Johnny Carson once asked George Burns if it was true that he only slept about four hours a night. Burns replied that it was, in fact, true. Carson seemed surprised and asked him, “What in the world do you do then, when you can’t sleep??” Burns shrugged and said, “I get up.”
It took me some time to appreciate the simplicity of that response, to let go of some sort of expectation that I “should be” tired or I am “supposed to be asleep right now.” I’m not tired, like this morning when I woke at four. I wasn’t groggy, I wasn’t overly occupied by imposing thoughts. So, I got up.
I headed south and then east and arrived at the oceanfront about a half hour before the sun, as if we agreed to meet for breakfast, me carrying my bottle of water, the sun pushing an awakening Atlantic before it. I checked the weather app and saw our appointment was for 6:37; I was early, though I can see the sun’s foreglow coming across the horizon, so I knew it would be on time. I walked the sand for a while.
This is so simple, I thought as I walked my way up the beach at the water’s edge. This clearly didn’t take planning, didn’t demand money or rearranging of responsibilities, and the only consideration I had was how long did I have before I needed to be somewhere else. This morning: about an hour. Experience reminds me and anticipation informs me this is likely to be the most peaceful hour of the day; it is packed with hope and possibility, like the glimmer of light just cracking the dark blue sky, the just-waning moon fading in the west, the passing dolphins and gulls and osprey and pelicans who know nothing of being “late” to anything. I am convinced that dawn has swept in and saved me more than a few times.
These mornings remind me how often I create my own stress by not pacing myself better, by not taking a few extra moments. My son and I have risen early at home several times a month to take in the sunrise at the bay, before even the watermen have made their way out past the reach. And at night, well, at night we have seen more sunsets together in the past two decades than I can possibly count. Not one of them was redundant, not one disappointing, and never did I think I should have been doing something else.
I am not avoiding responsibility; I am pushing the edges out just a little, just a very little, to fit perspective into the fold, to allow for the purpose both coming and going to reveal itself to me.
I swear sometimes at the end of the day when we’re standing on the sand at the river and the yellow, then orange, then something like deep maroon seems to sink below the western strand, I almost hear it whisper “Thank you for noticing.”
I need to stop thinking about things at three in the morning. Nothing good can come of it. I’m not going to solve any problems at that hour, and, in fact, can easily take current ones and open the deepest, most vile aspects of what might only be minor inconveniences during the day.
But it is three am and I’m awake anyway, and I’m not going back to sleep now since I planned to get up at five to make an hour and a half drive before rush hour. So I’m up, and my mind races right toward a few issues which I know, I mean I’m convinced, will be just passing thoughts after breakfast. At this hour the cut on my ear is a rare form of some deadly disease, my income is dried up to nothing and I can maybe sell the wicker furniture I never use and use the money to buy spaghetti, and the bee I saw yesterday circling on the grass is an indication of one of the state’s largest hives just below the surface of the front lawn, and it’s going to cost thousands to hire an expert to move them to some other place.
I have a love/hate relationship with three am.
On the one hand in just a few minutes I’m usually conscious enough to remind myself I’m not yet fully conscious, and I can maybe understand that a weak mind prone to depression can relegate the best of who we are to some dark corner of the brain just to let the pessimistic angels have a free-for-all on the frontal lobe. On the other hand—and this might be the creative writing professor in me—dreams, whether while sleeping or only kinda sorta sleeping, often reveal some darker truths which need addressing but which get smothered by the forward motion and sun-infused, vitamin D stimulants of the day.
But those truths—health, money, yellow-jackets—might need to be addressed and might be what wakes me up at three am to begin with.
Some people, I am told, always have complete control of their minds. I am not among them. Usually, of course, I am at the helm, even when the headwinds are seemingly unbearable and the seas seem rough. But there are times when some shadow-like mental glaucoma glazes over my mind and it simply goes where it wishes. This is the baggage carried by creative people, those who fight depression—chemical or situational—and those who didn’t get enough done on some project the rest of the world deems superficial, but which others count as essential to being able to breathe in and out.
And all of this bounces through my head while I sit here at my desk and it is now 3:35. I’ve dressed, too, and showered, and I’m going to head out early. 7/11 is not far, so caffeine-induced full consciousness is not far, clarity, the ability to put life in perspective and delegate these issues to their proper importance.
Sometimes I forget I live in the country near a river and a bay so there’s nothing but natural light at 3:45 am.
I step off the porch and am immediately taken aback by Orion, by the Pleiades, by the vast distance between stars and the immeasurable possibility that can be found in hope. There is no pharmaceutical that can replace this stimulant; no amount of caffeine can disrupt this majestic truth of night.
I love waking at 3 am. Clearly, I pay a price; I must dive first into the dark waters, but when I brush aside the clouds of unknowing, I am awash with possibility again.
It’s windy out this afternoon, and the sky has turned grey. The bay is pounding the rocks and has become choppy enough to keep most watermen ashore. Just to the southeast about 120 nautical miles, storm surge and high tides continue to lash out at Kitty Hawk and Jockey’s Ridge, and just a few fathoms from there Hurricane Dorian has imposed her destructive ambitions along the southeast coast. This far north on the Chesapeake will be spared this time, though by this time tomorrow, the high tides combined with tropical force winds and torrential rain will make for a tense afternoon.
But this is life. This is primetime for those who live this close to the water. That’s just the way it is. For me, though, being out there, feeling the wind and rain, close to the currents as the waves come ashore, is, well, exhilarating. I’m not ignorant to the dangers—just the opposite; I’ve been around hurricanes the better part of my life. It’s just that when it is bad, but not that bad, it is good to be outside, touching life with wet hands, feeling the energy in the pounding surf.
Hang in there. I’m not out of my mind.
Van Gogh wrote, “There is peace even in the storm.” I understand that. When it rains hard, or the wind is fierce and I can hear branches snap, as long as I am safe it all simply reminds me that I am alive to experience this weather, this turn of currents, this atmospheric screwball, and I feel somehow calmer and even more alive. Of course I love the perfect weather, the calm day with low humidity and pleasant sunshine. But equally, to experience the rain on my face, getting drenched, reaching out and being a part of the earth and nature instead of it simply being something “around” me or something “outside” or on the news, floods my senses and elevates my awareness to keep everything else in perspective. For those of us who spend so much time in nature, it is the next natural digression.
So when severe weather arrives, we shift our thoughts to survival mode and pray no one gets hurt and our property is spared, and above all else that we come out of it alive. And when some system swirls off the African coast and creeps its way up the Saffir-Simpson Scale, it throws our lives into a whirlwind of measuring value and understanding perspective to “finally” discover what is essential in our lives, in our hearts. Hell, just a little rain should do the same thing, shouldn’t it? When impending storms send everyone into “I’m just glad for what I have” mode, I understand with absolute clarity how the mundane repetition of everyday life induces coma-like observation of life around us and our place in the world, our brief and expedient place in the world.
The tragedy of life is its persistent subtlety. Days pass without notice; I forgot what day of the week it is; geez, is it Sunday already?
Life changes like the weather, and the weather is constantly changing, and so are we. The storm will pass, of course, as does time. And while it is tragically true that in the wake of this treacherous weather too many poor souls have been lost, far too many lives have been crushed, the reality of this whirlwind life we live on this spinning globe is that no one is going to survive—no one—despite the fact that how we apparently live our lives points discouragingly to the contrary. Don’t be hard on the passing storms; for some it’s the only time they even notice life at all.