This morning, through the window of the garage studio where Claudia and I stay, I saw birds sleeping on the water of the brackish lake. The studio is high on a hill overlooking forest, lake and sea. Chill mists curve across the water and between the trees early in the day. The lake was still like a granite countertop. But looking closely, I could discern bundles of birds. White pelicans and black swans, perched on nearly submerged logs or sandbar islands—still slept.
The water on the lake was warmer than the winter air at sunrise. The big birds and even smaller ducks and coots slept on until the sun was well over the lakeside trees at about ten o’clock.
For the past year or so, I’ve been getting up early most mornings to meditate. Meditation makes me feel good. That’s how grown-up I am now: I genuinely like salads, monogamy and meditation.
After a lifetime with a brain full of often senseless noise, like chronic inflammation, meditation brings relief. Part of the irritating chatter in my head is pop songs. Almost every night and day of my life, it seems, I’ve had pop songs or (worse) advertising jingles carving grooves among my neurones. I can recall spinning around the yard singing Beatles songs as a three-year-old, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’. Meditation turns the party down. But I still wake up with a song in my head every day. This morning, singing The Lazy Song, and seeing the birds sleeping led me to reflect on what gets us out of bed.
I think the swans and pelicans get hungry and their bodies push them to search for worms and fish. Perhaps some of us humans are woken by caffeine withdrawal.
For my darling Claudia, what gets her up (although not at dawn) is her camera. She needs a daily dose of the natural world—spectacular weather, interaction with the birds and animals. Wherever we go, she finds that.
A white-bellied sea eagle flies past here several times a day on its way to the lake or the ocean. Claudia has her camera by the sliding door and rushes out to snap at it. ‘Come over here and get your photo taken. You are magnificent,’ she murmurs to the bird. Sometimes the eagle is chased by a nearby raven or the small birds, keen to repel it from their nests. Other times we watch for twenty minutes at a time as it catches spiralling draughts up into the stratosphere.
Yesterday afternoon when Claudia went onto the balcony with her camera to chase the eagle, (which flew far away at speed), a whale breached with a thunderous crash in the ocean not far away. Claudia watched the whale, an energetic young one, explore the bay. I was on the phone about a job as she excitedly tried to mime what had happened. She made me grin but I did not understand her, even if I know that if there’s a whale around, she’ll see it.
My life was not always so exotic. There were years in the city when I got myself out of bed by wondering what to eat. I’d wake up calculating where I was in the pay fortnight and how much we ate the night before. Was there left-over pizza or rice and dahl? Was there cheese to eat with Ryvitas? This elemental way of thinking explains the popularity of breakfast cereals.
That conversation goes, ‘There’s crunchy sugar in a box! I’ll get up.’
Last year I was up early most days to care for someone, one of the best reasons to get up.
Decades ago, it was usually my child who motivated me to get up. The ways he got me up varied as he grew. When he could, he crawled on the bed and explored the adults’ eyelids and nostrils—an effective way to wake them up. Later, cartoons on the television and the ring of a spoon on a cereal bowl spoke of growing independence and fifteen minutes more shut-eye for mum.
In school years, my child had to get up and go, the same way most of us have to go to work. It wasn’t always easy. I still feel sad when I see adults on the city transit dragging themselves to jobs they might hate, or at least resent, to keep the rent paid and food on the table. At least the school kids get to learn.
And how they learn, drinking up all the knowledge the world can offer them. Walking around the city or catching trains and buses, my boy and I enjoyed each others’ company, watching people, discussing the neighbourhood gardens or factories. Or dinosaurs. By the time he was nine or ten, though, I think what got him up in the morning was wanting to experience the thrill of a new packet of basketball cards.
Those glossy bits of cardboard with stories on the back brought him delight. He cracked the codes of statistics about each player. He understood why this or that player had earned a gold-bordered collectors card. I have a photo of him standing on his bed next to a poster of Magic Johnson, wearing Jordan shoes (that cost a week’s pay), so happy and proud to be growing bigger. In the afternoons, on the way home from school, a trip to the card shop was a pretty easy way to make his day.
His father found him albums—vinyl-covered photo albums discarded or remaindered at the dawn of digital—and many hours were spend reading, sorting, arranging—decision-making—laying out the cards in bulky books.
One afternoon when the boy was eleven, we went into the city to a demonstration. We left his basketball card albums in the back of our car, parked in the alley. Returning to the car, we found a window smashed; the cards were stolen.
His parents’ pain was probably as deep as the boys’ but had a different quality. All those years of collecting and dreaming, gone in an afternoon. That trust, broken.
The cards were presumably stolen by a drug addict hoping for cash to fund their habit.
A friend who is a former injecting drug user told me once that heroin made her feel like she was being held.
What a mess you can get yourself into, stealing a kid’s basketball card collection so that you can inject chemicals to feel like you got a hug. That’s about as lonely as it gets.
But it’s not just drug dealers who sell people ridiculous reasons to get up and face the day. The way I see it, many people are driven by addictions that can be ultimately as harmful, if more socially acceptable. Some people are driven by a competitive desire to look a particular unachievable way. Others feel forced to accumulate things which are the latest in fashion or technology—things much bigger and more impactful than sports cards. Many people have unpleasant voices in their heads that arise from a poor, repetitive and exploitative education, whether on television, on the net or in the schoolyard. Many of us are unaware of our thoughts and where they come from. Many of us feel powerless to question our thoughts, identifying ourselves with our thoughts and not liking the result.
The world now has mountains of superseded electrical goods and huge islands of plastic containers that testify to the harmful consequences of lives spent in pursuit of nebulous goals and insecurities, not thought through. Why do we need to keep buying ready-cooked meals in plastic? Why do we still need to burn fossil fuels? Because we have no time. Why do we have no time? Because we are constantly distracted from what we would really like to do with our lives. And because we are destroying the planet. The urgency creates the problem that aggravates the urgency.
There's a need to think things through, but not many people have the time.
I returned to writing this in the cozy studio at the end of the day. The sun went down over the lake below, casting a pink and orange haze from behind the distant mountains. The birds have gone to bed while I sat here at the computer, dreaming of the angular, grey city.
My son is a man now, kind, well-loved and powerful as I could ever wish him to be. His father lives in other mountains with his wife and their daughter. Our son remains knowledgeable about (and good at playing) basketball.
My wife and I see, hear and feel things that inspire awe and connection between us and with this magnificent planet every day.
Not every morning is about eagles and pelicans. Many days you get up because you have to go to work, or you got your period, or your body just wakes up because sleep, lovely as it is, is not a sustainable state of being. Activity begets rest. Rest stimulates activity.
Not every morning is Endless Love or Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Some days I wake up singing Bohemian Rhapsody, Moving Out Today or Industrial Disease. Some days I just get up like a big, cumbersome pelican and before I know it, I’m full of fish and flying.
Thumbnail of toddler exploring by Alexander Dummer.