6:00 A.M., July 6, 2001
I awakened a half-hour ago and stumbled out of bed to use the bathroom. A glimmer of light comes in the window from the northeast, and in the stillness I hear birds beginning to stir outside, and light traffic on the freeway a quarter of a mile away. Immediately I am taken back to my youth, remembering different times when I was up and about at this time of the morning. Itís one of those times that prompt half-baked writers to sit down and begin scribbling, trying to hang on to a mood, wallowing in nostalgia, trying to taste again the flavors of the past.
Like the summer when I was maybe fourteen, and I suddenly became obsessed with the dawn, and woke myself up deliberately every morning to go out and sit on the front steps of our apartment to watch the birds greet the new day. I donít know what started it; maybe some night of carousing until dawn, dragging my weary body home in the growing light and discovering a rich new world of sound, smells and beauty, and wanting to experience it again. Iíd sit there, sometimes with our dog Rascal at my side, and listen to the changes in the sounds the birds madeófirst, before the dimmest gleam of light in the sky theyíd murmur to each other, sleepy little chirps, now from one tree and then from another. Soon, as the light grew, thereíd be a whole chorus of talking from the leaves, not singing at all but just that sleepy mumbling that children do when awakened early. Then, an occasional bird would flutter to the lawn and begin pecking for breakfast in the dew-laden grass. Almost no flying, just floating down from the tree with a few beats of their wings to break the fall. Then another would appear, and another, until the lawn was covered with small birds, urged on by the growing cacophony of cries from their nests: "Breakfast!"
I donít know how long it all took, but by the time I was cold and hungry myself, the sun was peaking through the branches, and traffic noises mixed with the smell of fresh coffee was drowning out my awareness of the birds, which were now engaged in their ordinary routine of flying and feeding and whatever else they do with their days. Fatigue would then drive me back to bed, and later my mother would come into my room to remind me of my responsibilities to the world, just another recalcitrant teen-ager.
Another time I was enchanted by the dawn was the time our scout troupe went fishing. I was twelve, and anxious to fit into a new group. Iíd had no experience with outdoor things; my dad was away a lot, and had never taken me fishing or camping. This time, we met at the church well before daybreak, standing under the yard light, cold and sleepy and murmuring like those birds, dragging our fishing poles, sipping hot chocolate provided by the eager men who had arranged the expedition, and then packed ourselves into the cars for a short drive to the river. Stumbling through the dark down to the boats, I had wished I were still home in my warm bed, but curious about what this "fishing" was all about. We launched the rowboats in the first light of day, and floated quietly out into the slow-moving water, watching the morning mists hovering at just about eyelevel, listening to the quiet thumping and splashing of oars and the whispers of boys carrying over the smooth surface from the other boats. I couldnít stop shivering, whether from the cold or the excitement of the moment, caught up in a totally new experience.
But we didnít catch any fish at all that morning, in spite of all the help we had from the adults, who showed us how to impale salmon eggs on our hooks and instructed us in the age-old procedure for setting our lines out so that the bait would be at just the right depth under our red and white bobbers. By the time the sun appeared over the trees, I was thoroughly chilled, cranky with fatigue, and unbelievably famished. The mist disappeared, and it was suddenly just an ordinary, familiar day again. All around were boats full of boys, fully awake now, beginning to joke and laugh, and adults shushing them and telling them that their movements in the boats were scaring the fish away. I kept thinking of my stomach. An hour after I became convinced that I would immediately eat raw any fish I caught, they herded us all back to the dock, out of the boats and into the cars again. At the church, other adults had prepared bacon and eggs and pancakes and hot chocolate. Never in my short life had I tasted or smelled anything so wonderful!
Then there were the dawns of traveling, of being awakened from sound sleep to stuff my arms and legs into my clothes, barely able to keep my eyes open, grab my belongings and stumble out to the car, feeling the slap of cold air on my face, hearing the trucks shifting gears on the road, smelling exhaust and pine trees, snuggling against the others to get warm again as we drove off into the graying sky and breakfast an hour down the road.
This morning it is just I and our dog Tasha, opening our senses to the dawn, she with her nose in the wet grass, hurrying after whatever it was that had left their scent on some nocturnal pathway. The birds stir nearby, and a truck shifts gears somewhere. These days I can no longer smell the morning very clearly. My mind keeps flitting off to other dawns, when the world was newer, fresher, and incredibly wonderful.
So, just what is it about the dawn that seems so special? One thing, for sure, is simply the novelty of it. A few times in my life Iíve had to get up before dawn to go to work, and if that was special, I donít remember it. During World War Two, Daylight Saving Time was extended year-round for some political reason, and I was going to school in the dark during the winter. It felt weird, not special.
Maybe itís also the feeling that I have some extra time, a little piece of time when nothing is expected of me, so I can indulge myself and drink from this sensual bounty, stop and just be here, without having to go someplace or get ready to go someplace or look for my homework or my shoes. Just being here is in itself special. Itís seldom that I am this aware of whatís going on around me. My mind is fresh and less cluttered by needs and fears and regretsóthings that are about the past and future. I can, as Ram Daasís book title urges, "Be Here, Now." We areóor at least, I amóso seldom present in a moment. Even when Iím supposed to be paying attention, my mind is often far away. When Iím driving, I sometimes stop and wonderódid I stop for that stop sign back there? Having just awakened from the process of sleep, that surely is designed to allow the dust in our minds to settle, let us fluff the pillows and straighten the place a little for the next day, we usually wake up a bit clearer about who and where we are.
And maybe thatís what the dawn is, as well. The pace of things is not yet geared up for action. The birds twitter softly in the trees, noticing that they are alive (and hungry), checking to make sure the world is safe, pausing for just a moment. I, too, pause in this place, and notice that I am alive.
Donald Skiff, July 6, 2001