Early to Bed, Early to Rise

“Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have.” Lemony Snicket

One of my current personal practices of this school year is choosing to wake up at 3:50 am three out of five work days.  I’ll state the obvious:  It’s not fun at the moment the alarm sounds.  Messages, vying for attention, encourage me to hit the snooze button and/or skip the early wake up, “just this one day.”  After all, one time won’t hurt me.  Those messages are strong, loud, and clear as sleep threatens to overtake me, especially now that it is full-on winter with its early morning chill and darkness. I want to be weak and give in, but I know if I give in once, I’ll give in again and again until I ultimately return to old habits that tend to stress me out. 

To be clear, the other two work days, I get up one hour later–4:50 am–which, trust me, feels like a treat.  By the weekend, I’m exceptionally foot-loose and fancy free, setting the alarm for 5:50, which feels like being served up a warm brownie with ice cream on top! 

Okay, okay, perhaps I am being a tad bit dramatic, but the point is that I’ve discovered, after several months of implementation, that waking up early fairly consistently each morning offers me numerous benefits, many of which were unexpected. It began mostly as a way to get in a workout first thing in the morning before going to work, and that is still one of the main motivating reasons.  However, I discovered that I was reaping a few unexpected benefits as well.

Checking off goals in the predawn hours.

I became curious and wondered if I was merely experiencing some sort of placebo effect or if there was any solid data/research to support my anecdotal benefits.  Therefore, I began to nose around the internet gleaning information from various sites, trying to stick to the more reputable sources of research.  

*Early risers tend to be more proactive about their day

One of the first sources I ran across cited Harvard’s Biologist’s (Christoph Randler) work pointing to the fact that early morning risers tend to be more proactive.  This is due to the fact that they must think ahead and organize for the morning the previous evening in an attempt to anticipate and minimize potential issues. I can attest to the fact that I had to learn early in the process the importance of nightly organization in order for the early morning routine to flow efficiently.  

I continued reading on to learn more.  Here are a few more positive benefits to rising early according to those with more expertise than me: 

*Ability to accomplish most important task(s) (or personal goal) first thing

Since the early morning hours are typically the quietest, the mind (and schedule) are  fairly clear, freeing early risers to focus on the most important, or most challenging, goal of the day–in my case, that’s usually some sort of 5-10 minute devotional, followed by 30-40 minutes of writing/editing/revising/updating website, and finally about 2-3 minutes of clearing out junk work emails that accumulate overnight in my inbox and making note of important emails to tackle first thing at work.  I do these few tasks while sipping a cup of coffee allowing me to feel a small sense of accomplishment, even before I head to the gym. In fact, according to the Harvard Review, in a 2010 study, that early morning sense of accomplishment, sets the tone for your day, allowing early risers to feel more agreeable, optimistic, and conscientious.  Who knew?

Empty, or near empty gym, is an added bonus to the early morning wake-up, especially in the age of COVID.

*Morning exercise boosts the brain 

As a general rule, exercise benefits the body and mind, no matter what time of day it is completed.  However, people with busy schedules find that they are better able to stick with an exercise routine by completing it in the morning. As an added bonus, working out in the morning allows early risers to take advantage of all of the feel-good endorphins produced by the brain after exercise.  Plus, exercise reduces heart disease, boosts brain cognition, regulates blood sugar and weight, and tends to improve your mood. Therefore, if completing the workout in the morning ensures that you don’t miss a workout, then early risers are checking several boxes before the start of the official workday. Check, check, and check!

*Outlook and sleep quality improves while risk for depression decreases

Typically, those who wake early, tend to go to bed earlier, and experience overall better sleep quality which can positively increase outlook.  We can all relate to how we feel after a horrible night of tossing and turning, especially on a Sunday night after a weekend of sleeping in, when sleep seems so elusive.  According to the Sleep Foundation, by keeping a fairly consistent daily wake-up time, including the weekends, you can maintain your circadian rhythm, allowing you to fall asleep faster and sleep better.  Additionally, a 2012 study conducted by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research confirms that early risers tend to have more consistent sleep leading to healthy, happy, and overall sense of well-being. Moreover, recent 2021 studies, one published in JAMA Psychiatry and an additional one published in Molecular Psychiatry, point to the fact that rising early can significantly reduce your risk for depression as well as other mental illnesses.

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*Increased productivity

Rising early has been shown to increase productivity by enhancing one’s ability to problem solve according to the Journal of Sleep Research.  It also turns out that waking up early reduces stress (Think: beating the stress of morning rush hour), increases alertness, and minimizes forgetfulness.  Early risers have more time to acclimate to the day by moving beyond that sleep inertia period–that slower moving time period when thinking can still be foggy and the body is not fully awake–increasing focused concentration upon arrival at work, and thereby potentially increasing productivity.  Additionally, they have time to complete more tasks before becoming overtired, a major culprit of forgetfulness.  

On the way to work as the sun is rising and several daily goals have already been checked!

