It started quite innocently with the lockdown last March – lying in bed longer in the morning to chip away at the stack of books on the floor, check email, watch cat videos, and follow the disturbing news from Italy, the UK and NYC. Given I am highly energetic, this is unusual for me.
When the library locked down, I switch to e-books – easy to hoard on the tablet and dip into whenever – middle of the night for Louise Penny mysteries, weighty political and cultural analysis for the morning when more awake, and how to find paid work for the afternoons.
Since I live alone, I started having coffee in bed, then breakfast as well. It didn’t take long to add lunch – so convenient to nip down to the kitchen and bring it up on a cutting board. Why dirty a plate.
Once a fleece blanket was added to the covers, Charlie my cat — who can’t resist a good fleece — joined me. And since he knows my schedule, he’d start nudging me around 12:30 to lie down so he could get half the pillow.
Napping is so much easier when you work in bed – simply a case of keeling over sideways.
With the tablet, phone, and notepads so assembled, it wasn’t a stretch to haul my laptop in there too, doing a solid 90-minutes’ work then rewarding myself with 15 minutes of youtube videos on how to dress like a Parisian when you’re over 50.
Never mind that I was still in PJs and a black sweater still with hair on it from my last dog. I merrily filled shopping carts at J. Crew, Banana Republic, Eileen Fisher. A couple of minutes was all it took to run up a coupla thousand dollars, with the rest of my leisure time mulling over what to save for later, before emptying the whole thing and getting back to work.
It was now about three months into the pandemic, and I discovered that Netflix on the laptop wasn’t so bad. I’d have brought the TV upstairs but couldn’t figure out what to do with the hdmi cables. Good thing too, or I might have ended up like that women who experienced a burning sensation in her stomach, only to find out she needed surgery for the remote control that had been buried for months under folds of fat.
And speaking of weight, it was definitely an issue after several months of lying around. And the few times I ventured forth to the grocery store, I’d shop like a Phoenician housewife preparing for the Carthaginian siege. With fridge and pantry overflowing, and hating to waste anything, I’d eat it.
Friends commiserated about how lazy we’re all getting about hygiene. Because why get up and dressed when you’re not going to see anyone and nothing fits since you got the Covid-15? Why wear makeup? Why even take a shower?
After several weeks of such sequestering, soaking up Reddit stories about rising caseloads and death toll, it occurred to me that I really could die, and left my children with no idea of their family history. Out came boxes of family photos, mostly taken from my parents’ house when they weren’t looking. I also signed up for a memoir writing class to jot down stories from my childhood.
Due to migraines and an addiction to sleeping pills, my mother spent most of her days in bed. Mornings started with coffee, brought upstairs by my father around 8 when anyone small enough would climb into bed with her and watch Captain Kangaroo. She’d then get breakfast on a tray, also brought up by my father before he hurried off to drive all of us kids to school five miles away.”
After breakfast it was time for I Love Lucy and the home-made oatmeal “Lucy” cookies. If we were home we’d get one too. After dinner, my mother began her marathon movie watching, old B&W movies starring Clark Gable or Gary Cooper while my father snored in the La-z-Boy. When I couldn’t sleep – which was often and probably because of a daily enforced nap – I’d sneak out of bed, crawl like a marine on my belly through the open door and wiggle under the bed before anyone noticed. The olive green bedroom set, hand painted roses dancing across its spindles, was just high enough off the ground to hide me for the film’s entirety.
I got mired in the past, staring out the window, remembering, and writing longhand in pencil. Mugs piled up on the night table and coffee stains dotted the duvet. How easy it would be to turn into my mother, I thought with alarm. Especially since everyone said I looked like her. It made me wonder if we – my mother and I – were the only ones to spend so much time in bed. So I did what I always do when faced with a dilemma. Google.
As it turns out, there’s a lot of this going on.
A recent Canadian survey revealed almost half of respondents spent more time in bed since Covid started — and women more than men — with many fessing up about “entertaining” there.
There’s even an Instagram page titled Bed Writers and a website for the Nap Ministry which organizes collective napping experiences. I’m considering signing up.
I hit pay dirt, though, when I came across one FAMOUS writer after another — Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Marcel Proust, Winston Churchill, Vlad Nabokov, William Wordsworth, W G Sebald, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Truman Capote.
All of them bed writers.
And though Dame Edith Sitwell slept in a coffin for a while, she too wrote in bed.
