Thursday, January 6, 2011

How early is early?

One of the first lessons I took in as I began my informal study of Thoreau this week was how much he valued the early morning hours. To hear Thoreau tell it, we could all be much more exalted, efficient, morally well-served and aesthetically blessed individuals if only we took better advantage of the early morning hours by starting our day earlier.

“The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour,” he wrote. “Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. … All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere.”

Reading these words, I became an instant convert. “That’s it!” I thought to myself. “To take another step toward the person I want to be…I just need to be up earlier in the morning!”

But then I remembered something. I already get up at 5:30. Just how early did Thoreau mean? For that matter, just how early did he himself arise?

If I continue with my 2011 goal of becoming more familiar with his work, maybe I’ll be able to deduce an answer to that question. Even if he doesn’t name the time at which he rises, I imagine there are clues in his writing. Where he so often focuses on observations of nature, there must be numerous passages in which I could match his description of available light to the season to figure out whether he was bathing in Walden Pond – which the same passage referred to as his first activity of the day – at, say, 7 a.m. as opposed to 4 a.m.

On weekdays, I set my alarm for 5:30 so that I have time to write my 1000 words of Morning Pages, per the method of writing instructor and author Julia Cameron, and ride my stationary bike for 45 minutes before the kids wake up and need breakfast. (Actually, the image of my kids waking before I’ve had a chance to finish exercising and demanding breakfast right away is something of a mental relic from when they were babies. These days I have to nudge them into wakefulness several times and urge them to ingest something in time to catch the bus. So it’s not a matter of them being demanding, just the demands of the school day and its time-specific schedule.) When I’m done biking on weekday mornings, I wake the kids, make their breakfast, give the dog her breakfast, let the dog out and back in, and then head out to the barnyard to give the cows and sheep their breakfast, with the goal of getting back to the house in time to eat something myself before I have to hurry to catch a shower and still get Holly out to her bus on time. (Tim takes responsibility himself for being on time to catch the middle school bus, but I still have to ensure that all the pieces are in place to get him out there: food, vitamin, teeth-brushing reminder, lunch packed and ready to go.)

Nonetheless, Thoreau’s description of the value of greeting the dawn seduced me momentarily. So that’s what I need to do!, I thought to myself. Thoreau did not have children who needed breakfast, nor did he have livestock to feed, and he certainly didn’t have a schoolbus schedule to comply with. He also didn’t feel obligated to spend 45 minutes on the stationary bike; he spent much of the day walking through the woods of Concord and probably had no need of supplementary exercise.

But all of this is really beside the point. Just how early would I have to set my alarm for to gain even more benefits of the morning than I already do? Maybe 4:30. Objectively, I can imagine that in the heart of the summer I would witness breathtaking sunrises if I were up at that hour, and surely reap some of the rewards of this greater exposure to the natural world that Thoreau espouses. At this time of winter, though, I don’t think 4:30 would feel all that much different from 5:30. It would still be cold, and dark as pitch, and I’d still be drowsy.

And so for now I don’t plan to recalibrate my mornings. A year ago, I wrote of the resolution to get up earlier on weekends, when unlike weekdays I don’t really have to. That resolution succeeded somewhat. It’s hard for me to resist the temptation to bask in sleepy splendor on Saturday and Sunday mornings until about 7, or more specifically until the 7 a.m. news headlines have been read on NPR, but I’m usually up by 7:10. That’s a whole hour earlier than was typical before I made that resolution a year ago.

It’s a start, and for now it will have to do. I’m pragmatic enough to acknowledge that rising earlier wouldn’t make me able to write like Thoreau or even to see the world through the perspective of Thoreau, and at the moment I don’t feel like the hour my alarm goes off is a worthwhile target for self-improvement. To me, 5:30 on weekdays feels early enough, and I’ll just have to seek extra self-improvement after the sun comes up to compensate for whatever I’m missing out on.

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