I got to giggling today. Remember those kids in your kindergarten or preschool class, the ones who wouldn’t stay still during “quiet time” or “nap” and instead scooted around the floor on their blankets, hoping to engage other would-be nappers in wiggling or whispering? Like Tommy Smith, aka “Tommy Salami,” in my long ago kindergarten class. Even Mrs. Jagla, our angel of a kindergarten teacher, would end up hissing a harsh shush at him, and come as close to a glare as her sweet face could ever manage.
I was never very good at naps back then , but I stayed still and tried not to laugh at Tommy’s antics, because I loved Mrs. Jaggla like water. Not very good at falling asleep easily at night either. The spasticity in my muscles from the CP made it hard to relax, and required rituals like a warm bath, the right blanket, the right bed time music on the record player (Mozart’s Symphony in G), and the hall light on with the door open only a crack. Still, sleep would often elude me. My pianist of a mother would say that it was alright, as long as I got “horizontal,” I would be getting rest until I did finally fall asleep.So I would lay in bed and listen to her play Rachmaninov and Listz with her big strong hands that could reach a tenth on the piano.
I’m still not all that good at taking naps, but when I read The Multiple Sclerosis Diet Book, I found that Dr. Swank gave the same advice to his MS patients my mother had once given to me. He said it was very important that those of us with MS take a nap for at least an hour each day, or more, if necessary. That it didn’t count to sit in the chair and doze off. You have to be lying down. In other words, you have to get “horizontal” in order to allow your nervous system to reset itself. When I first started eating this way, I had to get “horizontal” at least twice; once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. Sometimes more. I can remember reading The China Study on the bed during my morning “rest” on my bed. When I first got Romeo and started going on walks with him, I’d need to lay down an additional late morning time on the couch for a while after our 40 minute walk, before fixing lunch. Gradually that became just sitting down for a while, even as the walks got longer. In time the need for that morning rest faded altogether.
But the afternoon nap has been a mainstay. By 2 o-clock I am ready to hit the hay. I used to lie down on the bed with books in case I couldn’t sleep. When I got Romeo, I camped out on the couch with him. He’s a great cuddler, which is good incentive to stay still for at least an hour. I have mostly needed two. On some days if I have had appointments or been more stimulated or active than usual, it might even be 3. Sometimes I even sleep for a good amount of that time. I call these my “naps on the far side of the universe.” The kind where I wake up and don’t remember what day it is, or what time. Like starting life over from the beginning.
During the time I participated on the Swank Diet Forum as a vegan and oil free Swank Dieter, it seemed to me that the recommendation to rest was the single most ignored of all Dr. Swank’s injunctions about how to stay healthy. Most people avoided it like the plague. But I knew it was key, so I stuck with it. I remember being encouraged by some guy who had followed the diet for 20 years and worked as a landscaper. He wrote of stopping each day after lunch to lie down and take a nap in his truck. If he could do it, I could too. Even though I was not born with the muscle tone that predisposes me to easy naps and sleeping. this made profound sense to me, so I gave it my best go.
Like anything else, practice makes perfect. Or improvement. (One of my mottos is “better than it was.” The other one is “cleaner than it was.”) While I still savor those occasional “naps on the far side of the universe,” the most usual occurrence is “getting horizontal” and learning to stay there. I may doze off for a while, but whatever I do with myself for the rest of the time it’s best for me to stay prone so my nervous system, especially how it communicates with all it takes to be upright, can reset itself.
Once in a while I might put on relaxing music, but before this way of eating my nervous system was so sensitive to the subtle buzzing and humming of electronic appliances that I soon learned I’d rest better if they were not left on to hum after the music was over. Movies became too stimulating altogether, but the slow return to being able to watch is now a reality. Now I enjoy them completely again and without vertigo or pain in my face, but they are stimulating, so its’ still best to save them for times other than my naps.
One thing I could still manage to do back then was read a little. In the years before eating this way, I had times when I would become too exhausted to follow the words wrapping around on the page for more than a few lines. And then there were times when I could follow the words but did not have the strength in my arms to hold the book open. The constant pressure of the pages against them was too much. I received a “book butler” that held the book open for me on a hospital table that swung over my bed. So I continued to read that way whenever I was not too tired to track the lines wrapping around on the page.
It’s odd to me that during the time these frailties were so acute, it never occurred to me that I should deliberately take a nap each day for a prescribed time. It’s true my condition often sent me to lie down on the bed or the couch, but my staying power was so erratic I was often up and down like a piece of toast that never quite gets browned enough in the toaster, then suddenly gets burned to a crisp.
Dr. Swank’s words pointed out to me how important it was for these rests to be chosen, deliberate, prescribed, rather than fleeting, or forced. So here are some of the things I have done on the bed or the couch that are relaxing and engaging and restful while my legs “reset” so I can be up and about, even in slow motion, once again.
