December 31 Reflections on the Ritual of Dawn and Christmas lights

I skipped a couple of mornings sitting out on the front porch. One morning I spent my dawn time shoveling snow. (Dawn time. I like that phrase. Sounds like “down time,” which it is.) One morning was just too cold and gray. One morning, I’d slept really fitfully, but fell back asleep in time to miss the sunrise.

I found myself missing the ritual.

The habit of sitting on the porch to sip my coffee and experience the morning is both an opportunity to start the day in a meditative way and mark a fresh start (to paraphrase Anne of Green Gables “a new day with no mistakes in it yet”) and also an opportunity for a daily vacation.

Looking back at some of my “before times” vacation photos, a common theme is capturing myself or my traveling companion(s) enjoying a beverage. Oftentimes, that beverage was a cup of coffee slowly sipped while looking out upon the morning.

A favorite memory of coffee on vacation, in western Sweden. The place we stayed had a small stone sitting area you could climb up to that looked out over the mouth of a fjord.

That’s one of the joys of vacation – having the time to sit and look around and contemplate life while sipping your coffee. My ritual of dawn has become a small daily vacation from the confinements and stresses of life in a pandemic.

I’ve tried a couple of times to sit out on the deck behind my house to witness the sunset and bid adieu to the day, but I found it unpleasant with the harshness of the winter sun angle as well as sort of false, since the day hadn’t really ended yet at 4:30 in the afternoon. Maybe as the year shifts to later sunsets I’ll sit on the deck with my spouse and toast the sunset with a glass of beer. For now, I’ll stick with the ritual of dawn.

December 31

The Christmas lights on half of my across-the-street neighbor’s bushes have gone wonky in their timing and are still glowing this morning, a near-match to the sky color at the horizon. This pleases me very much.

Similarly pleasing is the house around the corner from me, whose Christmas lights I can see from my back deck, and which I captured several evenings ago, similarly mirroring the light in the sky at sunset.

I’m really going to miss the Christmas lights when people start turning them off and taking them down. I turned mine on early this year because I needed that sparkle of nostalgia and whimsy. I wonder how long I can get away with keeping them on?

My spouse and I have been taking evening walks through the neighborhood when the sidewalks aren’t icy. Through a couple of windows we’ve glimpsed Christmas lights strung around people’s living rooms, up towards the ceiling, creating a lovely, cozy glow.

The idea of doing this in my living room half makes me want to go out in search of Christmas lights on clearance at local stores. It’d be easy enough to hang lights from the picture rail. But I don’t really want to buy more stuff, and I don’t really want to go traipsing around from store to store when virus transmission in my community is still high. Maybe if I get the opportunity to pick up some secondhand lights on Facebook marketplace . . .

There’s just something comforting about all those lights in a time of darkness.

My year-end wish for you is that you find all the light and comfort you need in 2021. When the sun comes up tomorrow, it will be a new year without any mistakes in it yet.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

December 22-26 Ritual of Dawn

I’ve been slacking on my habit. Already.

December 22

I did go outside, but I didn’t immediately sit down to write. Here’s the photo I took of a small plane that flew noisily over my house – a regular flight from our small local airport.

I remember thinking about the noise pollution that people who live near airports suffer. (I grew up in a Chicago suburb not too far from busy O’Hare airport, but not close enough to have to hear the constant roar or jets taking off.) I was thinking about how these people are usually lower income. (Who would put up with that aggravation if you didn’t have to?)

December 23

The wind in the early morning hours was terrible – sustained 30-40, gusting 60-70. The roar kept waking me up, even woke my husband, who’s an excellent sleeper. The bicycle wind spinners in the yard were rolling at an insane clip. I resented the wind. I did not want to go out in the gray morning and sit in it.

December 24

Up late the night before tending to my gingerbread creation (I should post about it), and I slept almost past the sunrise, too late to make coffee and sit out there.

