(Tommy Johnson): "I had to be up at that there crossroads last midnight, to sell my soul to the devil."
(Ulysses Everette McGill): "Well, ain't it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I'm the only one that remains unaffiliated."
— From “O Brother Where Art Thou?” a film by Joel and Ethan Cohen
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous speak of terrifying dreams about the world ending that bubble up soon after one stops drinking alcohol and begins the twelve-step program. The phenomenon is commonly referred to as “world destruction fantasy.”
I personally do not subscribe to the beliefs of evangelical radio host Harold Camping who, after initially screwing up the date, believes we’re in for the end of the world as we know it sometime in October 2011. I believe such raptures happen every day in the here and the now — in our backyards and in our own minds. Profound change, like giving up alcohol in order to save your life, is terrifying. If it’s not, it’s not profound. It’s just sort of confusing.
I traveled over two miles on foot to 14 Pews to bear witness to artist Emily Sloan’s recent "Southern Naptist Convention." When I reached the corner of Aurora and N. Main Street, I heard muffled jubilant voices inside Immaculate Temple, located just a few steps away from my destination. I recognized 14 Pews by its red awning, and when I entered the space, I was pretty much blind from going from intense sunshine to a nearly dark church.
Right after taking a seat in one of the pews, a stranger asked me: “Do you write for Out magazine?” There were two, maybe three people with cameras taking photos of “naptists” who were already curling up in the pews around me feigning sleep. Pleasant new age-y music played over the P.A., including Erik Satie’s warhorse “Gymnopédie No. 1” arranged for harp and strings (Zzzzzz….) I had my notebook with me, but didn’t introduce myself as a writer or reporter (“There are a lot of reporters here,” my neighbor, the stranger said) but by way of explanation said I wrote for CulturemMap. But really, I was there to experience Emily Sloan’s work first hand.
Sloan, one of the first artists I met and wrote about after relocating the Houston, creates uniquely interactive and communal rituals that address some of life’s most profound questions by way of activities that are ordinary (cutting or washing hair), gut wrenching (reading one’s own eulogy at a “Funeral for the Living”) or bizarre (immersing volunteers in a pick up truck’s bed filled with “blessed fluid”). The actions of the events are planned out in advance, but there is no expectation as to what exactly the participants are going to experience on an emotional level. In order for the communal ritual to be successful, the participants have to take part, even if only by going through motions of the event’s schedule. The emotional take away from any event, either by Sloan or those participating, is anyone’s guess.
Our society, in addition to reveling in prophecies of apocalyptic doom, is addicted to lack of sleep and deeply suspicious of anyone who takes time out to relax, sit still and perhaps even nap. All of this was alluded to in a short public service announcement that began the Naptist convention. Emily Sloan appeared throughout the video dressed in a reverend’s robe calmly explaining that “naptists” believe that “non-nappers,” those who do not believe we need sleep for survival, will be left after the “napture” to wander in a hell of no sleep.
The humor of the video was all over the place in its allusions to organized religion, so-called "reality" television, and advertising culture (Houston's own "Mattress Mack" made two appearances in the spot). Its tone was quickly counterbalanced by the guided group meditation that followed. The lights in 14 Pews were dimmed and Stanley Merrill from The Jung Center took the assembled through a mental “body scan” designed not only to help one meditate, but also fall asleep.
I stretched out not too comfortably in my pew and followed the steps to relaxation. I confess I did experience several “New York” moments where I was convinced some asshole was going to steal my coveted Army/Navy store bag. But eventually, the combination of the intense heat outside and the calm rattling of 14 Pews’ fans lulled me into a state where my racing mind happily teetered on the precipice between consciousness and oblivion. Time passed. And then I was started back to reality by the sound of a small bell being rung by Sloan.
The convention continued with a series of “naptisms” by Sloan. One by one the members of the congregation made their way to the front, took a vow to nap and then lay down on a cot to be sprinkled with feathers. The cameras were out again, and the atmosphere was more like a subdued TV game show than a Mass or call to prayer.
And it was at this point where I felt a bit lost, like I had wandered into my own personal garden of Gethsemane. The fact that there are serious mental and physical benefits to be had by sleeping regularly is something I believe in and can totally get behind. But is sleeping a valid response to the apocalypse?
We often have the urge to nap when things around us seem to be falling apart. “Tell me when it’s over…” as the song goes. But any previous allusions to the pending “napture” were gone at this stage of the event (like a bad dream?) and with them, a layer of profundity that might have spoken to a person seeking some kind of salvation. I may be overthinking all of this, but the naptisms seemed lacking when compared to, well, the real thing.
I thought about the voices I’d heard emanating from the Immaculate Temple, hollering and screaming, definitely not napping. Did they have something figured out that we didn’t? Were they, by way of the group ritual of losing yourself in a collective holy scream, better prepared for the day-to-day apocalypses that befall us? Apocalypses in the form of ‘taking the pledge’? Looking at what’s left of your life after a flood? Realizing a child has run away from home?
The convention concluded with cookies and milk, an activity introduced to the assembled as a “communion” — a reference that made me cringe even though I'm not Catholic — and I did enjoy four Oreos. I mean, after service cookies and non-alcoholic beverages? Been there. Done that. In the Catholic Church, the Unitarian Church, after a visit to a Hindu temple, etc.
So no, I didn’t get “naptized” if only to represent for those who need their rituals to be a little less…benign. I do wish I had attended Sloan's "Funeral For The Living," as that event seemed to be the balance of irreverence and reverence that I was looking for at the Naptist convention.
And if I had been available for the pick up truck bed immersion, I would have happily waded into that water. Go figure.