Up Before the Others

It is 6:54 AM, and the clouds are rimmed with a special shade of insistent pink that only happens right here, right now, in this burgeoning time of day, at this spiked and waiting time of year.  The trees limbs, mostly bare as yet (budding coming soon) stand out against that color in crisp, dark, stark relief.

Below that pinkening sky, the junipers that line the far side of drive and the shaggy hedges on the closer edge are sprinkled with a consistent dusting of snow.  It’s almost like some careful child with safety scissors neatly cut two photos from a magazine and glued them together. The brightness of the spring sky, the coldness of the white-dusted evergreens: they just don’t go together.

I have been sitting here pondering the world outside the window–and the other, weirder world inside my head–since just after 5 AM, when my bladder and my buzzing thoughts propelled me out of bed. The little dog came downstairs too, of course, tippy-tapped down after me, waited at the back door to be released and then charged back in, hell-bent on her breakfast bowl and her “Good girl!” goodies. And then she curled up in the embrace of the couch’s cushioned arm, snoring softly, while I grabbed my binder and my special pen, to spend an hour or two releasing all my brain-buzzing .

I love the early quiet. I love to be alone with my thoughts in a sighing, contented house–with the hum of the fridge and the chug of the furnace and the knowledge that the boyos are fast asleep upstairs.  I love the opportunity to open up the hinged lid of my head and spill its contents, ramshackle, wholesale, unsorted and unscripted, onto college-ruled, blue-lined paper.  I love the opportunity to sort through those thoughts and see if there are any little nuggets gleaming, keepers among the dross–things to scavenge; seeds, maybe, to plant for future growth.  Or embers that might need immediate fanning.

The sudden dawning moment comes; the pink is washed from the sky by the pale golden sun, the clouds are backlit and empty, and I realize my early hours are up.  Mark will soon be, too; I’ll pull the breakfast bake from the refrigerator, get the oven heating.  I’ll set the second pot of Seattle’s Best to brewing.  The day will begin, and I’ll be a little more ready for its challenges because I’ve had that solitary writing time.

It wasn’t always thus.


I think about the way we remember people from our halcyon days.

“Oh, she was the one with the funky hats, right?” we might say, or, “Oh, he had that hair! Remember his hair???” And then we meet the primly suited, carefully coifed professional she’s become, or shake the hand of a burly man with a bald and shining pate, and we ponder how we change.  I suspect people might say of me, “Oh, yes: she liked to nap!” because sleep was a state I was always, as a young person, seeking.

I couldn’t wait for work to end, for classes to be over, for the visiting people to go home, so I could grab a blanket and close my eyes for, oh–just twenty minutes.  The twenty minutes would, of course, become two hours; the appointment might be missed, the event completely scotched.

“She’s sleeping,” my dear ones might say, and then they’d roll their eyes.

There was work and there was school and there were other obligations–things I’d signed up to do, books that needed taking back, chores and projects, parties to attend.  The parties might have been a big part of the problem, bleeding into the wee hours, offering lubricated socialization and the illusion of wide-awake, wee-hour wittiness.  After a party, I was always catching up.

‘Morning’ to me meant eleven AM; getting up early meant eight o’clock–and I would not be happy. Three or four o’clock in the afternoon were perfect times for napping, but I could also grab some shut-eye while studying in a library carrel, head cushioned on a stack of books, or sitting in the car outside the pharmacy waiting for my ride to pick up her prescription. Or after dinner, in front of Jeopardy.  Or in the midst of grading a batch of sixth grade essays.

I remember one weekend in a college summer, when I was working the graveyard shift at an ice cream factory, a job which sounds a lot more idyllic than it was.  I arrived home after the sixth day of work–we always worked six days in those hot and busy summers–put away the ice cream treats I brought home for the happy family, washed the fudgesicle residue from my person, and crawled into bed.  When I rambled downstairs at 3 PM, I was shocked to find it was Sunday, and I had slept through the Saturday night bacchanal–and my mother had let me sleep through church.

“Oh NO!” I thought, mourning the potential adventures I had missed, but feeling, too, for a rare and memorable moment, completely rested.

I drank so much coffee in those days that I think it had the opposite effect–it pushed me from jazzed-up into sleepy. My psych prof told me that was exactly the philosophy behind giving kids with ADD big batches of caffeine.

I poured myself another cup and pondered my next nap-time.

After college, I always had two jobs.  When I taught sixth grade, I also worked retail, and I would careen through the weeks, niche-ing lesson planning, paper-grading and bulletin board creation into nooks and crannies of time: the thirty minutes before I ran off to the department store’s lingerie department, the ten minutes before I left for school.  My friend Joan called me, every single morning, making sure I was up and out of bed–I slept so hard and so desperately that sometimes my blatting alarm clock didn’t wake me.

