Poet, artist, and mental health activist Tricia Hersey shares how she’s finding rest as we travel into the new year.
Speaking to Tricia Hersey is a rejuvenating experience. After chatting with the teaching artist, community organizer, poet, performance artist, and theater maker for 10 minutes, I feel pumped up. But not revved up to run a marathon or anything—not even close. I feel amped up to nap. Contradictory as it sounds, it makes sense that this is the effect she has on people. Hersey is, after all, the Nap Bishop.
If there was ever a year that we all needed a lie-down, it’s 2020. But Hersey has been preaching the power of rest long before this year shone a spotlight on all that is exhausting about our society.
The idea for The Nap Ministry started when Hersey was studying divinity at Emory University. “I was resting and taking naps in response to trauma in my own life,” says Hersey, who was coping with an overwhelming graduate school program, raising a small child, struggling financially, and witnessing the relentless killings of young Black men in the media that would spark the Black Lives Matter movement. “I decided to just nap all over campus,” says Hersey. “I decided I was not going to be staying up until five in the morning to complete a paper and stress myself out. I just was like, I can’t physically and spiritually do this.” Hersey knew that this approach might mean not completing her program, but the alternative of totally burning out wasn’t worth it. However, instead of slipping behind in her classes, Hersey found that she started to perform better.
“I was able to start making connections between what I was studying and what was happening in my life as an artist,” she says. “I was working in the archives and studying cultural trauma among Jim Crow survivors, studying my own ancestors. And I started to make connections historically to rest being a form of reparations for descendants of slavery. I began to see rest as a resistance as well as a liberating practice.”
With an undergrad degree in public health, Hersey also knew about the biological effects of sleep deprivation. “This grind culture, this go-go-go, this culture of your worth being attached to what you produce is really killing us from the inside,” she says.
The Nap Ministry was officially born in 2016. In addition to writing workshops, lectures, and collective napping experiences (all done virtually this year), Hersey has created site-specific installations for Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, School of the Art Institute Chicago, Atlanta Contemporary, and Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis.
“I never set out to be like, ‘I’m going to write a business plan, I’m going to put The Nap Ministry on Instagram,’” says Hersey. “It came from a personal experience of me experimenting as an artist, as an activist, and as a woman in America wanting to thrive.”
Here, Hersey shares how she’s thriving (and how you can too) despite everything that’s happened in 2020, and what she’s looking forward to in 2021.
“How are you?” has always been such a throwaway question, but in 2020 I’m trying to bring some intentionality to that inquiry. So how are you doing, really?
I’m good today. You know, I take things day by day—almost minute by minute when you’re going through something like a crisis. Things are minute by minute, moment by moment, and just taking the day as it comes. I voted today. I went to the early voting station by my house and there were only, like, four people in line so it went quickly. And now I’m writing letters to some friends on some new beautiful stationery. I slept well last night. I haven’t been sleeping well in the last week or so, but last night I slept really good through the whole night.
That’s very good to hear. How have you had to shift your approach to The Nap Ministry this year?
It’s really picked up at a pace that I didn’t expect. As soon as the pandemic hit in March, every single in-person event that I had was cancelled within a week. Last year, we did 50 events all over the country: in-person resting experiences and site installations at museums, outdoors, and in public spaces. A lot of the work we were doing was really rooted in being in-person with each other, literally laying people down with blankets and pillows and mats and having them sleep and rest together. That embodied practice really grounded this work. And so when everything happened, I was like, okay, things are lightening up around here. It is what it is, we’re just all going to live through this. And then everything started to pick up, specifically in conjunction with the George Floyd murder and what was happening in June with the global uprising for Black lives. I did have to shift quickly and be flexible to figure out how we were going to be able to gather people and have some type of community in rest together.
Do you think there will be a shift after this year, given everything that’s happened in 2020?
I think that the shift is going to be a slow, meticulous process. Awareness around rest being a foundation for our resistance and a place of collective wellness is happening right now. I see this as just the beginning stages. It’s still a counternarrative, which is beautiful because that’s where the seed of a bigger global movement can happen. I do believe the shift is going to happen, the more we continue to deconstruct capitalism, the more white supremacy is being interrogated and looked at and healed. This whole piece about rest has to be in parallel and working with these systems. There is a wellness vision to this work, but we are, really, a social-political movement.
It seems that a lot of people think they are engaging in this type of work, but self care has been so commodified by the wellness industry, and is largely built by and for white people.