In the end, most researchers agree that by implementing a fairly consistent bedtime/wake-up routine, it is possible to train your body to wake up early. One thing is for sure, I like my sleep as well as the next person, and I certainly don’t enjoy those first moments of the alarm sounding, especially on those three extra-early days.  However, the benefits I have discovered, and now confirmed, far outweigh those few moments of discomfort.  I am able to meet my daily writing goals, miss fewer workouts while exercising in a fairly empty gym without being dog-tired from work, and I am much more energized and positive, well, most days.  The only caveat: I am typically in bed, no later than 9:00 pm, much to my family’s chagrin–not they really mind.

I won’t claim early rising is for everyone, but it’s working for me.  Nor can I say that I will do it forever, but for the time being, I will continue with my pre-dawn rising.  If it was good enough for Ben Franklin, one of the greatest inventors ever, it should work for a simple school teacher and writer, like me.  Who’s in with me?

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Cardinal Song and Snowstorm Memories

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”–Maya Angelou

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“Stethie, you should always feed the red birds when it snows. You want them to stay near you.”

Papaw spoke these words with his sincere eyes imploring mine on a snowy winter day.  I was living with my grandmother and him during my first two years as an educator, and during this time, I came to realize what bird-lovers they both were, especially during the winter months.  

When I prodded him to tell me more, I don’t remember his precise answer, but I do recall that he talked about the cardinal’s beauty and goodness, especially when compared to the Blue Jay– the species for which Papaw was NOT a fan.  I am certain he gave me a more detailed explanation about the importance of cardinals, but like so many memories, only the basic understanding of his words remains with me.

A long image of 2016 snow, when my daughter would periodically go out with a yardstick to measure the snow’s depth.

I was reminded of this feeling on a recent January morning, the day after precipitation conspired with plunging temperatures to instigate a snow storm as the inches of fluffy white accrued.  With the arrival of dusk, winter’s hush settled over the surrounding hills and valley in which I live, as our yard residents, the cardinals, chirped their familiar song of, “cheer, cheer, cheer,” wrapping my family and me with a serene sense of quietude.  My mind floated with the flakes, and I began quickly flipping through the pages of snow days past. 

Remembrances of my youth-self entering the backdoor of my childhood home after hours of playing in the snow.  I would be ensconced inside layers of snowy, wet clothes, and my play-shoes were sucked into clear galoshes that would break me out into a sweat as I struggled to take them off.   In rapid fire succession, my mind meandered from my own childhood snow days to more recent reminiscences of my daughter’s days in the snow.  

One of the last times, I believe, my daughter “played” in the snow with friends during college.

Those seemingly not-so distant days of watching her teach our beloved dog, Rusty, how to pull her through the yard on a red sled, and the way she taught him to play “catch” with snowballs.  Rusty would catch the snow, then proceed to eat it, slinging slobbering snow-froth with every shake of his head.  Like the 8mm films my grandfather once proudly recorded and presented, my family memories reeled on . . .

Get the yardstick and measure again, that’s another inch more for sure.

Why haven’t they called school off yet?

Spoon under pillow, pajamas inside out and backwards;

It’s what they said to do for a guaranteed snow day tomorrow

Screams of delight with morning light; I’m really out for the whole day?

Dog tracks follow girl tracks, two pals capering about the sparkling white

Snow persons with carrot noses, button eyes, tree limb arms, and purple cap; “Can I have a scarf for it too?” 

Sled rides down the neighbor’s hill, “Rusty, pull, boy, pull!”

Grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, comfort food to warm a rumbly tummy.

Wet clothes in dryer; boots and damp dog by the fire until

Back outside she goes with a whoop and a holler, “Come on, Rusty! Come on, boy!” 

Tail waggin’, he’s hobbles into action; wherever she roams, he’ll go

More hours spent, giggles and barks galore; “Oh, Rusty! You silly boy!”

Hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies for her, and plenty of kibble for him.

Get out the crockpot, and make some veggie soup; I hope we have saltines.

Steph, how ‘bout a glass of wine?

No, really, I shouldn’t.

Well, maybe just a glass that turns into two

Jigsaw puzzle covers one end of the table, making the edges first.

Scrabble tiles are intersecting lines; Are you sure that is a word?

May I stay up a little bit longer?

What about a movie? There’s a new one I hear.

Can we read two chapters tonight? 

But we’re at a good part. How‘bout one more chapter, pleeease?

Covers piled high, snuggled up under chin; the day, like all good things, must end

Sigh! How swiftly the hands of time spin.

The next morning, I stood at the kitchen window, coffee mug in hand, watching large flakes drift down, observing my cardinal friends, and drinking in their sing-song calls.  There are three cardinal couples living in different parts of our yard; they took up noticeable residence this past spring.  They have yet to leave, and I can’t help but take comfort in their presence. 

Gone are the days I look out the window and see my daughter playing in the snow.  She has no interest now that she is the same age as I was when I lived with my grandparents.  Nor does Rusty, her once faithful companion, romp and scamper in the snow; he has since passed on to heavenly yards of the great beyond. Still, I stand there a bit longer, and I can’t help but wonder what the coming years will bring.  Certainly, the answers aren’t in the sentimental past. Nonetheless, the cardinals keep singing, in spite of the seasonal changes, serenading their song of gratitude.  Perhaps, therein lies a profound melody of truth.