Start the coffee!  Hit the shower! Let the craziness resume!

Once a month or so, during those teaching days, I would grab an early Friday night dinner, then curl up on my bed with an aghan at 6:30 or 7:00, and sleep right through till Saturday lunch.

“Sleep debt,” people told me.

“Slow down,” some advised.

“Nap time?” I asked hopefully.

Then marriage and children. No one tells you what happens to sleep when you have kids, do they?


Mark was a single, custodial dad when we got married; Matt was seven.  And Mark, who’d been Matt’s primary care-giver for almost four years, slept the light sleep of the parent-on-call: one ear always open.  Matt would roll over in his trundle bed down the hall, and Mark would bolt up, head-cocked, listening.

Within one week, I swear to you, one WEEK of being married, I was the bolter-upper, and Mark was snoring through my 3 AM conversations with an inquisitive second grader.  How does this happen? I pondered.  Is it some lady-gene?

And how do people with kids ever catch up on sleep?

On weekends when Matthew stayed with his mom, his newly minted step-mother stayed in her bed, resting up for teaching and for Sunday re-integrations.

And then, seven years later, along came James, a rollicking bundle of joy.  And here was the thing: I was going to be a stay-at-home mommie, at least for the beginning.  I gathered up my baby books, reading everything from T. Barry Brazelton to What to Expect During the First Year.  And this is what those books promised me: the baby will sleep. A lot.

Get yourself a hobby, they advised.  Take naps yourself.  Use the time to clean your house.

Oh, I had visions.  There I’d be: the perfect mommy, rested and beaming, carefully coiffed, with a  smiling infant, a gleaming house.  And drawers full of hand-knitted gifts for the holidays.

James arrived in the wee morning hours of a snowy February day; the timing was a portent I failed to read.  The only time he slept through the night in his first year sent me into a panic:  My God, he must be ill!

My house was a mess; my HAIR was a mess.  My infant was often crying.

Of course, we didn’t realize then that Jim’s brain is wired differently; he was never a napper, and his night sleep never capped out (still doesn’t, I suspect) at more than seven consecutive hours.

WHERE’S MY NAP TIME????? I demanded of the authors of those books, but they turned their backs to me, mute and shuttered.

So I gave up and threw myself into the vortex–going to grad school, working at a college, embarking on the path to law school with my husband.  We sent one boy off to the Navy and the other to classrooms where his connection never quite clicked.  I had classes to teach and advisees to see and parent conferences; we planned trips out of state to visit law schools. There were counselor appointments  and there was baby-sitter searching. We had households to move, and move again.

Gradually, sleeping ten hours became a nice but distant memory; afternoon naps were rare twenty-minute luxuries.  Our bodies change, accept reality. Our minds accept reality too: our needs grow different as we age.

Life, I have decided, is like a big swim in pounding surf: I flail and fling myself against the waves, practicing my imperfect crawl, fighting the undertow, pushing against the current.  And then suddenly, here I am, spat out upon the rocky beach, wondering what sharp object it is I’m sitting upon.  Thinking, “Hey. I don’t need no stinkin’ sleep.”

And enjoying the peace and the treasure of the early morning.


Mark, in his fuzzy bathrobe, has shlupped, yawning, down the stairs.  The dog, who came to beg a chewy bone, now sits growling at my feet (WHAT?? Do my feet seem hungry? Do they twitch as though they might steal that chewy???) I pulled the breakfast bake from the fridge, replaced its plastic lid with a cover of aluminum foil, and put it in the heating oven. I ground the beans and brewed the second pot.

Today I have floors to clean and papers to grade and calendars to calibrate, the week ahead to envision. Jim and I have an entrepreneurial project that needs some shaping before we meet with experts who can help us achieve the dream.  There are meals to plan and reservations to make; there’s a cookie jar almost devoid of its pathetic store-bought cookies.  I have a stack of books to read and I have clothes to iron and there’s a craft table in the basement that badly needs sorting. There are letters to write and there are bills to pay.

But we’ll sit and have breakfast first–pour juice, make plans, portion out the day’s to-do’s.  Once, I would have been buoyed by hours of sleep; now I am buoyed by hours of quiet, time to settle into self, to lighten my thoughts while the sky does the same.

How we change, a wry, amused voice in my head murmurs. How we change. 


But maybe, this afternoon, I’ll take a nap.

8 thoughts on “Up Before the Others

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