Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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First, I pull myself up into a sitting position against the wall, with my legs still stretched out under the covers. Then I close my eyes again and try to settle my thoughts. Invariably, my cat Bill comes over and curls up on my lap. I open my eyes and stroke him behind his ears; his eyes are closed, and he purrs sleepily. He represents the force of sleep now, the pull to go back down under, while my restless mind is already leaping a million miles ahead into the day, spurred by the momentum of my dreams. I close my eyes, breathe slowly, and open them again. I drift in and out of half-sleep for a few minutes, all the while absently stroking Billy’s ears, until I attain a certain mental balance which enables me to lift him gently off my lap without upsetting either of us too much. Then I know I’m ready to get out of bed and begin the day.
From a journal I kept while living alone on my father’s farm:
I sweep every morning.
In southern Maryland in July it is hot at night. Hot and humid. So hot and humid that I wander the fields in the darkness listening to the feverish cicada, the planes flying invisible overhead. Washington, D.C. is a dull red glow hunched over the treeline to the north. It will start to get light soon. I’ve been up an hour, since 3:30; the cows are beginning to notice me moving around among them. They eat like machines, all day, all night.
I go back to the house. The fine red dust, minute particles of the crusty fields, have sieved through the window screens and settled on the floor. I get out the broom and I sweep. The dirt clings to my bare feet. I am alone except for the sun, like a red ball settled on the corn tassels, now going yellow and rising fast through the stripes of gray cloud. I shoo the dirt out; when I’m not here any more, when this house is empty for good, it will fill with dirt and crumble like a mudpie. I sweep every morning, asserting the impermanence of all things, even this farmhouse, even myself.
Karen Stein Bard
Harry Truman took a brisk walk around the block every morning before breakfast.
My mother reads the daily homily in “Power for Today,” a Church of Christ booklet, every morning.
A high school teacher I remember from my teenage days told us that immediately after getting out of bed in the morning, he looked in the mirror and chanted, “I wonder what wonderful new adventure awaits me today!” He said if nothing else it would give you a laugh at yourself.
These are all worthy morning rituals, but none of them would get me out of my present state of depression. It’s all I can do to drag myself out of bed before noon.
However, my depressions don’t last long. Some inner process completes itself and, within a few weeks, I get cheerful again.
Meanwhile, caffeine, nicotine, and the Dallas Morning News make my mornings bearable. After coffee and cigarettes, I go out and buy the paper, read it from cover to cover, and hope for a better tomorrow.
3:30 a.m. The alarm clock goes off. I poke my husband to get up and shut that thing off. Out of bed, into the bathroom for a cold shower. A brisk towel-drying gets all the capillaries vibrating. We dress and meet with the others from our spiritual community. At 4 we begin a yoga set and at 5 a meditation practice and chanting. We end with the refrain, “May the long time sun shine upon you; all love surround you; and the pure light within you, guide your way on.”
Sometimes it’s bliss, sometimes it’s all I can do to stay in the room. By 6:30, we’re back in our cozy bed, feeling blessed either to have the love of God flowing through us, or just to get another hour of sleep — in any case, blessed. At 7:30 it’s time to get up and get ready for work. We put on our white clothes and help each other fold the six-yard turbans that we wear. Then, I’m off to the University of Massachusetts and he’s off to the residential mental health program that he directs.
The goal of our lifestyle is to be healthy, happy, and holy; we’re very much involved with “the world,” yet with the awareness that we are not of this world.
Guru Nam Kaur Khalsa
Years ago, I read a Sufi saying: “The priests go forth at dawn and wash their hearts with laughter.” I thought that was the most beautiful morning ritual I’d ever heard of, so my mate of the time and I decided to try it.
As soon as I became aware of being awake — not usually a literal dawn, I confess, but at least a symbolic one — I would try to laugh. If my spouse awoke a few seconds ahead of me and was already warming up with a few chuckles, this was very easy. In the beginning it felt so silly to be uttering little croaks of morning laughter — before stretching, peeing, and brushing our teeth — that the little croaks would invariably turn into heartfelt chortles, and sometimes escalate into rollicking whoops and guffaws.
