THE BLOG
11/04/2013 11:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Early to Rise: My father and Ben Franklin Were Right

My friend Julie van Amerongen, whom I met through our association with Conscious Capitalism, asked me to participate in her intriguing study of practices. I'm glad she did, for it got me to reflect on what practices I've discovered over the years that help me. One of them is rising early. 

When I was a young man, my father would make fun of me sleeping in so late. In those years, the late 1970s, he worked for a real estate company that was something of a legend in its industry for its 6:00 a.m. meetings, every day except Sunday. My father came to love those meetings. In fact, he'd get there early. I, on the other hand, was in graduate school, and in the habit of staying up late the way any red-blooded person in their 20s should. I'd try to reason with my dad. "What does it matter how late I get up -- it's the work that counts, right? If I can work well late at night, why shouldn't I?"

He wasn't buying it.

Then in the summer of 1981, I returned from a European vacation with the mother of all jet lags. I was out cold by 8:30 p.m. and wide awake at 4:00 a.m. Yet this affliction turned out to be an unexpected blessing. In that year, I was struggling to write my Ph.D. dissertation while working full time. Out of desperation, the idea came into my head to write for two hours before I left for work. Sure, I'd fall asleep at our friends' parties, but it was a question of priorities. I had promised Lori that I'd finish my Ph.D. before our wedding date: June 4, 1982. Once married, we would have new things we wanted to do, and my lonely, rather desperate dissertation writing was definitely not on either of our lists. So those quiet peaceful hours of the early morning became precious stepping stones to the life I yearned for.

As it turns out, I still haven't recovered from that case of jet lag. Given that it was 32 years ago, I probably never will.

Sacred space

I soon got used to having the early mornings to myself. Those hours before sunrise became a kind of sacred space to me, and I've used them over the years to do whatever work has been most important in my life. In the late 80s, I used them to plan out Levenger, and once we launched, to do whatever Levenger work was most demanding, before the official business day began. I gradually shifted from writing advertising copy and business letters to writing about broader issues such as this, nowadays called a blog.

I wrote my first book, The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, in the early mornings, and could not have managed it otherwise.

Over the years, I came to love the rituals -- tiptoeing past our pajama-clad sleeping boys, making coffee, greeting our dog, Ladi, who was always ready to spring up whatever the hour. She and I would go outside to examine, respectively, the stars and the lawn. (Living in Florida makes it easy to venture outside regardless of the time of year.)

Toast, jam and meditation

Today, although the children are grown and our dear Ladi has passed away, I cherish the early mornings more than ever. I go outside and gaze up at the starry night, listen for the wind in the palms, the crickets' dwindling song, the occasional cry of an owl or a heron. I'll sometimes hear a fish belly-flopping back into the becalmed Intracoastal Waterway, which runs along our house. I let the night's exit work its beauty on me, before I try to fashion a little beauty myself through my work.

After an hour or so, I'll get hungry. I'll make toast with jam or something similar and take it with me outside, reclining into an Adirondack chair to watch the morning materialize. I don't try to think of anything. I just let my mind be quiet. It's my form of meditation, I suppose.

As age gradually dulls my senses, I wonder what surely millions of others fortunate enough to near 60 have wondered: is it possible to hear more sweetness in a bird's song, even though we hear less well? To witness more beauty in a sunrise, even though we see less well?

Is it possible, in essence, to gain more sense through weakened senses?

My father and now myself are members of a large congregation of morning worshippers that spans the globe. Americans grow up with Ben Franklin's "Early to bed and early to rise... " (you can finish it if you grew up in the U.S.). I've heard that in Holland there is an expression that translates to "Every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two, and every hour of work before noon is worth two." (Will our Dutch friends please fact check this?)

The owls and the larks

Although English has over a million words, we lack the equivalent of the Spanish verb madrugar, which means to rise early. Spanish speakers deploy this verb beautifully in the expression, "Al que madruga, Dios le ayuda," which translates to, "He who rises early, God helps." (I think you'll agree that beats the early bird and his worm.)

And there is this simple expression I saw on a bookmark that one of my dear mentors, Ric Leichtung, kept near his desk: "Joy begins with the morning."

Researchers are now discovering that our preference for rising early or late may well be how each of us is wired. It's part of our chronotype, or personal internal clock. I'm aware that plenty of people find themselves most creative at night and preserve those quiet hours, when the world has retired, for their sacred time. These night owls, I imagine, reap some special satisfactions unknown to us morning larks.

But right now the sky is brightening outside the glass doors of my office and I don't want to miss this particular sunrise. So I'm off, dear reader, to sit outside and wonder.

And how about you? Do early morning hours beckon, or late-night hours entice? I'd love to hear about your sacred time.