabin, within the dark northern woods, kissed by the lake breezes, I fell into a deep sleep. Though I started from time to time, it was easy to slip back into unconsciousness, and so the nap lasted for several hours. It was the kind of sleep that seems a blessing upon awakening.

And for me, good sleep is everything.

For the last twenty years, Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, or CFIDS, has cast a long flickering shadow over my days and nights, as I struggle to mine the energy necessary to perform basic daily tasks from an often bone-dry reservoir. Lack of energy can be cumulative, and so my need for naps grows in proportion to the demands I put on my body. Rest is really the only palliative I’ve discovered so far.

Although my illness was diagnosed by the chief immunologist at the local research hospital, it still raises eyebrows sometimes. Someone with CFIDS does not immediately appear unwell. “But you don’t look sick!” I often hear when I excuse myself from some obligation because I’m not up to it. I’ve had to learn to set boundaries.

And yet, when I can, I thrive on spending luxurious stretches of time in unfamiliar places, refreshed by their novelty. Travel is one thing I refuse to cede.

Of course, these two realities – love of travel and chronic fatigue – often don’t mix well. The ordinary challenges of touring – sitting on a cramped bus for hours, airport delays late into the night, things which might turn anyone a little cranky – can leave me exhausted for days. I willingly, if hesitantly, pay the toll for these roadblocks, because travel offers not only the thrill of new experiences but also that of visiting friends, with the ensuing healing power of human connection. Such connection leaves me feeling fulfilled, as long as I can balance the round of activities with an equal amount of sojourning across the dream landscape. It doesn’t always work out.

What I look for on my journeys is a window of opportunity, a block of space and time to lay myself down, like the Taureg, those North African nomads who trek the Sahara and, when exhaustion creeps upon them, throw themselves onto any old sand dune, falling instantly into revivifying napsleep.

To travel is to raise a rude gesture to the limitations of illness, to shake my fist at my own body; to nap is to make up again.

Lois and I headed to San Francisco one August a few summers ago, traversing the continent from Iowa on Amtrak’s California Zephyr. There were many distractions to disturb our rest that first night. The conductor flickered his flashlight onto the destination cards tucked above passenger’s seats. Passengers lurched to the bathroom, sometimes stumbling into laps. The seats were unconducive. Most annoying, there were those who’d struck up a friendship and insisted on loudly sharing their life stories into the wee hours.

The more the sleepless night advanced, the more my foggy brain lodged in loops of distracted musing. How much did those people in the sleeping berths pay for their night’s sleep? I wondered. What was a good night’s sleep worth? The effects of sleep reached, I knew, far out from beyond the territory of the night and colored the entire next day, leaving me either a generous, light-hearted member of the human race, or a gruff, grim misanthrope.

We were not off to a good start. I would be exhausted before even reaching California, and this, I worried, would set the tone for the rest of the trip.

Lois was getting off before me, headed into the Sierra Nevadas for a hiking trip. We would reunite in a week’s time. I was continuing on into the city to spend time with several sets of friends. The trick, I knew, would be to maintain enough energy to be present with them.

My first stop was the home of two boisterous 20-somethings, sons of an old friend. We had history; every June we had driven down together from Iowa to a camp in Missouri. From summer to summer, I watched them grow, savored their loud, boyish sarcasm. Now, as I arrived at their apartment, the boys were giddy, caught up in joking. We talked and laughed for hours. Finally, after midnight, they unfolded a serviceable futon bed for me, and I dropped into wasted, happy, exhaustion.

We stayed up late, but fortunately they also had the habits of the young. No one was up before noon on the weekend, which meant that although I got up around nine, I could putter around, read a little, do my exercises, and then get in another good nap before having to interact with anyone. It was not a bad routine.

Still, I was tired. In the night, reaching for a blanket, I knocked over a lamp. And in the morning I kicked my glass of water on the floor next to the bed, breaking it. “I have come to destroy,” I told them when they woke, and they laughed. But I knew it was my nerves, frazzled from the long trip, which made me careless.

And there was something else. The boys were into music. “The Sporting Life” by The Decemberists began getting stuck in my head at night. I lay there, the lyrics running over and over through my hyped-up brain, making sleep difficult.

It’s been said that people can’t fall asleep as easily nowadays, a symptom of the age, perhaps, with its stress, over-scheduling, electromagnetic disturbances. Now, on top of this, it seemed, there was the problem of insanely catchy pop tunes. Did it help that the song was about someone who had fallen in the game, who couldn’t quite measure up to society’s blithe expectations?

It did not.

It was travel that led me to this pass. In the 80’s I vagabonded my way around Asia for several years, imbibing the expansive tonic that only the experience of living in other cultures can offer. But it was also there that I faced a reckoning of accounts, bar tab for this tonic for which my body would claim insufficient funds. Hepatitis. Intestinal parasites. And some unnamed infection that caused my left foot to balloon like a beach ball for six weeks.