Then there were the days when nothing was funny. Something had gone wrong the night before. Perhaps there was a rude awakening from insufficient sleep into a day of problems. At times like these we gave it a try anyway. “Ha ha” we would mutter half-heartedly, “Huh huh huh. Huh.” But even if we never fully revved up, the day would not be exactly the same afterward.
Eventually this became too much of a strain and we quit. There were several reasons we didn’t sustain this ritual: we were not priests; it wasn’t dawn; we didn’t really “go forth”; and finally, we didn’t really wash our hearts with laughter. Sometimes we did, on those occasions when we would let it burst out spontaneously, loosening muscles that were already tightening up for the day, shaking things around in appreciation of the great cosmic Joke. Sometimes, but not often.
I see the priests in my mind’s eye today just as I saw them then — a little group of the temporarily “god-mad,” moving, jostling, dancing their way into dawn, filling the crisp new air with their cleansing laughter.
Renais Jeanne Hill
“Good morning.” My empty, obligatory mumblings bore neither wish nor proclamation. Saying “good morning” was a duty, learned as a child: bumping into brother or sister on the way to the bathroom, “good morning,” all air and half-closed eyes.
Somewhere along the line I got honest and bold and deleted the adjective and left evaluation of the situation to my audience: “Morning,” I’d say. And somehow that subtle switch allowed me to look them in the eye as I spoke, regardless of whether I meant “shitty day” or “Yahoo!”
Now I work for a wilderness school, and often awake outdoors, amidst great beauty. With lips still and heart full, I greet the day. The native people taught that when you give thanks, you give it for all things; when you pray, you pray for all things. Often I go to a creek for a ritual icy plunge with the dawn. No half-open eyes or robot lips after such baptisms. No, the eyes are opened wide. The lips are b-b-blue.
Wolfcreek Wilderness School
Ah, morning. The favorite time of day for babies and the unemployed. Well, I was a bartender once and, if I hadn’t drunk too much or taken too many drugs the night before, it was my favorite time, too. That was before I had children.
I lived in a big, old farmhouse. In the morning, after my boyfriend had gone to work, I had the whole place to myself. It was delicious. From my bedroom window the flat Illinois prairie stretched out in all directions. I could see my own little garden and the landlord’s cows — sweet, gentle things, destined for the slaughterhouse.
I drank coffee in front of the window upstairs, writing page after page in my journal. I wonder now what I could possibly have written about for all those years; I was positively obsessed with recording my life. For a period of about ten years, I simply could not function if I hadn’t made my daily entry. At times I had a dream diary too.
After writing, I would read for a while. Then I would take off my clothes and do yoga. I liked feeling myself grow more and more limber — stretching and bending, breathing, relaxing, enjoying the sensuality of being a twenty-three-year-old body. I might spend the rest of the day gardening, sunbathing, cooking. But it was always finished by the time happy hour rolled around and I was off on my bike, seven miles to town, to the bar where I worked. If I wasn’t working there, I was drinking there, drinking and dancing until closing time at 2 o’clock in the morning. You might call that my very early morning ritual.
I have two children now and I don’t do any of those things. Someday I’ll have time for yoga again, but recording the details of my private thoughts in a little diary — I wouldn’t do it if I could.
For two or three years after my first child was born, I made an attempt to keep up with it. She was a late sleeper, so I still had mornings to myself, but I had lost my heart for writing things down. Why didn’t it seem important to me anymore? It had helped me through some awful times, given me a voice, helped me organize my world.
Part of it was that all the self-analysis seemed to take me out of the world. What had begun as a method of helping me to live more fully in the world had become a way of taking me outside of it. I had begun to examine my life at the expense of living it.
One day, I read something Krishnamurti had said: “So you record your life in your diary, write down your dreams, find out your past lives. That’s not really the point now, is it?” I immediately felt: of course not!
These days, my morning rituals depend to a great extent on the baby. He likes to sit on my lap. He likes eye contact and silly noises aimed in his direction. If I stick my tongue out, he thinks I am hilarious. How he likes a good laugh, this child. Sometimes he will lie on my lap nursing, while I type a letter with one hand, but he prefers the rocking chair.
