I’ve never been a morning person. Living in a family of early risers, this became somewhat of a joke and somewhat of a given. Really though, it was rather painful. For as long as I can remember, my family would assume that I wouldn’t be up in time for any early morning activity and they started to plan them without me. My brother and my dad’s entire relationship was based on their shared tendency to get up before 6am; I got used to being regaled with adventures of trips to the hardware store, long walks, boat rides that took place before I even opened my eyes.
I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. Lying in bed, fragments of dreams would linger uncomfortably on my consciousness as the blue numbers of the digital clock blared oppressively. I would blink and five minutes would have gone by, then ten, twenty. In those early moments of consciousness where you barely know who you are, where you are, my stomach would feel beautifully calm. A calm so rare, I barely recognized it before the thoughts started to filter in, first a few trickles, but soon a downpour.
A curling in my stomach would soon morph into a deep ache and I would clutch my stomach and roll over, unwilling to get out of bed. After retrieving each worry from the day before, my thoughts would turn towards the day ahead. From between the sheets, each task, each event in that day would seem almost impossibly difficult. Imagined plans and scenarios would circulate around and around my mind until I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move. And the numbers on the digital clock kept blinking.
Eventually I would get out of bed. Sometimes I would go back, but I rarely managed to start manifesting any alarming signs of depression. It was a mini-depression morning depression I would tell myself. And, in truth, by mid-morning something would have typically shocked me into a lighter, more freer mindset. I would recognize that things were not nearly as hard as I had imagined them to be that morning, thinking almost with curiosity of the me who lay in bed, unable to find the excitement and joy that I typically see so readily.
As I grew older, I slowly got better at waking up early. The teenage me was horrified about the prospect of exercising in the morning but, last summer as a camp counselor, I would wake at 5 or 6am and practice yoga or go for a swim in the mist covered lake, relishing the way my body cut through the glass-like water. At home, my family didn’t believe it at first, commenting repeatedly, “what are you doing up so early?” laughing when I told them that I was now a morning person. It was a proud moment, the morning on our last family vacation when I woke up and went out for coffee and breakfast with my dad before my brother even got out of bed.
But mornings were still a time of stomachaches and sullen thoughts. I’ve always enjoyed breakfast but, long ago, it turned into some sort of war. I would wake up with a feeling in my stomach that warns against the intake of any food. But I would also often so depleted from poor digestion that my body begged for some sort of energy, some sort of feeling of normalcy. Do I do anything to avoid putting anything in me, crawling back into bed if sleep is the only thing I can manage? Or do I eat breakfast so that my cells can regain a fuller state, so that I can wake back up into a feeling of myself, so that I can start my day?
It’s only recently that I have recognized the extent my perfectionism has infiltrated every aspect of my life, including the way I approach mornings. I’ve tried keeping a dream journal, practicing yoga, running and meditating. I’ve tried gratitude practice and stream of consciousness writing. I tried drinking tea first thing and eating only warm breakfast foods. Often these practices would seem to work and I would get seduced by the comfort of daily patterns. But I always seem to find a way to fight against any form of rigidity that I impose on myself. Ultimately, the underlying pressure I put on myself to wake up and feel good largely undid any of the benefits of these practices.
Then, ten days ago, I started dog sitting for a very old dog named Dixie whose three-times daily bathroom schedule started to dominate mine. Now the digital clock blinked 8am and I had to get out of bed. It didn’t matter how much my stomach hurt or the fact that I had gone to bed past 2. Searching around the house for my coat, keys and some plastic baggies, my mind didn’t have time to sink into it’s habitual deluge of thoughts. Someone’s bladder was waiting on me.
When Dixie hunts for a spot to go to the bathroom, it looks almost wolf-like. Except that she is less than two feet tall and looks more like a white puffball than a wolf.
It’s at those moments when she’s hunting for a spot to pee that she seems most alive. Her eyes and ears have failed her—in the house she bumps into walls and jumps each time I reach out to pet her—but outside her nose is her guide and she’s free to roam in circles, taking her time to find the right spot.
When Dixie pees I rejoice. When she poops, I feel prouder than a parent. Not only does it mean that we can finally go back inside, but it means she’s still healthy and alive. One day she didn’t poop at all and, by the end of the day, I was miserable.
Perhaps it’s the knowledge that this little charge of mine has eliminated and/or the effect of some early rays of sunshine, but I always come back inside to make breakfast feeling lighter. I’m fully awake now and, without time for my mind to revisit the day before, today feels fresh.
Caring for Dixie has given me insight into why it can be so hard for parents to let their kids grow up. There’s something that feels profoundly good about having another being to worry about beside yourself. Your problems don’t quite matter as much, because someone is depending on you. And even if you question the purpose of a lot of what you do, caring for that dog, that child has purpose.
My dog sitting days will soon be up and I’m afraid the next logical step is not to pop out a baby. My mornings will once again manifest themselves in a different way and I have no illusions that they will always be easy. But, from Dixie, I have learned the value of doing something that brings you outside, either literally or figuratively. A distraction of sorts, but one that makes you feel good, purposeful, alive. It’s less about trying to feel good, but about doing something good, and perhaps if you let go of any attachment to it, the good feeling will come later.
Early in life, often within the context of our families, we develop ideas of who we are. But it’s an exhilarating notion, the notion that you can always change. The notion that the couch potato could become an athlete, the business executive could become an artist, the introvert could become a socialite, the late riser could become an early bird. And though it may have taken a long time for that egg to lay, it doesn’t really matter. Right now we can rejoice in the feeling of being newly hatched.