I read. Since I started this way of eating nearly five years ago, I have read an astounding variety of books while being horizontal. It has now become my reading time, though some days I just sleep. Among the classic books I have read are two volumes of Proust (on the couch with Romeo, how appropriate), War and Peace and Dr. Zhivago. I noticed during this time that my arms had become strong enough for me to hold books up propped on my chest with my arms. This past summer I noticed to my surprise that I was actually holding my book open and up with my left arm as I read along. While for most of my life I’ve been a very fast reader with a partially photographic memory, the exhaustion of tracking and other cognitive issues had slowed that to a crawl. I will always be grateful for the angels who work at the library for renewing things for me sometimes beyond the time allotted if I was almost finished but not quite. And in the last year I’ve noticed that unless I get seriously side tracked (I am always side-tracked, but mostly that’s a good thing for each activity on the separate tracks), I am finishing the books I take out in record time.
For those of you who meditate or pray or both, getting horizontal is a great opportunity for being present with these much neglected tools of healing. The one I’ve settled on most consistently in the last two years is what I call my “cosmic” form of saying the rosary. I’ve always loved the rosary, and it’s something that’s traveled with me from my days of Vatican II Catholic upbringing and the eclectic spiritual journey that followed it. (I once kept both my mother and grandmother from driving my Dad crazy as he tried to drive down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada in a snow storm by insisting we say the rosary. My devout grandmother would never have refused such an opportunity, and I knew it.) I have fashioned an Apostles Creed I can live with based on one that used to be said at the Newman Center where I went to college, and my love of the Earth and all its creatures. I have fashioned my Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s from a combination of traditional words, Contemplative Prayer versions, and a sung version of the Hail Mary by Katy Taylor on this SoundsTrue Songs of Mary CD. I am reassured that my prayers are accepted, because I once read in an article about the astrological timing of an appearance of the Blessed Mother to children near Sarajevo that she had told them it doesn’t matter what religion you are, just as long as you’re nice about it. That makes profound sense to me, so I don’t worry about what the “right” way to pray is, either. I just think it’s important to tune in. And it helps me stay horizontal, so I do it.
The house directly across the street from mine, now affectionately called Yellow House, has featured groups of college students who, in one way or another, have always befriended me and been delightful neighbors. A couple of summers ago when a new “crop” of roommates settled in, I was delighted to learn that three of them were native to Moscow, and of those three, I was actually friends with two of their mothers. They took to keeping the vegetable garden growing in their backyard, and even built a chicken coop. One of these bright young people is a young woman whose mother is an amazing bead artist. As the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In her “spare” time, she had made beads out of rose petals, and was wondering what she should do with them (when she wasn’t working her two jobs, playing music, or taking 20 units a semester so she could graduate as an Anthropolgy major the next June). She said she thought she might look up how to make a rosary. Did I know anyone who might use a rosary? Would I use a rosary? At the time I wasn’t sure, but it was one of those things I knew to say yes to, the thought of it was so lovely. So yes I said. I thought maybe one of my more traditional Catholic friends might appreciate them as a gift if I didn’t use them.
Time passed, and I forgot all about these conversations. The young woman I’d had them with graduated, and moved to Portland, often the destination of artistic, alternative young people from our region. Months passed, almost a year. Then one day there was a knock on the door as I was getting up from my nap. It was the lovely young woman, back from Portland to visit family and friends. She said, “I have a present for you.” And she pulled out this exquisite chain of rosary beads. The only thing missing was the cross. She thought I might have one, or want to decide what to put on it.
For a few minutes after she left I was stumped. I had no traditional cross to put on the rosary. But then I remembered an enamel medal of St. Theresa, my patron saint, that had been given to me from my mother’s jewelry box. On this medal, St. Theresa, called the “Little Flower,” is depicted holding a cross within a bunch of roses, a common image. Though certainly not traditional for a rosary, it seemed just right to me. So I walked over to a great little shop downtown called Gem State Crystals, and asked them to put the medal on the rosary.
The beautiful thing about beads made from rose petals is that the more you handle them, the more they smell like roses. In some way this is also true of my naps. The more I put myself in position, whether I sleep or not, the sweeter the benefits become, just from being horizontal.
I know not everyone can take a nap in the middle of the day. Dr. Jelinek, the Australian doctor who is himself living with MS, describes in his first book, how he makes sure to have one when he comes home from work, and before dinner. So even he fits one into a busy day of teaching medical school or editing medical journals. Sometimes if I’ve had a busier day than usual, or if I skimped on my two hours in the afternoon, or was interrupted by circumstances beyond my control, I might lay down in the evening as well, after dinner and before dishes or other activities, like working on a blog post. In the winter this is especially nice, because it’s also after I’ve built a fire in the masonry stove. It’s lovely to turn the lights down and just listen to the fire crackle and watch the orange flames rise and fall. Out the window over the couch on a clear evening I might see Orion, my favorite constellation, rising. These times being horizontal are like stopping to smell the roses—or the rosary beads. They help remind me of something we’ve forgotten in our busy world. That often the best solutions to problems, or creative insights, come seemingly from “nowhere.” That quiet place where we stop scooting around on the blanket. Where the Tommy Salami in us takes a break, and a big deep breath, finally dozing off. Letting the body regroup for it’s next upright adventure.