Last week I wrote about some holy mysteries that only happen in the dark of night. This week I want to add some that come at first light.
I now appreciate what I find going on in my mind and heart when I first wake up, as well as what’s playing in my eternal record shop. There is often a word, phrase or sentence floating into awareness, a product of the night’s processing. There are images of where I’ve been while I slept. And there is almost always a song: a scrap of lyrics, a chord progression moving at its own pace, a melody.
These things used to seem like obstructions to getting on with the day. And when my life had to be scheduled by classes and/or jobs or someone else’s classes or jobs, they appeared to be flotsam. But now that my time truly belongs to me, to give or to hoard, hold safe from the onslaught of social life or spend freely, I’ve found that they are (to borrow from Anne Morrow Lindbergh) gifts from the sea—of sleep.
Some of my friends, having reached the age of retirement, are feeling the fear of what will happen when they let go of those outside commitments. All these years they have forestalled being available to other things, including self, wanting to be of use (and being seen that way) as long as possible. Some have let go of their employment and found only emptiness. Others have begun to live. Perhaps what makes the difference is how much living had to be sacrificed to work, and how much work made living worthwhile.
As a writer, which I now claim to be in some modest way, my life is made worthwhile by noticing things and then capturing them in some form: photographs, words, music. I don’t always have to record what I see, hear and feel, but they are amplified when I do. And when others tell me that I’ve amplified something they’ve seen, heard or felt, it’s pure joy. Communion.
Last week, pulled up out of sleep too early, abruptly, by the alarm set to get me to church on time to play “Little Drummer Boy,” I was resentful at first. Then I looked through the window and saw a volcanic sunrise. I ran outside with the cats to see it face to face, then filled their bowls as the flaming sky dimmed. And as the nuggets of food clattered into the empty dishes, I remembered a poem I wrote about a sunrise just like this one almost three decades ago. So instead of eating breakfast, I went in search of the poem—and found it (a miracle.) In honor of both miracles, I’m offering it to you.
Red Sky in Morning
This morning’s sun came up like a volcano
erupting the dark,
spilling its molten light across the bottoms of clouds
blowing east, a head-on collision of light waves
and water molecules once vaporized
somewhere over the Pacific
meeting their match
in the Sierra.
I went out to watch it with the cats
who were really watching their bowls, but agreeing
it was a good way for night to end. Low angle,
low latitude, low pressure system—
the lava light stretched all the way to Bakersfield,
hovering over that hot town like a prophecy.
And as we slip toward the solstice—
and that other Beginning,
what toys with my mind are visions
of camels and wise men making their way
through the empty desert of oil derricks,
high-power lines, freeways and canals
to a lowly manger
God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay…
In many ways, what happens at first light is a lot like what happens when we start a new year. Christmas is like a good night’s sleep, where we become reconciled in our relationships, learning from the past year what we need to know for the one to come. As best we can, we make amends, remind ourselves and each other that all we really have in this world is love, that presents are simply tangible representations of that intangible, eternal thing. And then we prepare to begin again as the flaming sunrise fades and the day, the year, moves irresistibly forward.