The day many of us have been waiting for through a cold and unforgiving winter has finally arrived: it’s the first morning of 2020 in which it’s warm enough to sit outside and watch the sunrise. I can see the glowing orange orb coming up over the mountains to the east right now, as birds chirp from a forest that seems to grow greener by the minute. Today is April 29th. I’m watching my cats stalk through the underbrush, perhaps hunting mice or other tiny critters. The world feels balanced once again.
I’m staunchly anti-winter. I’m sure I’m not alone in this opinion. I hate its skeletal nakedness, its lack of life. A paralyzing sense of dread burrows into my bones as I watch the last few leaves drop from the trees during the final days of fall. My cells recoil at the thought of having to suffer through five months of frigid weather, short days and destitute grayness. I usually slip into a mini-seasonal depression around this time because I know I’m powerless to stop the listlessness that lies ahead.
As viscerally unpleasant as it is to watch the beauty of fall fade away, it’s equally uplifting to see spring bring it all back. In Western North Carolina, where I call home, this annual comeback is particularly rewarding. First the whites and reds pop, usually at the end of March, and as the weeks roll on, the greens return — thick and robust — first at the lower elevations, and then climbing up the mountainsides. It’s a glorious, slow-moving wave of triumph. Even though I understand this rebirth will return at the same time every year, I’m still somehow shocked by its arrival, as if some part of me believed that winter would last forever this time around, despite ample anecdotal and scientific evidence to the contrary.
Sitting on my porch at this precise moment, sipping hot coffee at 6:57 in the morning — surrounded by greenery and all its joys — I’m happy to report that winter has limped away once again, like the dirty mongrel that it is. Good riddance, ye old bastard.
What else does warm weather bring us? A renewed appreciation of the morning hours. In the dark depths of winter, there’s no incentive to wake up early — say, 5 or 6 in the morning — because a cozy bed is a perfect protector from the biting cold. But in the spring, with everything bursting forth, there are abundant reasons for engaging the world before the sunrise. Ben Franklin said — and I only know this because I heard it on some Podcast, at some point — “the early morning has gold in its mouth.” What could he have meant by this? Perhaps that morning, especially in the spring and summer, bears gifts. We wake up and make coffee — that holiest of morning rituals — then spend a quiet hour or so watching the sun illuminate the darkness by degrees, until the landscape shimmers in light. This transition from darkness to brightness is, like spring, a literal rebirth — a chance to start anew.
The gold in morning’s mouth also presents a rare opportunity to spend quiet moments in isolation. The industrial world spins to a start each day, and once that Great Machine begins turning, there’s no stopping it. Responsibilities and duties, actions and interactions — these are the challenges we face as early morning fades to late morning, and then to afternoon, and so on. Thus the early morning hours are especially sacred: we should protect them as our own, as a chance to reflect — without the nagging input from outside sources — about what we’ve done, what we’re doing and what we intend to do. Early morning presents an opportunity to actually enjoy drinking our coffee — that is to say, it allows us to notice things, instead of having our attention pulled in 36 different directions at once. The early morning arrives not only with gold in its mouth, but also shining a golden beam onto each of us, as individuals, asking: “These are your moments. How do you want to spend them, and where do you want to go from here?”
Traditional American ideals leave little room for reflection and contemplation such as this. “Leave that meditative crap to Socrates, and that hippie Thoreau,” our overtaxed American ancestors might have said. “There’s work to be done, money to be made, resources to be exploited. Don’t waste time just sitting there, noticing the beauty around you, like some kind of philosopher. Fill that time with good old-fashioned hard work instead, that way you’ll be able to afford more things — which will undoubtedly make you much happier. You can notice the little things when you’re a corpse.”
Perhaps this was the prevailing thought at one time — during the Industrial Revolution, or in the 1950s, or something like that — or maybe that worldview was more a mirage than anything else (or maybe it wasn’t, who am I to say?). But if such a philosophy ever truly was the way people approached (or continue to approach) life, there seems to have been a noticeable shift in recent years: a recognition of the importance of slowing down. It’s no secret that balance is key to a fulfilling existence, that for every yang there should be a yin. This even-handed approach is especially applicable to the current moment in time — i.e. the COVID-19 Era — when so many people are stuck inside, either working from home or without jobs entirely. This ubiquitous staticity has fundamentally shifted the manner in which many Americans act in their day-to-day lives. Working 10 hours in a 24-hour period isn’t a feasible option for many people at the moment, and because of that, there seems to have been a collective downshift, a great slowing down, a change from blind productivity to measured contemplation: thoughts of “What have I been doing?” “Why have I been doing it?” and “Is this what I want to continue to do?”
Some of us currently have no choice but to embrace the yin side of existence, and that’s a good thing. Those of us who have nowhere to be and no one to see (that is to say, most of us) have a unique opportunity to simply be: to actually drink the coffee, to slow down, to kiss morning’s golden mouth. What better season to immerse ourselves in the small things than the onset of spring, with all of its glory bursting forth, and with the mornings — in some parts of the country, at least — now warm enough for us to sit outside and wonder about the pleasant minutiae we often overlook when we’re caught in the machinations of a work-first existence? Deep ponderings such as: “What are my cats contemplating as they hunt for mice in the underbrush?”
I drummed up a little contest for the two adults in the car. I grabbed a tin of Mr. Planters cocktail peanuts from the passenger seat. Placed a single nut in my mouth.
And all of a sudden my dead grandpa and I were walking side-by-side down a desert highway.
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