The First and Second Sleep

In Medieval literature, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there are references to the time between the first and second sleep, which was the ideal time for study, one book said. I vaguely remember knowing that already, possibly from a long ago summer course. I learned it anew from my morning paper, the National Post, which published excerpts of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep this week.

The book’s author David K. Randall recounts how a Virginia Tech history professor noted these references in his reading and how a Bethesda psychiatrist put the question of what this meant to the test. He deprived those in his study of artificial light. Initially, they took the opportunity to sleep deeper and longer than they had before, but eventually, they seemed to catch up on their sleep deficit and a new pattern emerged. They fell asleep shortly after sunset and woke up sometime after midnight, at which time they stayed awake for an hour or so and then fell back into a second sleep. Having escaped the tyranny of artificial light, they had apparently reverted to the medieval sleep pattern.

Okay, I know I’m old, but this is ridiculous. I remember my grandfather sitting up in the middle of the night in his wooden chair with the wide arms. I had been woken up by the smell of the herbal cigarette he was smoking to soothe his farmer’s lungs.

When I was born, we had no electricity in our rural community. In fact electricity did not come to those hills until well after World War II. It was not until then that the people there got out from under the Depression and were able to afford to pay for the lines from the road to their farmhouses. And while I lived in town from the time I was 5, I spent summers back there with my grandparents, so I do recall a way of life that was mostly devoid of artificial light.

I say “mostly” because toward the end of those years, my grandmother managed to buy an Alladin lamp. Not the kind that you rub for three wishes, but a tall kerosene lamp with  a brighter light, which may have had something to do with the mantle. This particular lamp could also be hung on a wall bracket where it gave us kids enough light to see our playing cards half way across the kitchen. My grandmother sat nearer it to sew or knit and my grandfather sat in his grandpa chair at the gloomier end of the kitchen. The old, little oil lamp was still carried upstairs when we children went up to bed but the puddle of light it shed went back downstairs with Nanny.

I remember sitting on the porch in the evening watching the light fade in the east, my young aunt and uncles climbing onto the porch swing beside their father. The sun was going down behind the house, sinking below steep Hereford Hill. As the sky faded into an improbable turquoise in front of us, a single silver star gradually appeared over the Mount Monadnock. My grandfather broke the silence that had fallen on us five children.

“That will be Venus,” he said.

The evening star! And we children whispered to ourselves, “Star light, star bright/ the first star I see tonight/ I wish I may I wish I might/ Have the wish I wish tonight.” And then we refused to tell our wish for fear it would not come true.

I don’t remember what I wished, but it may well have been just to go on living in such blissful peace.

As darkness fell, a soft cloud of light bloomed softly from the town across the border in Vermont where there was electricity. Then one by one, the other stars popped out until the dome above us was full of them. We stood on the gravel drive gazing up at them, turning with our arms out for balance and nearly falling over, until Nanny called us in.

Once in a while, we found it necessary to journey to the outhouse before bed, a journey which could be undertaken only in pairs. There were no flashlights. It wasn’t worth lighting a lantern. I remember stepping down off the flat stone that served as a porch step and turning into a darkness as thick as black velvet.

“Stand still for a minute,” Nanny called before she shut the door against the bugs. “You’ll get your eyes back.”

I would have been glad just to get my breath back. Our voices seemed suddenly small. The darkness immeasurably large and strangely silent.

Were there wolves?

I have experienced such darkness as an adult at Peppermint Creek camp grounds above the Kern River in the Sierras. We always avoided the “serviced” camping area, pitching our tents next to the creek itself. Under the huge trees, there was no light pollution. The stars were numberless. It was possible to believe as I have heard that there are as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on all the beaches on earth.

Talking about the medieval two sleeps, a number of us have decided that we can take a new attitude to the tendency of age to wake up in the middle of the night. We can do what they did in the Middle Ages and value it as time well found.

http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/09/17/book-excerpt-how-the-lightbulb-transformed-the-

http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/09/17/book-excerpt-how-litttle-we-know-about-sleep-is-sciences-dirty-little-secret/

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The Look of Love: paying attention

I am sitting beside him in La Veranda Osteria, when he seizes my left hand in both of his  calling me, “Sweetheart” and gazing intently into my eyes. No wonder he has had women on several continents and the odd island falling for him. My brother has had this ability to charm ever since he ran away to Europe with a backpack at 17. At the moment, he is trying to convince me of something, some better way to live, perhaps, but I am too overcome by his undiluted attention to take it in.

Great to find this in a dinner date, even if he is your brother, but much more important in a doctor or medical practitioner. I remember sitting in a sound-proof third-floor office near LAX and being the focus of the undivided attention of my acupuncturist. She asked questions of such insight, listened with such concentration and considered me so deeply, that I felt entirely and absolutely loved. The interview itself was healing: there was no real need for needling. In fact, I have had a profound feeling of change for the better, just from talking to her on the phone. That was her goal – to be so present and available to her patients that they felt connected, not just to her  but to the power that animates us. Having felt that connection and felt it repeatedly, it became easier for us to make it on our own.

