Often I feel like road kill on the Information Highway -- mugged by emails, interrupted by texts and tweets, disoriented by news dings, Facebook trills, and overwhelmed even by my cell phone's lovely violin concerto ringtone. The only antidote to these impatient, instant demands for my attention is a cure as ancient as our species: Sleep. When the going gets rough, I take naps.
Every afternoon, I power off all electronics and unplug my zinging brain to curl up with my two cats for a little siesta. This mental reset has made me much more productive, good-natured, and healthy. Simply shutting down all the sensory overload is one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Daily naps require much more stamina, devotion, and discipline than any diet or exercise regimen I've ever attempted.
I was one of those overachievers whose only drug of choice in college was Dexedrine, who despised sleep as a waste of time when I could be reading or writing or singing. Sleep -- especially the prescribed eight endless hours -- was for sissies. When I graduated from university with 200 extra hours and took an editorial job at The New Yorker magazine, I didn't want to miss out on one Manhattan minute. I rejoiced in my headlong, stress-and-caffeine-fueled propulsion. Until one Thanksgiving I broke out in dangerously high fevers and alarming red spots all over my body.
"You're allergic to your own adrenalin," my doctor diagnosed.
No amount of antibiotics or cortisone cream halted the measles-like march of sores along my limbs and punctuating my face like physical exclamation marks. "Nothing else we can do for you," my doctor concluded, holding my hand. "Maybe try alternative medicine?"
It wasn't until I turned to acupuncture and soothing herbs that the unsightly red blisters began to somewhat fade -- and the almost hallucinatory fevers relent.
"Now, are you ready to try something really radical?" asked my acupuncturist.
"Anything!" I quickly declared.
He paused, slightly bemused, then asked softly. "Will you change your life?"
Anything but that! I almost replied. But instead I let out the long breath I didn't know I'd been holding and slowly nodded.
"Why don't you also try a daily nap," he suggested. "Sleep is a cure-all for many mysterious conditions. And it is the purest antidote to stress ever discovered."
I had no idea how to nap. Tossing and thrashing, I slept fitfully at first, rising up from even 20-minute naps feeling groggy and disoriented, irritated at the loss of productive work time. Those beginner naps I had a recurring nightmare -- or I guess you'd call it a daymare: A team of highly-paid surgeons operated on my belly, installing a heavy, black extension cord to hook me up so that I might run more energy through this upgraded umbilical cord. Still, I stayed with the regimen even when in the office, where I napped on my lunch hour. Soon the spots were disappearing.
Then, a breakthrough -- when working at home my two cats decided to join my daily naps. Staking out the real estate of my body, my lithe black cat, Tao, settled on my feet like a fur muff; my Siamese cat, Loki, wrapped his silver body around my head like a Davy Crockett fur hat. He snored sweetly; his purring was a meditative vibration inside my skull like percussive cat plainchant.
Cats are world-class sleep champions raking up 16-20 hours a day of rest. I suppose sloths might take first place in any deep sleep competition, but felines are so much more beautiful, clean, and cuddly. They also have the distinct advantage of purring--a sound so affectionate and healing, it's hard not to feel pleasantly lulled and relaxed.
I awoke from my first cat nap to a spacious quiet that seemed to stretch out forever. It was a profound feeling of well being. Being well. I soon expanded my nap time to include dog-sitting my niece, a Siberian husky named Ella. When her people are at work, I often join Ella for an afternoon nap. This most elegant of dogs twitches and runs in her dreams, her ears alert, as she growls and lets out little groans with the effort of her sleep hunts. Our naps remind me of the delightful Judith Collas poem, "Change of Life," which ends: "she never felt she was sleeping with the wrong dog."
Like natural Zen masters, animals spend their lives in the moment, fully present to the flow of life around them. Medical research has shown that petting one's cat or dog literally lowers our blood pressure and risk of stroke. Animal companionship eases anxiety or depression and aids those who are disabled or sick; prison inmates at risk have a reduced suicide rate when visited by animals; children, especially autistic kids, do better in school if they have a pet; and elderly people who live with pets have longer life spans.
Animals have so much to teach us about the good life. Is our plugged-in, channel-surfing, shrinking attention span separating us from our own bodies, our Earth, our animal brethren, our healing? We are assailed by more information in one day's copy of The New York Times than our ancestors received in one lifetime. No wonder we stall, crash, and burn out on the road rage of the Information Highway. Why not find calm and respite in the old Noah's ark story? Afloat with felines or canines, we sail far away from the known world to find a greener and healthier creation. Resting with the animals, we gather from Noah's story that Time Out and companionable, interspecies communion is also a form of survival, of physical contemplation. Animals model for us that there are healthier ways of plugging in than our species has yet mastered. Naps are the ultimate recycling of our bodies and souls.
When I nap now with my two cats and my neighbor's dog, we drift and dream above the wireless floods of incessant communication. We recreate another ark in which the animals and humans still remembered how to talk together, to survive, to be still and know. Now, that is information we really need. Must stop--cats calling--nap time.
Bio: Brenda Peterson is the author of 19 books, including the memoir I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, selected an Indie Next Great Read and a "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year" by the Christian Science Monitor. Her recent Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir was featured on Oprah.com. www. BrendaPetersonBooks.com