On my best days, I wake to the darkness. As goes 4:45 a.m., so goes the day. If I slam snooze and roll over when the alarm pierces the dark and hollers me out of bed, the day goes one way. If I make it into my slippers and out of the bedroom before my body changes my mind, it goes another. The entire trajectory of the day is decided across the next ten minutes.
The coffee pot steams and hisses at me like a surly teenager. Is this an early morning rebuke or a salute of some kind? Tentatively I suss my emotions: is the nagging fear there today? Does dread rest heavy on my shoulders yet? Shake them, shrug it off, don’t give it a resting place today. Do I feel that nameless weight and sense the clouds moving in?
Not yet. I am momentarily weightless standing here in the waning night, loose from sleep and freed by unfettered rest. Is it even right to be taking my emotional temperature this early in the morning? Shouldn’t I be telling myself how I feel? Brand new day! Clean slate! Expect to see God’s goodness! His mercies are new every morning! I do believe this. But some days it’s hard for the message to sink into my gut. I need extra time to dress myself in that truth. It requires extra time in the pink chair and lots of silence so I can listen to the still, small voice speaking so much softer than the loud, angry ones in my head. If Legos jab my bare feet in the dark on the way to the pink chair, my first waking words are ugly. If I make it to the chair, toes and coffee intact, I can sink in and sit in the dark and remember how to breathe on purpose. The window by my ear is cracked open, no matter the weather, because I need to listen. Here I am again, Lord. It’s another day. O, help.
Why this early trudge from bed to coffeemaker to chair? I think it’s because the windows of my soul remain open in the darkness before dawn. I need to inhale deeply before the stress knots tighten across my back, before I can’t breathe again. It’s nothing, really, more a nameless weight, but I can stave it off in the mornings. I sit there in the dark, coffee balanced on my lap, a window near my ear cracked open so I can hear the stirring earth. The bugs and birds greet the Lord–and the daylight–often more cheerfully than I do. I need their songs to help me find my own.
I’m not sure I really know how to pray, but I am learning to listen. Simone Weil writes that the highest form of prayer is paying attention, and I am practicing. This is why I rise in the dark. There is less noise. How does the air sound today? Weighty and damp with presence? Dry and sharp? If I am lucky, I close my eyes and listen as the birds wake the dawn. I inhale their morning conversations with each breath. I hear the voice of God in the stillness. And sometimes I talk, though not aloud. The sound of my own voice would shatter the silence. I speak with my fingers and a favorite pen across a page in dim light. If it’s an anxious morning, I write it out until the heaviness abates. If it’s a hormonal morning, I grumble across the page. I tell God what I hear as I listen, how the air feels and what the birds are saying. I hear his voice and it is quiet like the settling of their wings.
I know in part why I’m drawn to the dark hours. I used to think it was good discipline, but I don’t flatter myself like that anymore. I think it’s more akin to desperation. I have a high need for quiet space in my life and moreover in my spirit–and that’s not a negative space which exists until something fills it. It’s a space I must create by pumping silence and stillness into my spirit. Once a friend asked, “So you’d rather get up before dawn because alone time is more valuable to you than sleep?” Yes. I need that time for God to carve his peace and expectation into my spirit for the day. It’s my time to listen for God’s quiet voice and muffle the other clamor. The dark of night can be sad, lonely and afraid, but the dark of morning is somehow protective and optimistic. In the darkness I am able to arm myself for whatever lies ahead. If sunlight hits me first, I’m caught off guard and unprepared.
Thanksgiving, DeBordieu. Morning comes early and easily to the eastern beaches. The air has changed; I can sense it even before I am fully awake. The wind still blows, but it has lost its sting and carries warmer air, whispering of rain that is to come. The undersides of clouds are shell pink, incandescent with the rotund glow of so many baby bellies. There is no sun yet, only hints that she will rise. And so she will, always, even on the darkest days. From my porch swing perch it seems as if all the world is moving, liquid hills and valleys unfurling themselves into snowy foam. Rugged southern pines and dried palmettos are waving at me and snapping their fingers like old friends. “Look here, child. Pay attention. Listen.” Gulls hover high, rising and falling on currents I cannot see. Nor can I see the other early risers, whose childlike calls keep tumbling back to me from some hidden place in the sand. They are gathering shells.
And so am I. These broken things, once homes to living creatures. Those ground shards of glass, softened and worn with tumbling time. The wood from who-knows-where, dark-damp and leggy as a shepherd’s crooked staff. These softened things tell of beauty and hope and pain, a story ever told, as timeless as the sea which though ever-shifting does not change. I return to this ocean year upon year. This particular spot binds me with cords of Spanish moss to home and family, roots as deep as the live oaks’. It is the place of my birth. Something in my spirit knows I am of this earth, here, this sandy soil, this air redolent with wet pine and spent jasmine. This air is easier on my lungs, they struggle less with its softness, as though it were specially formulated for me.