Actors and self-proclaimed gurus, who project charisma, attract us because they make use of this kind of focus although not perhaps with such benevolence. I once met an actor unexpectedly on my way down to his wife’s yoga studio and almost suffered third-degree burns from the radiance of his projection. I was gobsmacked, but I did not feel better for it.

I do feel better when I can master the trick myself. The 108 moves in tai chi give me that opportunity especially when I find myself acting as Corner. (A Corner, as you might expect, is at the end of a line and so in a leadership role.) There is a lot of repetition in such a set, but repetition with variations. For example, there are 3 sets of  “Wave Hands Like Clouds”, one of 5 of this sideways step with soft arm sweeps, one of 7 and one of 3. All of them begin from the position of “Single Whip” or “Whip to One Side”, but between the set of 5 and the set of 7, just when the sleepy Corner has zoned out, the move suddenly switches to “Fair Lady Works Shuttles” or “Four Corners”, an altogether more complicated move. I have often been embarrassed when I have missed that change, dissociated or planning dinner or gazing out the window. I was not in the now, not really present.

When I do hit that groove, I experience a mental rest, like a moving meditation from the one-pointedness. It is easier than meditation for me. The kind of meditation I practise when I am able is mindfulness, just being aware of what is going on, especially internally, observing  without attachment, as my acupuncturist would say – letting each thing go -each thought, feeling or sensation.

It’s a useful technique when I am beset by anxiety or depression or pain. If I sit down, just sit, not cross-legged or full-lotus nor even necessarily straight-backed, but easily, and observe what is going on in me, I gain some distance. I am watching what my mind is doing and so I am now in the role of observer, not sufferer. I am no longer my discomfort. I can stop spinning. I have heard that the goal of meditation is to still the mind. I don’t aim that high. But if I pay attention to it, it stops screaming in agony, like a crying child when her mother holds her and gives her her attention. It may well be that there is no solution. The grief cannot be assuaged. A fearful situation cannot be resolved. A physical pain is intractable. No matter. All these things are more bearable when looked upon steadily.

It doesn’t even have to be a look of love. Did my acupuncturist actually loved each of the parade of people who sat before her? (Of course, she did me.) She became absorbed in them so that there was no longer a separation between her and other. No other in fact. In the same way, I can reclaim my anger and self-loathing, my fear of ageing and death, whatever negativity is plaguing me. Once reclaimed, these parts of me seem to shrug and get on with life.

It is these negative feelings that prevent us from focusing, both on others and on our own mental health.

Eckhart Tolle has written several books, including The Power of Now to extoll the virtues of focusing. Jon Kabat-Zinn has told us how to heal ourselves through mindfulness in Coming to Our Senses. I have read these and others and found them inspiring, but it is simple practice that gives results. Like tai chi. We don’t really need to read more. We just need to do it.

“Attention must be paid,” Arthur Miller said in Death of a Salesman. “Pay attention,” our parents and teachers admonished. Yet we seldom do. We need something like the little bell that Buddhists sound during meditation calling out, “Be here. Be now. Wake up”.

Love is just that: being conscious.

Consider the Second-Best Bed

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Shakespeare famously left his wife, Anne Hathaway, his second best bed. Period. Biographers have explained this. Most of his estate went to his daughter Susanna including the best bed, which would have belonged to the master bedroom, but to quote Anthony Burgess in his book Shakespeare, “She (Anne) had her widow’s dower at common law, and her place in the great house that Susanna and her husband took over, She was content to live with Susanna and she got on well with her son-in-law. The second-best bed was installed in a particular chamber and this chamber was inalienably hers.”

Will was not, after all, expressing his feelings for the older woman he married in a hurry and left asap to pursue a career in London. He wasn’t a miserable tightwad either. Having lost his son Hamnet when the child was 11, and being estranged from his daughter Judith who had married unwisely, he was laying his money on Susanna to produce a male heir. Didn’t work. Susanna had a daughter who married twice but had no children. Judith had three sons but none survived to produce children. Pas de heir!

Whew! Good to get that settled.

We all have experience of the second-best bed – at holiday time, on vacations, in cheap hotels, as children at grandma’s – the deep-valleyed ones, the plastic pull-out couch, the couch itself, the hard-as-cement beds, the mat on the floor. We have stubbed our toes on the metal legs of the pull-out and ruined our backs on the ones with blown springs and woken up aching all over in the hard ones. Our host’s query “How did you sleep” has been met with a bald-faced, not entirely convincing lie.

Or we have found ourselves in the best bed, a comfortable place to be, and discovered in the morning that the host and his wife somehow managed to coil together in a narrow cot. Discovering such a carefully concealed secret is a humbling experience.