The acute sting of these illnesses spent, they nevertheless left an impression on my immune system. I never really rebounded and found myself tired all the time. Wondering what had hit me, like a boxer blinded by his own sweat, I returned to the American Midwest where, in a poetic mirroring of my state, abandoned farmhouses were splintering into the dust in neat square-mile intervals.

Now, once a month or so, I crash. It’s one of the mysterious side effects of chronic fatigue, a little like getting the flu. On such days of deficiency, illness weighs me down, constricts my chest, percolates into my eyes, creating a dull unease. My energy vacates the premises, diving into some deep recess and I’m left feeling spent, my muscles aching. Sometimes it can take weeks to recover. The only thing for it is rest.

I’ve found that, just as a writer needs the proper space in order to create, so too does a napper need the right atmosphere. Certain rituals, certain techniques, bring me closer to dreams, allow the sleepiness to build in intensity, until it’s ready to roll me down the hill into unconsciousness. Usually, I do a couple of clues on a crossword puzzle, or read a few pages of a novel. I strip to my underwear if it’s warm out, or keep long johns on if it’s cold. Darkness is important. As is quiet. I always carry earplugs. In a pinch, rolled-up toilet paper will do. I sleep generally on my stomach, or on my side, clutching the pillow. Almost never on my back.

I was exhausted after leaving the boys’ apartment. Fortunately, on the next leg of the journey in a small town further up the bay, my friend Chris offered me a nice room for napping, quiet, clean, with blinds that pulled down into darkness. High-count cotton sheets, a heavy blanket: I fell into the huge bed.

I would spend the next couple of days here, mostly in bed, before heading back to the city to see my final set of friends. It was good to see Chris, but my quandary had become clearer: how could I fulfill the role of guest, that is, spend quality time with friends who were offering their hospitality, when all I wanted to do was nap? I didn’t want to slip too quickly into proving the truth of Samuel Johnson’s adage, the one about houseguests, like fish, after three days… Fortunately, Chris was, for the most part, understanding of my situation.

Lounging, I pulled a book from the shelf, photo essays on living in rural community. There were men working hard on the farm, kids growing up in the stillness of the countryside, the rivalry of town kids vs. country kids, ice cream socials, church life. It was all very solid. Not like my life, which seemed, especially when I was under the thumb of fatigue, ephemeral and contingent.

Sometimes, if I was careful and didn’t crash, the thrill of arriving in a new place generated a certain amount of energy in me. This energy might last for two or three days, and then begin to dissipate, replaced by a diminishing of strength as I faced the strain of everyday challenges.

And this led me to entertain a fantasy: what if it were possible to keep moving, one town at a time, every few days heading on to a new place, rolling over that new-place energy and keeping on top of things, keeping ahead of the curve, by surfing its crest? Would such a life of eternal, truncated motion, be worth it?

Maggie and Russ lived in the Mission District. At their apartment I sank into a High-Rise Premium Queen Size Aero-Bed, with inflation pump, a little like a waterbed. Not bad. Surrounded by Maggie’s oversized art books, lullabied by the sounds of bottles rattling, grocery carts rolling, Norteno music floating up from the street, I slept. And soon Lois returned. It was good to see her, although this meant we were expected to do touristy, couple things. I could feel a crash brewing inside of me.

One afternoon, having seen the city with Maggie and Russ and Lois, my body sending my brain signals that enough was enough, I still found myself hopping a bus downtown with Lois to tour the MOMA. Her time in the city was brief; she wanted to make the most of it. I understood this, and as part of the calculus of love, I was persuaded to accompany her.

While she got a bite to eat at a café, I sprawled on the lawn of Yerba Buena Gardens, an ocean breeze blowing in from the bay. It was a beautiful day. Other people were lying on the green grass, too, and dogs were romping. During the 40 minutes I waited I was able to rest my weary eyes and bones and head. Baring my upper torso to the warmth of the sun, I felt supported, nurtured. Within this window of time there was no place I had to go, nothing I had to do. Slowly I felt vital energy begin to circulate through my body in its mysterious way.

I had come to San Francisco, I decided, to nap on this park lawn. It was the culmination of my trip, my favorite thing. San Francisco, my bumper sticker would read, is for nappers.

The next day I crashed.

Once, driving through Missouri, I pulled into Hannibal. I was looking for a store I remembered that used to carry musical instruments, old-timey bluegrass banjos and zithers. I couldn’t find it, so instead I walked along the shore of the Mississippi. Winter light filtered across the half-frozen waters. I was thinking about how some people seemed to assume that life was about piling up a string of accomplishments. Illness had taken me on a long journey, and forced me to reject that idea. In the face of my body’s vagaries, it had become necessary for me to be more by doing less. This has been a hard lesson, and one I’m not always fully able to accept. But the fact is, we are all heading, eventually, toward breakdown – I’ve simply gotten in line a little early.

It was cold, so I returned to my car, pushed the seat back and tried to nap. And I did, a 40-minute humdinger. Warm sunlight baked through the windshield; my head nestled comfortably on a blanket against the car window. I slept like a baby, and felt refreshed when I woke. And so I hit the road again.






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