It’s 5:19 a.m.
My alarms won’t buzz for another half hour, but my body already knows. I quickly turn off the ringer on my phone, shut the travel clock I’ve also set just in case, and rest my feet on the floor.
I go through this routine every morning and the ritual of setting two alarms every night. And yet, my body wakes itself around 5:20, except when it does so earlier, often enough at exactly 4:23. It’s one more thing beyond my control.
My husband mumbles, “Sleep,” knowing full well I can’t.
In turn, he’ll get up to make the early minyan on his way to work and the boys will rise in order to catch their buses to school. It’s just as well I’m already in the kitchen packing lunches and signing permission slips, though to be honest, that’s only part of the story.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an early riser. There’s a lovely rhythm to those first waking moments when it’s not quite dawn, but night has begun to make its retreat. I’m glad to have that time all to myself, to let it shake the hazy visions from my sleepy imagination. I slowly wade into the ocean of a new day until my body decides it’s ready to submerge. Having shoplifted an extra 30 or 45 or 70 minutes from the cosmic stores, I swim off to find myself in the stillness.
On Friday night, as we sing Eishes Chayil, I laugh under my breath when we reach the line “She wakes up when it is still nighttime.” I lean in and whisper my truth to her: that while I also rise early to care for my family, there’s a selfishness in my pre-dawn homemaking that’s nowhere to be found in hers. I ask her whether that mitigates the holiness of it, but she pretends not to hear the question.
The days, the weeks, the years – they come and go and little changes in my morning routine. I continue to hoard that sliver of the day when the moon is busy squeezing out the last drops of an evening, draping our maple tree in a phantom glow. Before I do anything, before I empty the dishwasher or pack the snacks, I look for the birds who disappoint me by not yet being at their feeder, though avian memory will draw them here as soon as they’re hungry for breakfast. Meanwhile, the tree branches sway in the breeze like arms in a mystic thrall, making me wonder where the magic that takes place in the night goes when the sun comes up.
I wipe away my breath where it gathers on the window pane, a reminder of how fleeting and elusive everything in this world is. Then I have the passing thought that I should still be in bed, warm beneath the flannel sheets, because I know I’ll be exhausted by sundown, having denied myself much needed rest. But they’re worth it, these stolen minutes of sacred silence. They are a powerful force, a lion tamer keeping the noise in my head at bay and calming the thump of my heart. They form a solitary moment that is all notes of music and lines of poetry and stories yet unspun.
Why would I squander it all for sleep?
Sometimes, I get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’ve played with the cosmos by waking up well before I have to. I worry that maybe my soul has not yet returned to my body, that it is still enjoying its nocturnal farbrengen with the Creator in Heaven. A wave comes then, a lurching like I’m being tossed at sea, and I realize Ah, there it is! I know then that my soul is back with me and I recite the prayer of gratitude along with the words that separate the night from the day.
The last seconds of silence are the most glorious, unlike no other silence I know. I transform briefly into a small child again, selfish and demanding and unwilling to share the quiet and the dark, as if this time of the day, this narrow corridor, is a gem in a tiny box that belongs only to me. Wait. No, it is me. Hungry and feral, I tighten my grip, unwilling to let it go.
The early morning spell breaks when I catch the same numbers on the microwave and the clock on the oven and the radio mounted beneath the cabinet and the screen of my phone. I know I cannot fight them all. Still, I wake my crew a little later than I should in order to stretch out the moment for as long as I can, like an accordion dragging out a note at the end of a song.
I hear pairs of footsteps shuffle across the hardwood. Thank G-d, they have all returned from wherever their dreams have taken them. My husband thanks me for his breakfast as he runs out the door. The boys realize they require something – either clean socks or some obscure school supply I don’t have in the house, not even in one of the bottomless drawers I’ve filled with random things I’m sure will one day be useful. I smile, grateful to be needed in a way that insists love resides here as well.
I wrap the boys’ sandwiches and pour cocoa into travel mugs. In the rising light, I see the birds are now at the feeder, each one on a perch of its own pecking away with delight. My husband will have to replenish the fast disappearing bird seed when he gets home, and when I open the refrigerator, I see we need to buy milk, too.
The lion tamer has by now hung up his red jacket with the bronze buttons, packed up his chair, and stowed his whip. My thoughts have broken through the silence and my head has begun to refill itself with to-do lists, obligations, and the challenge that is the laundry, the closest I’ll ever come to scaling Mount Everest. There are many things I must accomplish today, things I want to create, though getting them done is as sure as catching dust motes in the palm of my hand.
Oof, there are also a number of topics I would like to take up with the Master of the Universe, among them the shortness of a day and the miracle of how much love we can fit into it anyway. Perhaps He’ll join me here one morning and we’ll talk it over as we watch the birds while we’re waiting for my rising sons.