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Life Must Be a Challenge

“Life must be a challenge.”–Sri Swami Satchidananda

“Have a Happy New Year, and whatever goals you set for yourself this year, I hope you achieve them.”

The sales clerk handed me my bags as she spoke these words with a broad smile. I wished her a new year’s greeting before heading out into the swarming mall milieu.  John, my husband, and I were in Cincinnati for a couple of days of relaxation between the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.  We debated the merits of traveling as the Omicron variant seemed to be spreading like athlete’s foot in a high school locker room.  In the end, we decided to take the proper precautions–as we have been doing these past couple of years–and head out for our planned excursion.

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Back home, I was later reminded of that brief encounter with a sales clerk. 

“Did you set any New Year’s resolutions for this year?” asked the young lady preparing to cut my hair on a recent January appointment .

This question led to an interesting discussion about whether or not to use the start of a new year as a reset button–a time to reflect and set new goals.  The stylist was all for it as she described the way in which her three boys, her partner, and she had shared and recorded their goals for 2022 in a journal.  She added that she wrote the goals down as points for review throughout the year, and they would serve the family as a final reflection on the eve of 2023. It seemed like such an intentional and thoughtful practice to have with her family.

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Pondering this practice, I reflected on my own goal-setting practices.  As I had explained to the stylist, my personality is such that I am constantly reviewing my own behaviors/habits.  Any perceived “mistake” I make–whether real or self-imposed–I dwell upon, running and rerunning the incidents on repeat like insurance commercials during televised football games.  I think about what I said/did wrong, or how I should have responded to a circumstance, in hopes of not repeating that behavior.  Sometimes it works, but more often than not, I fail, making the same or similar mistakes.  Ugh!  It is a broken record of imperfection.

Perhaps that is why I am drawn to setting small, achievable goals throughout the year, such as training for a half-marathon, teaching myself a new cooking technique, or even my pursuit of weekly writing deadlines.  These are typically structured goals, with steps from point A to point Z, and clearly delineated deadlines/outcomes.  Then, it’s simply a matter of following through with each step, adjusting when there is a set-back, and continuing on, one step at a time, until crossing the finish line.

In the bigger picture of life, however, things aren’t always so cut-and-dry with step-by-step progress and a clear finish line.  For example, when looking over these past two years of life with COVID, it seems one plan after another falls and one unattainable finish line falls to another.  Just as I struggle with my own fallacies, shortcomings, and humanity, science likewise seems to struggle with virus variants far more complicated than my own list of self-imposed list short-comings.  

All of these seemingly diverse thoughts came together when I reread the opening line of The Golden Present, a reference book to which I have repeatedly referred over a number of years.  The author begins with the following thesis,  “Life must be a challenge.”  In those five words, I was reminded of one simple truth.  If life is to be lived fully, then its challenges, from the personal to the global (and all levels in between), must be met, faced, and dealt with in some form.  

From surviving the ice storm in 2021, that wreaked havoc on local power grids, to navigating the following days of ice melt and rain that lead to devastating flooding; and from learning to adapt, adjust, and safely navigate the “new normal” of life with COVID, to getting up way to early each morning and trying to be a better version of myself than I was the previous day, life in 2021 was certainly full of challenges.  One look back at local, state, national, and global news headlines, and we see that every day, people around the world were faced with challenges far greater than any crisis I faced this year. 

As I write, I am reminded of the wildfires that ravaged the west in the summer, the Florida condo collapse, Hurricane Ida inflicting destruction on Louisiana, social media’s documented toxic influence on youth mental health, tornados that swept through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.  Even now, in the early days of 2022, headlines continue to demonstrate that life is indeed full of challenges, adversities, and difficulties. Even within my own work community, a beloved employee was recently severely injured when another vehicle ran a red-light–totaling this employee’s vehicle and putting this person in the hospital for months of recovery.  

I could go on, but the point is this.  I am alive and overall healthy.  If you are reading this, you are alive–and I pray–healthy.  Therefore, as 2023 progresses and the challenges start arriving–and you know they will persist–let us resolve to bravely face adversity while acknowledging that both the good and the bad are gifts of life.  After all, as light can only be known by the presence of darkness, the exuberance of joyful moments can only be known due to struggling through time periods of frustration, and sometimes even despair.  

We are on this earth for such a short time, let us be grateful for the moments–the good times, and the not-so-good times, when obstacles of all types get thrown our way. May we endeavor to fortify our faith in Divine Providence, believe in the power of hope, and may we cultivate love, or at the very least, patience and kindness for others–even those who see things differently from our own point of view.  As the name of my reference book indicates, the present moment is golden, and it is a gift to be unwrapped daily.  

Each day of life is waiting like a present under a tree to be unwrapped!

Besides, who wants a life that is easy?  If life were simple, there’d be no stories to tell around dinner tables, much less work cooler gossip; and, there certainly would not be any fodder for writers who need the challenge of discovering a new story to tell each week in order to meet a weekly deadline!

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