I wake up, most mornings, at 5 a.m. It’s still nighttime, really. The city outside is still; the moon is placid overhead. The house is silent, except for the sigh and hum of the refrigerator. I make my coffee and start my work. Outside the window next to my desk, the dark lightens: imperceptibly, then steadily, until the sun rises over the eve of the house to the east. And it is day.
I’ve been thinking about mornings more recently, because these early mornings alone are becoming more scarce.
This waking started last winter. My days were long and frenetic, crammed full of words and devoid of meaning. I shuttled to work late in the morning and rushed around until late at night, when I would ride the silvery, empty subway home.
Until then, I’d always been nocturnal. I’m not sure where I got the idea, but I began to believe that, if I woke early enough, I could somehow escape the confines of my exhausting days. So I started setting my alarm for 5 a.m., and when it went off, I got up. The first time I watched the sun rise, it felt like a private miracle.
When I mention this to people—the waking part, not the miracle part—they often mistake it for a productivity hack. After all, every profile of a ShEO begins waking early and beginning a frenzy of activity: running, stretching, emailing, optimizing. People assume your morning is a form of one-upmanship, which can breed resentment. One of my current roommates wrote, spitefully, in a birthday note: “The early bird gets eaten.”
But though I get work done in the mornings, mornings are not, for me, about work. They’re existential.
Mornings lay bare reality. Mornings force us to coming to terms with our bodies, our obligations, our frailties. Mornings are when the sacred and profane—love and duty, the physical and the ephemeral—cross paths.
This is how we get aubades, morning love poems. You know the most famous one: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” There’s plenty in that classic vein, the poet praising his lover’s beauty, lamenting that he must away. “She's all states, and all princes, I,/ Nothing else is,” John Donne says in “The Sun Rising.” In his 2013 hit “All the Time”, Jeremih croons: “Early in the morning's when I think about you… And in the morning when I wanna fuck you.”
But the more interesting specimens are more concerned with the profane. After all, mornings can break us.
Let us start with the darkest, Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” Larkin lays awake at night dreading death, horrified by his mortality. The morning returns the mundane world, “plain as a wardrobe.” Full of its own miseries, it offers little reprieve from existential agony: “All the uncaring/ Intricate rented world begins to rouse…. Postmen like doctors go from house to house.” Dawn, a symbol of hope, only underscores Larkin’s hopelessness.
For Richard Wilbur, there is a brief shining moment upon waking when reality has no hold of us:
“The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.”
Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.”
They are no angels, of course—just laundry on a line. But there is a brief moment, before it sets in, when all is possible and all is perfect, and then: “The soul shrinks/ From all that it is about to remember,/ From the punctual rape of every blessèd day.”
For others, the duties of motherhood call them to the things of this world. In “Aubade,” Nuala ni Dhomhnaill (trans. Michael Longley) describes the sun rising on birds, Irish gardens, and young couples “yawning in unison before/ they do it again,” before concluding soberly:
“But it isn't all the same to us that night-time
Runs out; that we must make do with today's
Happenings, and stoop and somehow glue together
The silly little shards of our lives, so that
Our children can drink water from broken bowls,
Not from cupped hands. It isn't the same at all.”
The flights of imaginative fancy give way to the demands of parenthood, but ni Dhomhnaill gains a sense of purpose from those strictures.
The warm opening notes of the song “Rings,” by Pinegrove, break like the first rays of dawn. Evan Thomas’s voice almost cracks with yearning as he sings: “You’re sleeping with your rings on/ Cardinal wings in the early morning/ waking up to a metaphor forming.” He’s making a promise to change, to be better.
And perhaps that’s the lasting promise of mornings: that we are made new, each day. Priests praying Lauds and sinners in their beds both turn to the rising sun and smile.
I was sitting on the faded couch of my old apartment, at about 6 a.m. one morning last March. It was just before dawn: bright enough to see, but not yet day. I looked up from my book to see a cardinal, in all its bloody glory, alight on the front lawn.