My kids have pulled me out of my old rituals. I never know what we will do: spend the morning baking, watch Captain Kangaroo on television, or, if it’s not raining, take a walk. We might lie in bed and smooch or we might have an argument. Maybe we will visit a friend or do chores or go to the library or the park. My children just want to get on with the business of living. They make me do what I’ve been trying to do all these years: to wake up, to be alive to this world that we find ourselves in.
I stretch first. Salutation to the sun. Yoga. Acu-yoga. Psychocalisthenics. Finger and wrist exercises for my piano playing.
As I seat myself before my windowsill altar, I notice the rocks and crystals, each with its own symbolism and nostalgic history; the miniature globe which I sometimes hold as I send the planet healing energy; the Greek mother goddess figurine and the tiny porcelain Buddha; and the goofy, one-eyed ceramic character who reminds me to keep humor in my life.
I sit for thirty minutes. I have to continually bring my mind back to my breath as it races over plans, fantasies, memories. Having resolved for the umpteenth time to keep my attention on my breath, I find myself thinking about breakfast choices. But somewhere between lesson plans, romantic fantasies, and budget calculations, I experience a few moments of peace, a feeling of open-heartedness, and a glimpse that I’m part of the universe and it’s part of me.
My circadian rhythms are a joke. It’s a miracle if I can wrestle myself into bed by 1:00 a.m. By nature I’m up till dawn. To make matters worse, I need nine hours of sleep. This wreaks havoc with my morning schedule, especially since, as an entrepreneurial, Eighties woman (flextime hippie holdout) I run a typesetting business from home.
The ritual of waking brings torment, torture, head-blasting misery. Are all my bones broken? What is this painful agony? No, no, let me die in peace. The alarm is ringing. It will ring for an hour if I don’t turn it off. I stumble across the room — dizzy, weaving — and bump into the table. If I’m lucky, I’ve scheduled the day’s activity the night before; my brain won’t kick in till noon.
My biggest typesetting customer is a book publisher next door. Monday morning the phone rings at 9:30. Wrenched from a dream, I become tangled in the sheets, fall out of bed, and trip over the electric blanket cord. I careen down the hall on the way to the phone. “Hello, hello,” I say to myself, talking out loud to get the huskiness out of my voice. I can never fool the editor into thinking I’m awake if my voice is an octave lower than normal.
I pick up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Hi,” says the editor. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“Oh, no,” I say, feigning affront, sending her vibes: certainly you didn’t wake me, I am a responsible businesswoman, my day starts at 9 a.m.
“You sure sound funny,” the editor says. “Could you bring those Cooper galleys over?”
“I’ll be right there.”
I hang up, wash up, dress up, and make it to the editorial office in ten minutes. I pretend to be coherent. I act bright and intelligent.
When I get home I look in the mirror. The editor, art director, and two assistants have all seen the pillow creases tattooing my face from cheek to chin.
Yuppie cover blown again.
Aramis and Guenivere like mornings. Their fur coats protect them from the chill of a dead fire, and besides, breakfast is a big event for a housecat. They’re waiting by the refrigerator before I’m into my dressing gown. I tend to the fire first. If I don’t, getting out of the shower will be unbearable. If I take too long over the coals, the smoke detector goes off. Alarm clocks and hungry animals are enough, thank you!
The step up to the bathroom is where I kneel to pray, after I learned that I’d fall asleep if I leaned on the mattress. Morning prayers are brief, such as “Thy will be done,” “Grant me the willingness to stop smoking.” My friend Mary once told me, “If you’re on your knees more than two minutes, you’re plea bargaining.” My conscience is appeased. Does God mind if I scratch Guen’s head while I’m talking?
It’s always been hard for me to get up in the morning. Throwing off the covers, voluntarily giving up my warm, drifting, dream-like world where I am wonderfully not responsible for anyone, and plunging into a cold, frustrating reality where I have so many people to answer to (myself, my husband Tony, our four children) — that is a difficult step for me to take. Each morning at 5:25, Tony turns to me in bed and asks, “Well, are you ready?” “Well,” I reply, “I guess so.” We roll out of our cozy bed and grope our way into our winter clothes, stoke up the fire, grab the milk bucket and calf bottle, and go out into the morning that is still night.
