Saturday, May 10, 2008
Most mornings I feel the tick of the clock like a physical tapping on my brain. From the moment I wake up I am aware of having rejoined the flow of time as it picks up speed after a long slow stretch of sleep. If my days are a river, then weekday work mornings are the stretch where the river leaves a deep, calm pool and starts to pick up speed for a run through some rocky rapids.
For this reason, I like Saturday mornings. A lot. On Saturdays I don’t have to be anywhere until 9:15 at the very earliest. And even then, it is simply to drop my daughter at a math activity that she loves. From there I am free again for another hour. It is hardly onerous. On Saturdays, the flow of the day never really gets much faster than it is when I wake up. I wish my weekday mornings could have more of this lazy flavor to them, but often my bad habits get in the way. I need coffee right away. I need to run through my favorite websites and check my e-mail right away. My morning habits are not conducive to peace and calm.
Lately I have been trying to create new habits in my life—habits that will help me feel more relaxed, more centered, more in control of my own hours. In this search for a little peace in my life I have remembered something I learned fifteen years ago and then slowly forgotten.
NY Times article on habits.
I spent four or five summers in the early 1990s working on various Indian reservations in Montana. I was hired by a non-profit corporation called Visions International to lead groups of upper- and upper middle-class teenagers from the New York area to Montana to perform community service work. My favorite location by far was a small village in the Southeast corner of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The village was called Birney and it had no mall, no movie theater, no stores at all. Not even a gas station. There was nothing in Birney except about twenty or twenty-five HUD houses.
One of the men in the village was named Mike. Mike is a Sioux who married a Northern Cheyenne woman named Florence. Mike worked for me as a staff person with the teenagers. But this doesn’t really describe our relationship very well. It was far from that of manager and staff person.
One morning, about two weeks into my first summer program in Birney, I woke up in the trailer where I slept with the eight teenage boys in the group. It was five in the morning and instantly my brain seized on the long list of logistical details I needed to address that day. But, because it was five a.m., I couldn’t do a thing about anything on the list. The hardware store in Billings was not yet open, the grocery store in Lame Deer was shut, the laundromat in Colstrip wouldn’t be open for another two hours. The girls in the group were sleeping in the old church right next to the kitchen so I couldn’t even go make some coffee because it would have woken them up.
I couldn’t get back to sleep so I put on some clothes and went for a walk through the sage scrub just outside of town. As I walked through the chill of an early July morning my hands were deep in my pockets, my shoulders were hunched, my eyes were focused on the ground about ten feet ahead of my steps, and my brain was revving itself up way too fast.
As I walked I heard the unmistakable sounds of someone walking in the distance behind me. I stopped and turned to see Mike making his way slowly down the same trail I had just passed. I started walking again, but with a much slower pace so that Mike could catch up if he wanted to. After just a few moments Mike fell into stride next to me. We nodded to each other in greeting, but didn’t say anything right away. We walked quietly side by side for a good fifteen minutes with Mike pointing things out to me with a quick jut of his chin to direct my attention to a coyote on a ridgeline, a meadowlark on a fencepost, the Morningstar dimming as the sun brightened.
As we returned to the village Mike stopped and leaned on a fence post to look out at the playground we were building for the children of Birney. I stopped too. Mike is not a preachy man. In fact, he is quite the opposite. He is stingy with advice, even when asked directly. But on that particular morning Mike must have seen that I needed something. Apropos of nothing, Mike said, “Do you know how I try to start each day?”
Sensing even then that I was about to be given something that I would hold forever, I said, “I don’t…tell me.”
“I stand outside alone, before there is much going on, and I face each of the four directions, starting with the East and the sunrise and working my way around to end with the North. And then I direct my attention up to the sky and then down to the Earth, and I say out loud, ‘Good morning East, South, West, and North. Good morning sky. Good morning Mother Earth. Please watch over me this day and help me keep my heart at the center of all I feel and say and do today.’”
I have no belief in God or any sort of caring creator, but this prayer rang true to me. So now, when I remember and can make the time, I like to take my dog Ginger for a walk early on school days instead of wasting the time dinking around on the Internet. As we walk, I think my way through Mike’s morning greeting and it never fails to get me to a quieter, slower place from which I can start my day. I am hoping this habit will grow and out-compete the other, more stressful and less productive habits I have already developed.