Long ago I read a story about a Lutheran pastor in a small town (like Lake Woebegone) where people were judged by how early they got up in the morning. These were rural people with lots of chores so they needed an early start, but they had the idea that if there was no daylight yet, they could afford to take time for a cup of coffee at the local cafe. There, they could look over the crowd to see who was missing and also develop theories about how things ought to be done in that part of the world. A pastor was absent at his peril!
So this crafty Lutheran (Lutherans take the education of their ministers very seriously -- they are “learned” ministers.) would show up for coffee, participate, maybe guide the ideas a little bit, then go home and get back into bed for a few hours. Especially if he’d been at a budget committee meeting until midnight or had sat up with family in a death watch until that morning. (Lutherans still do that.)
I’m no longer a minister, but I do get up early, an old habit and one that my new cousin says she shares. For one thing, my back gives me trouble and wakes me up. Walking around a bit gets the kinks out of it so I can sleep again. For another thing, 4AM, my rising time in winter, means that I’m online for email just as the East of the nation begins to fire up but traffic is still light so that messages fly faster. I once had a cut-rate “owl” email account which I used at this hour. In the summer 4AM becomes 5AM via daylight savings time and since we have to turn off all our yard sprinklers at eleven, it’s good to get out there at first light, which this far north can be so early it’s practically the night before. The cats and I don’t convert well to and from daylight savings, so we just stay the same and let the world change around us. Squibbie stays up and checks out the neighborhood while Crackers and I have a little snack, read the paper, and return to bed.
For one month, early in my Valier life, I was the paper person -- meeting the truck at 4AM. But it was winter and there was a lot of snow that year. It was wearing out my little pickiup, and my diabetes was unsuspected -- much less addressed -- so I didn’t make it beyond one month. The town was relieved when I resigned because I wasn’t fast enough so their papers were late.
When I was in high school, my brother had a paper route and my mother had just returned to college after a twenty-year interval. I was in many plays then and would come home too tired to do homework, so I’d get up when they did to do algebra with a slightly clearer head and listen to the amazing European news for the day as the USSR struggled and writhed. Sitting up in bed while my cat snoozed himself dry alongside after a venture into the rain, I felt those early hours were good times. They still are a good time to read while the NPR station is playing classical music with whispered intervals. This morning I could hear the snowplows working their way around town and along the highway. I don’t turn on the floor furnace but use an electrical laprobe that an understanding friend gave me. While I’m at the computer, I use a “secretary’s buddy,” which is a little foot heater with fleece pockets for toes.
When I was really quite small, I once woke up before anyone else in the house. I could see out the window that the backyard was mostly shadowed -- it was on the west side of the house -- but the blooming mock orange bush (which I called a tree) was shining in sunlight. I badly wanted to go out to that cloud of white. My fingers were still small and awkward and the back door, which opened with a skeleton key, was doubly guarded with a little metal question mark that hung on the knob and stuck into the loop on the end of the key to keep it from turning. Triumphantly, I figured out how to get that piece of metal out and turn the key. Then the hooks on the screen, one of which was so high I had to really reach and one low so we kids could hook the screen when we came in.
The biggest hazard was the noise: jingling from the thin key guard, a “glock” when the mechanism of the lock turned, tiny “spinks” when the hooks were forced up, and then the long vibrating “schriiiingg” of the spring on the screendoor that kept it shut at the price of making it bang. But I got past all that and stepped out into a world only half-familiar.
It was early summer but days were already potentially hot. The backyard wouldn’t be too uncomfortable until after lunch when we kids napped or moved to the front. Now even its kid-beaten grass was dewy. Except for the birds, the world was quiet, mysteriously draped with those unfamiliar shadows. It was just strange enough to be exhilarating. I had to look up the spelling of that last word -- I’m losing my ability to spell. The root is Latin, “hilaris: to be glad,” like hilarity. Synonyms are “elate, exalt, animate, gladden, invigorate.” It was all those things.
Many happy memories involve early mornings; not least long ago when Bob Scriver would show up under my little apartment window with both horses saddled, ready for a morning ride across the prairie. Here in Valier in summer I can safely venture into the yard in a robe with a cup of coffee. Dreams still hover over my head even while plans for the day rise up inside it.
But that’s summer. In winter I go back to bed.
My new cousin in Portland, Kathy Rouzie, adds this comment. (She grew up in Ephrata, WA.)
I used to love to get up very early in the summer times (when it was so hot) and walk out to our horse pasture, which was a mile or so west of town and an easy walk. I'd catch my big tall sorrel mare and saddle her and go ride up the gravel road past the old Norton place to the high wheat fields and ride in them alongside the road. I was riding along like this wondering about a parked car I saw out there when my horse was startled and stopped abruptly. There were two people sacked out in sleeping bags there in front of me, with the wheat bending around them creating a green palisade. Sometimes I'd come across coyotes or deer out there, burrowing owls and all kinds of little creatures. I had a good view from the back of that tall mare and she was fun to ride, she was lively and athletic and observant. She was also fairly amiable, except that she was a bit coy and more often than not I'd be standing there with my bucket oats watching her big blonde tail flipping up as she danced away from me, just for high spirits and fun I think. She didn't really mind standing there while I put a halter or bridle on her, she just liked to play around first.
I like to stand on the back porch and look at the stars in the morning. Everything is quiet and they are so familiar to me, from years of sleeping in the back yard every summer (too hot inside the house in central Washington), from sitting on the roof leaning against the chimney with AH Rey's star book and a bit of red cellophane over my flashlight studying the constellations, from standing on a little hill up the street in Ephrata, looking down on my little town. And from watching the sky here in Portland, where there are so many trees. I remember when I first came to Portland, out on Palatine Hill, I was happy when I found the big cemetary on the hlll there, so I could walk and sit among the gravestones and look out on the city with a big space overhead, a nice big quiet place.