And so, perhaps, it was. Did not God create this earth for us, his creatures? Did he not see me, formed in the dark places, here in the Carolina dawn? Does he not know of what I am made?
And likewise, his oceans. They came first. He separated the darkness and light, the waters and sky and called it good. Constant, though ever-changing. I long to hold steady even in the tumult. I have not so been. I have been a hurricane of late, thrusting, writhing, engulfing those in my path, a vortex of anxiety and fear, inhaling everything and creating nothing but chaos, commotion and disaster.
Could it be that this kinetic energy has spent itself? Perhaps here, sitting with the dawn, I will find stillness? That lightening, thunder, a vast inhalation of everything in my path, have I released it all? Is this peace the relief of the end, or am I simply in the eye of the storm?
Morning returns me to my two fathers: my great Heavenly Father, and my very own earthbound Dad.
This morning urge has filled me for decades: cultivated, sometimes ignored, but relentless and inherited. In every room of my parents’ farmhouse there is a place for reading and writing. Even the bedroom that became a hallway has a tidy desk tucked into a corner, and a comfy chair. The yearning to nestle and notate grew as I did. From before my earliest memories, the scent of my father’s coffee wafted in my waking dreams. Today, even just the aroma of a strong cup makes me feel safe and warm and wrapped in a good father’s love. Recently, I walked into a historic bed-and-breakfast and had an immediate, visceral experience of home; my body responded before my mind understood, and I was suddenly no longer a mother far from home, but a little girl whose daddy was just down the hall. He wasn’t. But the fresh coffee had filled the space of those old walls, and I felt like a child at home, held in the fragrance of faithfulness and love.
This very morning I am here in Dad’s study, in his chair, to soak him into my skin and my spirit. He is away today. My parents are preparing to leave this childhood home, and I can’t bear the thought of anyone else in this room. The musk of hundreds of books mingles with old coffee, aftershave and leather to create the scent I know as my father’s. This room is where my earliest morning memories begin. Come the dark dawn, a faint coffee cloud wound its way up the stairs to my bedroom at the top and nudged my sleeping spirit. The creak of a bulky leather chair rolling across the floor meant Dad had settled in. Most days, at least as I recall, I was the first one down the stairs to climb into Dad’s lap as he sat, fresh-combed and wrapped in his blue terry robe. He smelled like daybreak, talcum and Folger’s. Some days I’d catch him eyes closed, bent over his desk praying. Every day, his Bible and notebooks were open and spread across the desk, a heavy mug steaming beside them. Photos of loved ones were taped onto pages, with careful prayers written beneath them. Decades of prayer journals line the walls of the study still, handwritten testaments to God’s good answers to a father’s prayers. Always, the day began before dawn with coffee and conversations with God.
By the time I awoke, I’d already been blessed.
I know that day breaks eventually, always. Stars fade as the earth turns from the moon towards the sun’s eastern rising. But the day is not properly warmed unless it begins in a quiet room, dimly lit with fervent prayers. I don’t know if prophets drank coffee, but Isaiah understood this. He, too, wrote about the wee hours, describing how “the Sovereign Lord…wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught” (Is. 50:4). I need the help of the Sovereign Lord. I need him to waken my ears to listen, to open them so I will hear. I picture him doing this gently, the way I wake the children on my better days. I sit on their beds in the dark and rub their backs, whispering to them that it’s morning. I finger their spines and stroke their hair and break the news gently. I dim their lights on but not bright, because it would be too much all at once. I let the information sink in slowly. Sometimes I bring tea. One of them needs to sit up and be hugged right away. Snuggle me, Mommy. Help me wake up. It’s just too hard to face another school day alone–he needs to wake up into my arms.
And so it is with me and the Lord. I drag my own self out of bed to the sound of a harsh alarm–but then I wrap up in a soft blanket and curve my fingers around a hot mug and sit with Jesus. Some mornings that’s all I do, sit quietly in the dark. Others I write and rant. There in the darkness I can almost feel him rub my back and stroke my head. He wakens my ears with his whisper of I love you, I am with you, you are neither alone in or fully responsible for all that lies before you in this day.
In the dark of morning’s quiet, I can hear these assurances before the day begins. I don’t hear well in the clamor. I don’t see well in broad daylight. I fall asleep before the night gets silent. But for a few minutes before dawn, in the quiet half-light, I can see and I can hear.
ALLISON GASKINS is the author of several books, including 31 Days of Prayer for My Child. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia, with her husband and five children. Allison works for Mantle Music and Art House America. She writes from a pink chair next to an open window.