December 25 – Christmas Day

I set my alarm, though I wasn’t going anywhere, not to sit for the sunrise, which, despite the passing of the solstice, is coming still later, at 7:21, but to make waffles and eat breakfast in time to join a multi-time-zone family Zoom call at 8am Mountain / 9am Central / 10am Eastern.

December 26

A warm morning. Didn’t need my mittens. Really quiet, too. Apart from a car with an apparent tire problem rolling by on a nearby street, the noisiest thing was the squirrels ripping around on a tree, their claws on the bark sounding like one of those rain sticks.

A squirrel sat hunched in the tree in front of me. I imagined it having a sugar hangover.

The day before, I’d put out some bags of Christmas candy in a basket next to my library. By evening, five of the bags had disappeared from the basket, but I found one of them in the flowerbed, torn open and partially emptied.

Most of the color in the sky this morning seemed to be on the periphery of the sunrise. When the sun did come up and brighten the air, it felt like a sort of comforting hug for my brain. Apparently I needed light today.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

December 21 Solstice Ritual of Dawn

An odd morning – a Monday with only five vehicles passing by. No student walking. The schools are closed for Christmas break.

No break for working folks, though. My neighbor with the lunch cooler is right on schedule. Two contractor pickup trucks roll by, one with an engine so loud it vibrates my porch floor. The public schools still have some employees on the clock as well. One of the vehicles to pass by is a school district vehicle – the driver going down the street with a cell phone pressed to his left ear.

I hear a rooster crow somewhere off to the south. I heard him yesterday, too.

Up above, a jet silently passes, probably filled with people risking virus transmission to spend time with loved ones. It’s a powerful impulse in this dark season.

The jet’s contrail is tinted dawn pink. Because of the reference point of the tree branches, I can see that the contrail is rapidly moving to the south as it dissipates behind the plane. Must be some substantial wind way up there.

I start to think about how that plane can be an analogy for a human life. How we’re traveling together with a certain group of people – some by choice, some by chance. How we can leave a mark on the world that will eventually fade into nothingness, but which still in aggregate influences the planet. How even during the time we’re here on this earth and making our impacts, the winds around us can shift our accomplishments off course. It can’t be helped. That’s the way the world works.

A man walks by on my side of the street, a beagle happily trotting and sniffing ahead of him at the end of a leash. The man says good morning, and I return his greeting. I suppose I’m not exactly inconspicuous on the porch this morning, with my safety-yellow shell jacket. (I’m planning to go for a run when my porch sit and my coffee are done.)

I saw the man and his dog yesterday, too, a block away, as I headed out for a Sunday morning socially-distanced grocery pickup.

It’s nice to live in a neighborhood where people become familiar.

Yesterday morning along with my newspaper, I picked up from the porch a gift bag filled with mini bread loaves – zucchini and pumpkin – that my neighbors across the street had left. They do this every year. Say what you want about our consumerist culture (and there are definitely words to be said), the traditional giving of gifts and thinking of others at this time of year can be a much-needed source of light in the darkness.

The sun rises. A new day begins.

May you find light at this winter solstice. The days ahead will only get brighter.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

December 17 and 18 Ritual of Dawn

December 17

The morning sky is a color show, tinting even the air orangey-pink, shifting colors so subtly from moment to moment it’s hard to perceive a change unless you look away and look back again. The strips of colored cloud align at times with the angle of the power lines across the street. This pleases me.

So many spectacles like this I’ve missed because I had my nose stuck to a screen.

I marvel at the spreading branches of the trees, how they have grown to fill in every space and capture sunlight as efficiently as possible. I think about how that efficiency of growth is mirrored by the tree’s roots underground, unseen.

A pair of squirrels chase around the tree branches like kids swarming the jungle gym at recess. A piece of dislodged bark plops to the sidewalk.

The neighbor with the lunch cooler has to get out the scraper to clear the frost from his windshield before he can drive away. He does a thorough job of it.