These days, we have boxed beds that can be blown up with an all-included foot pump and provide our guests with a waterbed experience, long after the death of waterbeds, which was, as you know, watery and unexpected. Whether these air beds leak with rude noise in the middle of the night, I do not yet know.

My own second-best bed sits in the den, rather awkwardly I must admit, because of feng shui demands. It is narrow, has a metal frame on casters and no headboard. It is prone to surprising trips across the floor. In its defence, it has a good mattress -should be for that price- if somewhat too hard. When I realized that I would be sleeping in it myself, I remedied that by topping it with a feather bed. Odd that we think a night in a semi-comfortable bed won’t hurt a guest, but don’t want to spend one ourselves. Then I decided that the thread count of the sheets had to be upgraded to the best bed’s standards and a requisite number of pillows added. I overdid the duvet and find that it works well in mid-winter but after that, the quilted duvet cover is enough.

And why do I sleep in my second best bed about a third of the time. Neighbours. Thin floors. Don’t ask. There’s only so much I want to know about other people’s personal lives.

I’ve got used to sleeping there and never wake up disoriented, wondering why things are in the wrong place. This is handy since those mandatory trips in the dark would otherwise prove disastrous.

One of the advantages is better brain plasticity. Thanks to Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself) and others, we now know after years of being told that once brain cells die, it’s game over, that in fact new neural pathways can be established and for example, stroke-damaged limbs can learn to move again. To maintain neural plasticity or brain change, however, we need to be learning constantly. One of my tai chi instructors harps on about moving your kettle to a different burner to avoid rigidity and stagnation. The kettle, in this case, is me and the new burner is the second-best bed.

Twas there “I dreamed the latest dream that ever I did dream”. It wasn’t a police procedural with noir overtones nor was it a lucid dream. (See previous posts.) But it was one of two dreams that have been life-changing. Someday I’ll write about the first one, which I call Etherica and which I had while napping after an exhausting trip to  Los Angeles. The latest one isn’t ready for publication yet, but I can give you the highlights.

It was suffused with love, the kind of love that I felt as a young woman for Blake, my high school sweetheart whom I married, and which I saw reflected in my grandson and his fiancé whose wedding I recently described. This nourishing, accepting and all-encompassing feeling made me not want to wake up, but stayed with me once I did. The dream began with me in my early twenties but looked forward in my dream thoughts many years and actually incorporated someone from my real future. As I pondered over its meaning, I understood the “future” person as I never had before. That was instructive, but more important was a shift that had happened.

Like many people who have had abusive childhoods, I have felt like an orphan, bereft of care, human and divine. As I did the dishes the evening after the dream, I knew that this was over. My heart felt as if it were shattering. Not breaking. I wasn’t sad although I cried. It was opening up. It had to be bigger to accommodate what it would now have to hold – another part of me, repossessed at last.

How can I break the news to Best Bed, the black Hemnes bed from Ikea, so solid, so high, so comfortable, that its second-best Sleep Country cousin has bested it in dreaming?

Transcendent Moments

I went to the woods to see how the trilliums were doing.

It has been an exceptionally early spring here in Toronto after an unseasonably warm winter with very little snow. They say things are about a month ahead. The magnolias paid a price for early budding when the temperature suddenly fell below freezing, but many of them just marked time in the bud stage and opened up in pink glory, only a little brown at the edges, when things warmed up. Now light green leaves are feathering out on some trees, so the trilliums, I reasoned, should be blooming before the trees cut off their light.

They were.

Trilliums have a sort of magic about them. They are highly regarded here because they are Ontario’s floral symbol and school children are taught NEVER TO PICK THEM because they will not grow back.

I had walked down the paved bicycle path into the park but left it to cross a culvert over a brook and climb up into the woods. The woods grows on sand dunes left here by an ancient lake, so there are sunny hillsides under the trees and it was on one of those that I found the trilliums. The lily of the valley leaves had also pushed up and were waiting their turn to unfurl with their heady perfume and a few violets lined the path.

I followed a freshet on a rough path, climbing over tree trunks, which on a warmer day would have tempted me to sit and stare. I came to an open field, already mowed, where families like to come to picnic. Then I turned east and began the climb onto a high ridge. Here the trees were still bare, but the bushes were green and there were masses of white flowers, which I have yet to identify.

There has been a tidal wave of butterflies this spring, mostly red admirals. One report told of a backyard covered in 2000 of them (How did they figure that?) Some of them were sunning themselves on the ridge path and as I approached they flew up and chased each other in circles. I was still wearing a huge grin when I met a man and his dog.

On one side, I looked down into the woods and on the other out at the city -street, railway, freeway, high rises, and beyond them Lake Ontario, deep blue for the nonce.

The week had brought a weight of difficulty as weeks often do. There were unresolved problems and uncertain outcomes. There was negativity to be processed. But here there was a sanctuary in the woods. Here there was stillness that comforted. Here there was peace.

Have you found such a place lately? Perhaps it was not even external. Perhaps you found it within. Tell us about it.