As I mentioned before, the Fall of my Sophomore year at Clarkson began with a singular focus on my studies. It had been a strange, and interesting summer, and I was ready to leave Batavia behind and finally commit all of myself to college. I no longer had a girlfriend, only the mere pretense of one, and I had decided that moping about being stuck in the snow bound North Country would accomplish nothing.
I was rooming with Scott on the second floor of Reynolds House. As sophomores, we were isolated and left behind in the freshman dorms due to our poor lottery numbers. Surrounded by the silly idiocy of the next bumper crop of uninhibited, thickheaded freshman, we did the only thing we could do. We packed our books into our backpacks and went to the library to study.
My existence was downright monastic that year. What time I spent in the room was just to sleep, and study. Sitting under my loft bed, in the fluorescent white glow of my desk lamp I was alone in my cave, pouring over books on Statics, Mechanics, Differential Equations, and all of the other 2nd year courses that distinguished me as a Mechanical Engineering major. Scott for his part was seldom to be seen. When he wasn’t at the library he was hanging out in Chris or Dan’s dorm rooms, leaving me alone in our room with his stereo and CD collection.
Living out this solitary existence went as follows. Get up, go to class at 8 am. Return to dorm room. Eat lunch. Return to the science center for afternoon class. Return to dorm in late afternoon. Nap. Dinner, followed by 3-4 hours of study, then an hour of sitting in someone’s room b.s. ing, and unwinding in front of a television. Go to bed and repeat.
Remarkably, it was even less exciting than it sounds. My grades climbed through out that year until my GPA peaked at a 3.8. I am still damn proud of that achievement, and amazed that I managed to accomplish it. But this post isn’t about my engineering studies. It is about my naps.
Yes, I know, a story about naps, how exciting. Please, control yourself.
These late afternoon naps weren’t just about falling asleep. They were an experiment. Being tired, and having my head swimming with high level math and science, I would walk back down the hill from the Science Center in the late afternoon overcast, drop my books on my desk, put a CD into the stereo, and then climb up into the warmth of my bed.
I would then proceed to drift off to sleep, trying to keep from completely losing consciousness. If I managed it well I could enter into a state of lucid dreaming, where I was neither awake, nor asleep, but somewhere in the middle. Hovering there in semi-consciousness, I was aware of the music playing on the stereo, and voices in the hallway, but only marginally so. The other half of my brain was wandering, following thoughts into a dreamlike land where reality, and imagination were tough to distinguish.
I would much later learn that the phenomenon is known as lucid dreaming, and that many people have experimented with, and studied it. At the time though, I had just stumbled upon it accidentally. I didn’t want to set an alarm for dinner, so I tried to never completely lose my sense of time. Instead I just drifted off.
No, I was not taking drugs. In fact, I hardly drank at all that year, being far too consumed in my studies. My only altered state became these naps, where I would lose myself for an hour, and wake refreshed, and energized and ready to study again.
My experiments only lasted for that year. The following year I was rooming in a suite, with 5 others, and their was little time, and or quiet to nap around the place. In later years I tried on occasion to find my way back into that state, but have never managed it. I either lose consciousness completely, and wake hours later feeling awful, or am unable to ever let go of consciousness and float through those borderlands of dream.
Perhaps it was some anomaly of the developing, young adult brain, brought on by a focus on numbers and abstract mathematical concepts. Perhaps it was a function of the surroundings, the afternoon gloaming, the bed 2 feet from the ceiling, and the ever present muffled voices coming from the hall. Maybe it was just my imagination, but I felt that those experiments in napping were responsible in some part for the way I was able to totally devote myself to the complexity of my engineering classes, and excel at them without losing my mind. This was in a time before I had found poetry, literature, or theology to balance the two halves of my brain.
In any case, when the sun begins to set earlier, and earlier this time of year, and the darkness begins to creep into the corners of my mind, I think back to those naps and the peace they brought me. As the painting at the beginning of the post, by John William Waterhouse reminds us, sleep is the half brother of death. I often wonder if death holds such lucid dreaming, but I am not sure I am quite ready to find out the answer.