A pickup truck races past, probably going 35 miles per hour on this narrow residential street around the time kids are headed to the three schools up the block. And with spots of ice remaining on the street here and there! It makes me angry, this disregard for others, constantly angry, how easy personal motorized vehicles make it for individual whims and conveniences to endanger others in the public space.

I guess it’s not just the news cycle and social media posts that can get me riled before sunrise.

The light brightens. A new day begins.

December 18

It’s raining. Sleeting, actually. Little pellets are building up in the street. Doesn’t seem to deter some people from driving too fast. Or tailgating. I send a mental thank-you to the passing drivers who are taking it slow.

The garbage truck rumbles and clanks and thumps through the alley across the street, the last normal pickup day before Christmas next week. I glimpse the truck between the houses. It passes on a side street, rolling through the stop sign, as most vehicles do. I see its lights reflected in the house window across the street as it picks up the trash in the alley behind my house.

No birds this morning. No squirrels. One dog barks.

The regular kid dropoff happens, the car crunching tracks through the sleet pellets.

The regular student appears on the sidewalk across the street. No hat.

The neighbor headed to work with his lunch cooler has to turn on his windshield wipers to clear the sleet before he takes off.

It’s warm enough that I don’t need the hood of my shell jacket. I pull it back and realize I can better hear the clattering of the sleet pellets on dried leaves and on the tarps covering the boat and the old car in my neighbor’s driveway.

The sunrise is a minute later again this morning, but I don’t perceive it through the cloud cover. The street light sensors don’t, either. A gray dawn. A new day begins.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

December 15 and 16 Ritual of Dawn

I’m going to keep doing these posts for the time being, maybe up until and through the winter solstice. It provides me a deadline for getting up and getting dressed in time to meet the sun, and it provides me practice in observing. Also a quiet moment to greet the day before I encounter things that make me angry. (The news, social media posts.)

December 15

A gray morning, clouded over. No color in the sky. The sunrise is a minute later than it was. 7:16 now.

We are such creatures of habit. I see the same red car as yesterday (no music this time). The same neighbor getting into his truck with his lunch cooler to head to work. The same neighborhood drop-off of kids. The same student walking to school.

The same dogs barking. The same twittery birds chasing between shrubberies on the block.

The same squirrel, but this time there are two. They are smaller squirrels, probably the young born this year, probably one of the ones that tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed to build a nest in my tree this spring, daily biting off and dropping loads of branches for me to pick up.

A change from the day before – a man walks by with his small dog on a very long leash. I hear him uttering words I can’t make out from across the street. Is he talking to his dog? Talking to himself? On a phone call?

Also, emergency vehicle sirens in the distance. Car wreck, probably. The streets are still icy. Most people driving down the street – 12 vehicles (or 13 – I lost count) – are going too fast for this iced-over, narrow residential street.

According to the light level and the time, the sun has risen. Another day has begun.

December 16

A warm winter morning. It felt mild when I stepped out to grab the newspaper. The north-south streets have gotten enough sun and warmth to clear away most of the ice, though any shaded east-west streets are still snow-packed.

The color is back in the sky – a warm orangey-red that reminds me of the port wine cheese balls that are a family food tradition at this time of year. The yellow leaks out and blue seeps in, and the sky takes on a lovely lavender tint.

The squirrels are back in the trees. One of them spots me in my seat on the porch and barks and flaps its tail.

I see the lunch-cooler neighbor head out. The dropping-off-kids person comes again, too. I wonder if they see me sitting here under my blankets with my cup of coffee and think I’m a weirdo. It almost makes me want to abandon my post. But heck, it’s my porch. I can sit out here anytime I want. And more neighborhoods could do with regular watchful eyes on the street. That’s how it used to be.

Human eyes are being replaced by cameras that the police like to knock on your door and ask about if a crime occurs in your neighborhood. When I moved to this community 11 years ago (11!), I was weirded out by a house a few blocks away that had security cameras on it. Nowadays, it seems like half the doors you might approach are spied upon by doorbell cameras.

