Variations on a theme
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Issue Date:  September 8, 2006


Editor’s Note: In NCR ’s fifth ‘variations on a theme’ feature, readers explore the tension between the world of wakefulness and the realm of dreams. Thanks to everyone who wrote in their thoughts on sleep.

I suppose I will always remember the Christmas Eve of 1944. Not only had I traveled a great distance from my native land under orders from a “Caesar Augustus,” but I was a traveler far from home, being denied room at any kind of “inn.” That was soon to change, at least for this night. It was turning dark on this cloudy approach to evening as we moved along in a military foot column, one line of hunched-over soldiers on each side of the road. As we entered the small Belgian village, orders came down to halt the march and bed down for the night. I instructed the squads on the other side of the road to seek shelter in houses nearby while we would do the same with the house on our side.

Because the civilian population fled battle zones, most homes stood empty. It was only after a battle or an artillery skirmish that we observed bewildered people return to their homes and, as if they had gone crazy, cry and wail in front of what was left in its devastation. We entered, threw down our packs and blankets and sprawled on the floors of the first level.

Soon everybody started to fall asleep. The sudden noise of someone coming down the upstairs steps startled me to a full awakening and I thought, “Oh, my God, in our haste to sleep, we forgot to check and secure the upstairs!” Was this a German soldier coming down to do us in? The darkened human figure was carrying a lighted candle. We instinctively reached for our weapons. The candlelight reached and then touched a Roman collar. It was the village parish priest. We had taken over the rectory! The good Father immediately welcomed us in his French-Flemish and fractured English. In retrospect, I believe this was the Christ-figure coming to welcome us on Christmas Eve. Whether we would have been German or American soldiers made little difference to him.

Later, still holding our rifles, we came into church, sat among the parishioners and sang and prayed together, each asking God for our deliverance from this terrible war.


* * *

I remember the first time I slept in a sleeping bag. I found it enormously pleasant to feel myself so warm and protected, and somehow blissfully alone.

Surpassing that experience was another: sleeping in the arms of my husband. Not, this time, blissfully alone, but blissfully one, cherished, blessed to be breathing together in the dark of night, sharing brief moments before daylight moved in.

Today the sleeping bag is worn out, my husband has died and I have a new image of sleep and its gifts. I am seeing more vividly that sleep is indeed a sister of death. I am drawn to the sayings of the medieval mystic Mechtilde of Magdeburg:

God speaks:
Do not fear your death
For when that moment comes
I will draw my breath ...
And your soul will come to me
Like a needle to a magnet.


* * *

“Every night before you go to sleep, finish that day. It is finished in existence; now it is futile to carry it in the mind. Just be finished with it. Say goodbye to it.”

These are the words my teacher in India told me when I visited her for guidance in my spiritual life. “By and by you’ll see that dreams are disappearing, because dreams are a way -- an unconscious way -- to complete things,” she told me. “When dreams start disappearing, that is an indication that meditation is working. Once dreams are gone completely you have clarity because your consciousness daily completes your experience. Then sleep becomes deep sleep ... the dreamless sleep.”

Patanjali, the great Indian sixth-century writer of the Yoga Sutras before the time of Jesus, said dreamless sleep can become Samadhi (bliss). The doer never achieves bliss because the doer remains in the ego. The state of non-doing is bliss. Meditation helps dreams to disappear; your mind becomes unclouded and relaxes into bliss. “When dreams have disappeared and your sleep is utterly silent, bliss comes of its own accord,” my Indian guru told me. “It is a happening, bliss; and in no way can bliss be controlled by you.”

Maui, Hawaii

* * *

I have a Samoyed, one of those icy-white descendants of the canines that accompanied the peaceful Samoyed tribe across the northern tundra. This sweet dog came to me wild and emaciated at about 7 months of age, having run, I think, with the Arizona desert coyotes for some time.

She would always come into my workroom, crossing the threshold without a second thought, to share the bustling hours of work with me. But every time she tried to follow me out of the room, she would reach the threshold and stop as if there were an avenging angel separating this room from the rest of the house. After she had whined for weeks before the doorway, one day I saw her hesitate, turn her whole body around and exit the room backward. It was a moment of grace: She found a way to straddle the drama and fuss of work with the rest and repose of the rest of the house.

Falling asleep is such a threshold for me. I have never come to sleep easily. Sometimes I come to sleep to escape, but most times I back up into sleep unwilling to take my eyes off the familiar. I know that in the inner dream world I can visit the innumerable rooms of a mysterious house somewhat resembling the home of my childhood. I long for sleep to suspend me in a timeless space. After this, awakening seems a too-violent event.