It’s part of capitalism. It’s an extension of it. I never use the word self-care in my work. Anytime anyone interviews me, and in all of my writings, the framework is about community care, collective care, communal care. Self-care is not a term for the framework of this work. The white wellness industry has been saying ‘self-care’ for years and years and years but never once mentioned a system that makes people unwell. It doesn’t make sense to speak about it without looking at the root issue and uplifting the reason why there’s so much disparity in health and income. These systems have created a hierarchy of who should be well and who deserves it. And so the work for me is pushing back against those notions and staying very committed about saying ‘white supremacy and capitalism is making us unwell.’ Until we get a hold of those things, our work is to be subversive and resistant.
It seems like a silly question, but what are your tips? How do we rest?
I think it comes down to understanding that we have been brainwashed. Everything in our culture is working in collaboration to get you to not rest. To get you to see yourself as a machine, to not listen to your body, to build your worth upon what you produce. The public schools, religion, media, pop culture, your parents—every single thing is working in cahoots for you to just not rest. We’ve been taught that rest is lazy, it’s a privilege, it’s a luxury, it’s something you have to earn. And all those things are wrong. When you unlearn those, you understand that rest is a divine and human right.
Rest is simply a place where you can connect with your mind and your body. Where you can slow down. It could be 10 minutes: When you’re out of the shower, instead of rushing to get on your phone and rushing to work, sit on the side of your bed with your eyes closed. Meditate. Drink tea slowly. Build an altar. Pray. Slow down. Don’t return that email immediately, don’t return that text immediately, and detox off the technology and social media. Birdwatching, going for a walk, daydreaming. All of those things that connect us back to our true selves is what rest can be.
If you’re not a napper and you really want to begin to nap, make a plan for it. You know, this is a practice. This isn’t about reposting memes. This is literally an embodied practice that has to happen in an intentional, meticulous way. And so that may be scheduling your nap time. Saying, ‘On Sunday, I’m going to take a 30 minute nap. I’m going to set my timer, I’m going to lay down and close my eyes.’ And what happens, happens. If I nap, I do; if I don’t, I’ve disrupted capitalism for 30 minutes.
I tell a lot of people who are working in really busy corporate jobs to start to schedule their time and create healthy boundaries. No one’s going to want you to rest, no one’s going to give you rest, no one’s going to allow you to rest because we’re all working in the same system. And so to be subversive, to be an outlier, you have to really say, ‘No, I’m not going to return that email right now. I’m resting.’ So it has to be a planned situation, these quiet moments in your own body.
Tell me about your relationship with travel.
I’ve been a traveler and explorer since I was in my 20s. When I was 22, I was in the Peace Corps in Morocco, North Africa for two years. That started my love of deep travel. [Before that] I had only been on a plane once to visit my uncle in California. My parents really couldn’t afford much travel. But we did a lot of traveling within Chicago: museums, theaters, amusement parks, little adventures throughout the state. Even though my parents didn’t travel with us a lot, my father always instilled a sense of travel in my mind. He would buy me National Geographic books and tell me, ‘The world is yours. God created the whole earth for you to explore. Whenever you can travel, go.’ When I went to Morocco I was living in a rural village and traveling all around the country. I traveled on 18-hour bus rides and on the back of goats and in the back of trucks. Since then, I’ve been all over. And the work that I’ve been doing with The Nap Ministry for the last two years has meant constant travel. I think I did 17 round trip flights last year. I really do center travel as a part of my work as an artist, and as a part of my own evolution as a person. It helps me to dig deeper and see the world in a different way.
What are some items that you take with you to help you stay grounded when you travel? Even if traveling right now is just going to your own backyard.
I always travel with essential oil in a diffuser. I love essential oils: lavender to help me sleep, and eucalyptus to ground me. I love incense, I’m always taking incense with me. My friend who is a farmer here in Georgia owns a tea company called Mystic Roots Tea. She’s also a chef so she grows all of the herbs that she makes into these beautiful tea blends for detox or sleep or relaxation. I always take books because I love to read and always have two or three books that I’m trying to get through. I always have a journal because I handwrite everything (again back to the anti-technology!).
What do you hope we take with us as we travel into 2021?
I hope we begin to ground ourselves in the power of our imagination. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that the world that we’re in right now is not working. And so we need to imagine another world. And I believe rest will help ground us in that, because rest makes space for invention. Rest connects us and allows us to slow down to receive really important ideas. What grind culture does to us is steal away our connection, our ability to hope and dream, and to see that we have the power to invent and create. What does a world look like with less police, where everyone can eat, where we are committed to freedom for all? We can’t get there thinking and working within an exhausted, sleep-deprived state. I’m really hoping people see this time as a place to start imagining what could be and what is possible.
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- 5Away Laptop Bag, $195
- 6Mystic Roots Tea, $15
- 7Now Foods Vitamins, prices vary
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