A sudden surge of cars in the street accompanies a surge in the light level. The sun has risen. A new day has begun.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

December 14 Ritual of Dawn

Warmer this morning. 16 degrees.

At first, the southeastern sky is vibrant – a red-orange band that reflects in the window of a house across the street.

The orange disappears, the red fades to pink and migrates higher into the sky until it bleeds away completely, leaving the sky to match the snow, blue-white and gray.

There’s the chickadee again. Chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee. A couple of twittery birds shoot from above my house eastward across the street. A dog barks.

It’s a weekday. A different kind of morning. A Monday.

As I sit on the porch sipping my coffee, one human on foot and at least 17 humans in vehicles pass by.

Most of the vehicles are SUVs or pickup trucks or vans. A small red car with snow still stuck to its roof rolls by, trailing a booming bass line in its wake. One vehicle is the recycling truck. The driver nearly misses a can set out next to a parked vehicle and has to back up to make the collection. A car pulls into a driveway and two children get out and go into the house, and the car drives away.

A squirrel skitters around in the tree and settles onto a branch, tucking its tail up over the top of itself to keep warm.

The sky brightens. A new day has begun.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

December 13 Ritual of Dawn

Last night I intended to observe the sunset, but I was drinking wine and writing out Christmas cards and didn’t notice when the snowy grey afternoon faded to snowy gray evening.

Not a cloud left in the sky this morning to retain any heat from the day before. The 6-degree temperature necessitated a few more layers of clothing: long sleeves, tall socks and boots, a vest.

A much noisier morning than yesterday. Still the dogs and the trains, but also the crunch and scrape and growl of snow removal operations on the neighborhood’s driveways and sidewalks. (No snow removal happening on the residential streets – in this climate, the city can save money and wait for the sun to clear the roads.)

The street lights are on, until they aren’t. It’s plenty bright enough to see, anyhow. The light blanket of snow brightens up the scene. The sky is blue / blue-white with an infusion of gold at the bottom.

At 7 a.m., church bells ring from a new blocks away. It’s Sunday. No people on the sidewalks yet. No cars on the street. I think fewer people are attending services in person, on account of the pandemic. Streamed worship services are a boon for people who have a hard time getting around, especially on snowy mornings. There are some good things to have come from this awful situation.

I see movement on the next block, between the houses, between the trees. Birds? I stare.

No, just the exhaust from a furnace wafting into the sky, matching my own steamy breath, both of us exhaling carbon dioxide, the product of each of our systems of creating warmth and life.

There is some bird activity this morning. I hear a scolding chickadee up the block, another small bird twittering in the neighbor’s bushes. A sudden intrusion on the porch as a bird zooms by from right to left between the porch pillars, two feet from my face, twittering as it flies.

There doesn’t seem to be any movement of the air, though the forecast later in the day includes a high wind warning. Still, small clumps of snow occasionally slough from the tree branches and dust the air below.

A neighbor on the block south fires up his snow blower. I loathe those things, how they tear the air with their stink and roar. But they are efficient. And this neighbor has a habit of clearing the sidewalk on his whole block, carefully angling into the curb cuts at the street corners. A wonderful courtesy for the neighbors as well as the people who will pass his house on foot.

Me, I greatly prefer to hand-shovel my driveway and sidewalks. It’s relatively quiet, cheap, better for the environment, and good exercise. It’ll be an easy task this morning, with only an inch or two of light, granular snow.

The light brightens. Without fanfare to mark the moment, the sun has risen above the horizon.

A new day has begun.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

Ritual of dawn

Six months ago, I made a break. Week by week, it had become clear that the place I was working was no longer the right place for me to be. So I left. Leapt into the foggy arroyo the pandemic has opened up in so many lives.

At first, I worked. I took a writing class. I experimented with different forms of self-expression. But I could not write. Eventually, I stopped creating. Stopped trying. What was the point? Nothing mattered. Day upon day, the same gray sameness. No future. Only the present and the past. Laboring to meet the most basic needs. Food. Cleanliness. Occasional community service.