Like my Samoyed companion, I have become aware of the threshold itself, this blessed gift, this time between awake and asleep, this moment when I span here and there.


* * *

Two weeks before the birth of Mark, our first of eight children, my mother prudently advised me to “quit working and get some rest, because once a mom, you never will catch a full night’s sleep.”

By Mark’s second month, I understood her wisdom. Symptoms of novice motherhood were red eyes, a miserable headache, sore breasts and the capability to fall asleep while upright. Eventually, I grew in nurturing skills, waist measurements, noses to wipe, an insurmountable pile of diapers to change. I had an epiphany: Sleep was not a real option.

At Christmas 1971, there were six youngsters 5 months to 8 years of age. I was to host the Christmas feast for the extended family. My organizational skills as a nurse and mom guaranteed that I could accomplish the task. What I did not foresee was my husband’s work schedule: He would be away both eve and day of Christmas.  

I headed out with all six to the Christmas Eve Mass. When they arrived home, the children were excited about Santa. If the two older ones knew about the red-suited man’s identity, they revealed nothing to the little ones. Everyone was asleep by 10 p.m. -- my target time to embark upon toy construction. I hauled out the gifts from the closet, found a screwdriver and pliers in the garage. I could do this! What could be so difficult?

The dollhouse and barn with animals were a cinch. The red wagon was no challenge. In time I fed my babe and catnapped for 20 minutes.

At midnight I began a doll bed. Perhaps it was fatigue, but the wooden pieces were not accommodating the mattress. Frustrated, I hunted for the right tool, as “Dolly Don’t Wet” sat in her gift box staring at me. Finally, the coup de grâce: Michael’s drums and cymbals.  I had a hard time fitting rod A into slot B with my punctured and bleeding fingers. At 2 a.m. I wailed, “Holy Spirit, if you’re really here, help me with these blasted drums!”

I did finish, and I crawled into bed with three hours still to sleep. In my dream I heard a cacophony of drums and cymbals.

St. Charles, Ill.

* * *

We all know the story of Sleepy Hollow and how Rip Van Winkle fell asleep for 100 years. How would a person from 1906 react if they suddenly awoke to find themselves in our year 2006? Imagine how frightening it would be for someone who knew nothing about radio or television or jet airplanes or cars, to say nothing of pocket-size computers that can access information from anywhere in the world.

The person might be told that all this wonderful technology is to enable us to have more time to do all the things we love to do. It saves time for the important things in life. But look around: People are hurrying here and there, eating fast food because they don’t have time to prepare a home-cooked meal and sit down and enjoy it. They don’t have time for things that they were supposed to have time for because there is so much they have added to their lives that free time to enjoy and live is nonexistent.

How are we faring, we who are part of 2006? Is all this new technology giving us time to enjoy life more, or are we so stressed out that we can’t take the time to have dinner with our family, enjoy an evening together or take a leisurely walk?

Just suppose we went to sleep tonight and woke up tomorrow in the year 2106. We would be like aliens in a foreign world. It makes me wonder if there will be any compassion and sharing then, or if we will we all just be numbers concerned with ourselves and what we can get.

Syracuse, N.Y.

* * *

Upcoming topics:
Being single
Oct. 15
Nov. 15
Dec. 15

I get great comfort living again in the house of my childhood. So many things are familiar to me: the faded red-and-white checkered linoleum kitchen floor, the creak of the stair just before the landing at the second floor.

But there is so much I don’t know. Did my parents have sleepless nights like I have? Did they have worries and fears?

My mother certainly had worries and fears. During one springtime trip home to Southampton, sitting together on the porch during our early morning coffee and bird watch, she shared what she had felt when she was pregnant with me. She had lost a son who died at age 6 when his bicycle was hit by a car. My father had blamed her for that loss -- as though she needed any help with blame.

She become pregnant a few years after Alan’s death. She carried the pregnancy to term. No worries or concerns. And then came time to deliver. The nurses called the doctor. He didn’t come and didn’t come and didn’t come. Labor progressed, pain and fear increasing -- still no baby. Finally the doctor arrived. He ordered anesthesia for her. She awoke days later (10, she recalled). No baby. A stillbirth, she was told. No chance to hold the baby girl in her arms.

A year later, she was pregnant with me. She was 43 and had one son left, who was 15 by now. She believed that she was going to die, that God was going to punish her because she was undeserving.

So when I ask whether my parents ever had sleepless nights in this house like I do now, I step back and become humble. Any cares or concerns I have now pale by comparison.

Southampton, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2006

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