Now, a rendezvous in a cowshed at 5:30 doesn’t sound very exciting. But I’m glad to have the chance to be with Tony, just the two of us alone in the great, silent, star-filled morning. Our lifestyle, the result of our Sixties idealism (property thirty-five minutes from town; four children, ages four through sixteen; a milk cow and calf; a horse; a spring-fall garden; Tony’s chimney-sweep business) leaves us with very little opportunity just to be together. But these morning chores assure us of at least twenty-five minutes of prime time when both we and the world are fresh.
At the cowshed I wash Rosie’s udder while Tony puts out the day’s ration of hay for the cow and calf. Then, one on a side, we start, and as the milk squirts in the bucket, Rosie, Tony, and I relax. Now the words come flowing out: our dreams; thoughts about what we’ve read recently; stories about the children that we’ve saved for now. Often, separated by a warm cow body and unable to see each other, we can say those things about our relationship that are difficult to communicate face-to-face.
It’s done now; even the last, creamiest drops are out. Tony leaves to feed the horse, I rub ointment into Rosie’s teats and dip them in an iodine solution, then go out to feed the calf fresh, warm milk from her calf bottle. When Tony returns the talk is less personal: the progress of the calf, the sky and what it indicates for today’s weather, our plans for the day. We check the cowshed to see that the door to the grain is shut, turn off the light, and walk up to the house. Tony carries the big milk bucket, I have the small washing bucket and calf bottle. It is a joke between us that a big, tough, macho male would consider it below his dignity to carry such a little bucket. We go hand-in-hand. Mine is still slimy from the calf’s saliva, and I try to wipe it on my jacket. Tony doesn’t care; he takes my hand and holds it firmly. As we reach the top of the driveway he nearly always says something like, “Well, Jeannie, this is it. Our little place out here in the middle of nowhere. Our home.” I look around and see the house where the children are just waking up, the machines, the woodpile, the trees and earth — so much of our dreams and yearnings, our ideals molded by reality, our shared creation — and all I can reply is “Yup.”
This is our personal morning ritual. It may seem odd, but it is a vital and sustaining part of our relationship. It leaves me ready to face the world.
The house feels serene, quiet, almost in a meditation of its own. How does it know it is Sunday morning once again, and its family will begin its rituals once more? I suppose it knows in the same way that my daughters know, even before their eyes are open, that it is time to get out the paper dolls.
Rituals must be as necessary to human well-being as eating and sleeping. They become landmarks when we are disoriented, comforts when we are lost, reminders of what we might wish to forget, and measures of time passing. My children have taught me that the rituals most valuable to us are those that are allowed to develop naturally, instinctively, without being forced by some external idea.
Often now, I am allowed to sleep late undisturbed. When I finally tiptoe down the stairs, it always feels like Christmas morning. There they sit, barefoot, in their nightgowns, totally absorbed in cutting, pasting, swapping, laughing, arguing, arranging, examining. The old J.C. Penney catalogs, spread all over the floor, are ragged and devoured; yet they continue to pore through them page by page as if new characters might have grown magically between the covers during the week gone by. Between Sundays, the disheveled catalogs hibernate in a special cupboard unto themselves, and long envelopes are used to house the dolls and their belongings. The arrival of a new catalog is met with absolute delirium, followed by panic over the best fathers or baby carriages.
The paper dolls belong only to Sunday morning. A few times I have suggested getting them out during the week, when no one had any better ideas, but was met with something between disbelief and indignation. A shared look said, “She doesn’t understand.”
Now I think I am beginning to understand. The importance of their game lies not in the playing itself, but in their having created a shared ritual for themselves. As they giggle over finding a picture that looks like someone they know, or fight over a new bed that gets destroyed in the process, they are totally focused on one another. No other soul in the universe can participate in this particular ceremony with them. No one else could understand.
I am now almost joyously free of the old guilt I felt in choosing not to force my family into more traditional Sunday morning rituals. I feel that what we have created naturally is more intimate, more private, and that our mornings become a celebration of life. I know that I will feel sad when the paper dolls are no longer thought of on Sunday morning. I will sense that we have finished another chapter. But the memory will live, and renew itself in the creation of other rituals which will also serve to connect and bind the pages of our lives.
Charlotte, North Carolina