Chesterton loved writing in bed so much he defended the practice in his essay “The Art of Lying in Bed.” In it, he fantasizes about drawing pencils long enough to reach the ceiling, convinced that Michaelangelo was probably doing the same when inspiration hit him for the Sistine Chapel.
Truman Capote was famous for penning novels lying down, always long-hand, while consuming coffee and other things and smoking cigarettes. He claimed to have his best inspiration after naps. There’s science to support the claim — sleep stirs the subconscious so that right when you wake up your brain bursts with creativity.
Salvador Dali was so convinced that this was true that he blocked out a half hour every day for his “nap.” Sitting in a comfy chair, holding a heavy key above an overturned plate on the floor. When the key hit the plate it woke him, right when his brain was filled with vivid dreams we’ve all seen in his paintings.
The proficiency experts have caught on – one study showed that people who took a 90-minute nap in the middle of the day outperformed those who stayed awake all day.
However, there’s a critic in every crowd, malcontents who are only too happy to point out all the reasons why you should NOT work in bed. They say it’s unhygienic – in one study volunteers went four weeks without washing their sheets and had 39 times the bacteria as pet food bowls at the end of the same testing period. (Anyone who waits that long to wash their sheets deserves what they get.)
It’s also supposed to cause back pain. Admittedly, I did develop a sore shoulder which my chiropractor said came from poor posture. She gave me exercises and told me to get up and around more.
Instead I chose the advice of one Isidore Poeche, who wrote in his 1901 bestseller about sleep: “The resting place should be neither completely horizontal nor excessively sloped.”
So I added more pillows.
One piece of research bothered me, though. Something Bulgarian author Elias Canetti wrote in the early 20th century: “A man who lies down gives up all relationship with his fellows and withdraws into himself.”
Ouch. Although my life wasn’t all that different from pre-pandemic – work from home, don’t use a gym, never go out for dinner – small things were eating away at me. Like no physical contact, or being able to see my friends’ facial expressions and reading their body language. Or even doing things together rather than sitting at a screen to talk.
It struck home as it applied to my mother, as well. Her pandemic had a name: depression. She’d had a rotten childhood: only child of a single mom in Depression-era Toronto moving from one rooming house to another, then hitting the jackpot and marrying the handsome oldest child of a very wealthy family.
There was a yawning chasm between this ideal and reality, however – there always is. My father entered the ministry with a side hustle of farming, then shocked everyone by deciding to be an agricultural missionary in India. Turns out my mother loved it – tea served in the garden, an aya to care for the children, and someone to cook. But my father hated it: preaching salvation to those ground down into the dust by disease and poverty; seeing people die of starvation in the street where they lived.
They came home, so he could farm and preach on Sundays, but my mother hated Southern Ontario’s cold winters, the rundown farmhouse, and the 1500 chickens running loose in the barns. She was lonely; she wanted 12 kids and ended up with six. Babies, I think, filled her gnawing hunger for belonging, connection, and perhaps a replacement for meaningful work.
Having shrunk her universe into kids and my dad, and battling some mental health issues, she had no friends, or very few, and didn’t join any women’s groups at my father’s church which at 15 miles away she reasoned was too far. But we humans are hard-wired to connect and while a pandemic violates our social character, depression quite possibly kills it.
I’m not surprised my mother took to her bed. And stayed there. (When we cleaned out my father’s house after he died, I counted 42 nightgowns.) I remember only the storms of my teenage years, but those hundreds of family photos show a slightly different story – in many she looks happy. In others, she looks stoned on a prescribed mix of codeine and Doriden (glutethimide), a toxic mix that I now know mimics fentanyl.
There is no doubt I have withdrawn from a social life in the last year and maybe the lying in bed all day is a side effect, but the major difference between my mother and me is I know the world will eventually tip just a little toward normal.
Now that winter draws to a close and there is light outside, as well as a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, I find myself rising from bed a little bit more each day. I get out more, call out to neighbours across the street, talk loudly to those 10 feet away, turn my face to the sun.
While I cringe at the similarities to my mother, there has been a small but undeniable silver lining. If it hadn’t been for Covid, I might never have turned into my mother. And so, understood her just a little bit better.
So for now, I will embrace – even own — this new (relaxed) me and admit: “Hell yes, I do love lying in bed.”
For as Groucho Marx said: “A thing that can’t be done in bed isn’t worth doing at all.”