But there was also reading, boosted in large part by the Little Free Library I started in my driveway. New books coming into my sphere, a drive to hurry up and read books so I could get them out in the library, an obsession with used and remainder book sales.

I read about social justice issues and growled with anger. I read about history and tried to put things into perspective. I read memoirs and experienced different lives. I read classics and wondered how I’d managed to miss them. I read stories and marveled at the dance of imagination that could create worlds more true than the one we lived in.

And I read “Wintering.”

I’d read an interview with the author, Katherine May, and was drawn to the book. I posted about it online. I tried to buy a copy – backordered everywhere.

Miraculously, the book appeared on my porch that very day, courtesy of a friend who’d likewise been intrigued by the book and had purchased several copies to give as gifts.

The author explains “wintering” as:

a season of cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast in the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone else. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.

But she goes on to explain the consoling fact of the matter, that wintering is inevitable:

We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of an equatorial habitat, forever close to the sun, an endless, unvarying high season. But life’s not like that. Emotionally, we’re prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn’t avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line, we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in.

One of the hardest “adulting” things I’ve had to deal with was the shift from school, with its pattern of endings and new beginnings, to the working world, with its infinite timeline of sameness, one week following the next and the next and the next, a jumble of Mondays and Fridays and Sunday night dread. I need seasonality in my life. I need beginnings and middles and ends. I can’t do infinite growth. I need the blazing senescence of autumn, the defiant energy that the cold of winter triggers in my soul. I need for one door to close and another to open.

In “Wintering”, the author pulls in a quote from the school of wisdom that we humans are a part of the natural world, and that our physical and mental health are tied to its seasons, though she frames it in the context of ritual:

I am reminded yet again of the quiet value of ritual in my life, and of the words of D.H. Lawrence: “We must get back into relation: vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe . . . We must once more practice the ritual of dawn and noon and sunset, the ritual of kindling fire and pouring water, the ritual of the first breath and the last.”

These last months have been one long, formless mass of time. Days run into weeks and into months before I notice. Suddenly the sun is in a different position in the sky, belying the unseasonably warm weather. Suddenly the morning has turned to afternoon and the light is growing dim.

With a push towards friluftsliv from a news article encouraging outdoor socialization during the pandemic, I resolve to bundle up and sit outside with my coffee to greet the dawn. Sunrise at 7:14 a.m. Temperature 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Over my pajamas, I pull on a sweatshirt and windbreaker, lifting the hoods up over a knit hat with ear flaps. I run hot water in a travel mug to warm it before filling it with coffee. I don mittens, step out onto my porch with the coffee, lay a folded towel on the metal chair out there, sit down, and tuck a blanket around my legs.

6:45 a.m. The sky is already blue-gray to the east with hints of pink in the clouds. A light breeze blows, chilling my bare ankles above my slippers, causing the wheels on a bicycle wind spinner in the yard to gently turn and squeak. All the roofs of the houses on the block are white with frost.

Several dogs around the neighborhood bark now and again. A train roars by on the tracks three-quarters of a mile away. Another train somewhere sounds its horn. The heat kicks on at the house across the street, sending up a plume of steam.

The clouds are warming to an orange-yellow, turning the blue sky at the horizon a bit greenish near the point where the sun will appear. A rabbit runs across the yard. The squirrels must still be sleeping. The birds, too. The air is silent. No people on the sidewalk, no cars in the street.

The trees are no longer the same tone as the sky, brown on gray-blue. They have become distinct – black frames for the warmth of orange and pink.

A view of the sunrise from the author's porch, the street and a few houses across the street are visible beneath the dark silhouettes of trees set against an orange-pink sky.

I don’t actually see the sun rise. My view of the horizon is obscured in town. But I feel my pupils contract as the light quickly strengthens.

A new day has begun.

I stand up, gather my blanket, and go inside to write.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw