The first alarm clock I ever had was my mother.
She was a woman who liked elephants—they made loud, trumpeting noises and had legs as large as tree trunks. My mother had both these attributes and was strong, in the bossy sense of the word. Folks at church would take orders from her, cowering before the gunfire authority she had grown into from over thirty years of teaching at public schools. She was an early riser and a busy woman. Her favorite exhortation to me was "Redeem the time at hand!" She was a sort of Mad-Eye Moody; I could see her barking "Constant vigilance!" into my ear.
There was one case, however, in which circumstances did not bend to the force of my mother's will. Whenever she peeked into a pitch-dark bedroom to wake me for school, her voice was subdued, timid.
At her lowest alarm setting, my mother whispered at the door, "Wakey-wakey." On her next visit to the bedroom, she made an encouraging but soft whistle, "Yoohoo. Rise and shine." On the third visit, she panicked at my stone-like form, whistling with a louder "Yoohoo!" This was followed later by a loud hiss: "It's almost seven; you're going to be late!" After a few minutes, she would revert to a terrified "Wakey-wakey!"
I did not see why I should stir when it still looked like night outside. For the first twenty-five years of my life, I thought any hour before nine o'clock was an ungodly hour. A body must not do ungodly things, such as get up for school in the abominable pre-dawn darkness. I was more of a ten, twelve o'clock kind of gal. Some things in nature are just more stubborn than my mother.
I would make a terrible soldier. It was said of King Tirian, the eighth-generation descendant of Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia, that an experienced warrior and huntsman as himself could wake up any time he wanted. When I read Narnia as a child, Tirian's abilities seemed on par with superhero powers, as if he had been born with a bow in his hand and a biopsychic alarm clock in his head. Aren't some people just blessed that way?
The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami ran a jazz bar in Tokyo in his twenties. It meant closing late, staying up after midnight to chat and clean and count the bills. In the final hours before dawn, Murakami would write. When he decided to become a full-time writer, he sold the bar and stayed home. This meant not seeing people very much. His new life began with waking at four in the morning to write for five or more hours. In the afternoons, he trained for marathons and triathlons, running six miles a day. He retired to bed at nine.
Murakami supposedly adhered to this routine every day. For thirty years.
I wonder if he ever hit the snooze button.
There was one exception to my childhood refusal to wake: On Saturday mornings, I shot out of bed before seven for basketball at the local park with other fifth-graders. Play: the natural instinct of a child, her true calling.
We have grown old and confused. In fifth grade, things were much clearer: Work and school were evil—not even necessary evils. Play was holy. Time was wind.
We have since tried to arrest time, to partition it, to rein, harness, and subdue it. The invention of clocks is proof of this.
During the Industrial Revolution, workers living around factories and mills woke to a collective alarm: the factory whistle. Some factories employed Knocker-Ups, men who went around the neighborhood tapping on doors and windows, refusing to leave until their slumbering targets had roused. Other sleepyheads who actually wished to be woken could hire Knocker-Ups by posting a desired hour on their door or window.
My family housekeeper would have had much greater success as a Knocker-Up than my mother. While my mother never shook or touched me, our housekeeper tapped softly but insistently on my back, which was terribly invasive, bordering on harassment.
While she tapped, she spoke in a low, grousing voice just inches from my ear. She muttered about how late I was going to be, how cold the hot milk had become, how awfully long I took to shower, how I'd better not forget to swallow my vitamins, how much better and more obedient my older siblings were, etcetera, etcetera. I promise you: Severe irritation never helped a body go back to sleep.
Mankind's most primitive methods of waking were elegantly simple and annoyingly effective: drinking lots of water at night; owning a rooster. The earliest clocks were powered by water, sand, or sun. Plato's alarm clock, purportedly one of the first in recorded history, poured water from one ceramic vessel to another until the rapid evacuation of air caused a whistling sound to shoot through a spout. In ancient Greece, the clepsydra—which was what they called water clocks—were used to keep time in a variety of situations; for instance, allocating time to speakers in court sessions and to clients in brothels.
As alarm clocks developed in mechanical sophistication, mankind could be jolted awake by all manner of irritation including gongs, trumpets, cuckoo birds, toe-tuggers, and small cannons.
Last year, an exhibit by the National Watch and Clock Museum in Pennsylvania featured a mantel clock from the late 1890s that struck matches to light an oil lamp. Matches back in the day sometimes flew off the contraption, accidentally setting fire to one's curtains. Such myriad wonderful ways to greet the morn.
The first adjustable alarm clocks were patented in the mid-nineteenth century, around the same time that factory whistles woke industrial workers. Since then, inventive clockmakers have created the flying clock (you catch it to turn it off), the target clock (you aim a laser beam at a bullseye), the standup clock (you stand on it like a weighing machine), the Banpresto DangerBomb clock (you must pull the correct wire or else), and the SnuzNluz clock (which donates money from your bank account every time you hit snooze).
Unfailingly, I arrived at the school gates five or ten minutes late. I was rather good at it. School prefects in heavy dark blue blazers were already flanking the gates. They inscribed names of the tardy in ring-bound notepads tucked in their breast pockets. "Oh dear," said my mother. "Surely by now they must know the girl with the yellow bag."
Stepping out of my mother's car, I shouldered a black and bright yellow backpack. The prefects were junior students, one year below me. I was probably an inch or two taller. Putting on my best wrathful-god face, I strode past the gates and toward the morning-assembly grounds where several hundred students were already gathered. To my knowledge, the prefects never wrote my name down.
Because we hated homework, we did it very, very fast. The idea was to finish all of it in school, so that when we got home, we could spend the rest of the day at play. This no longer worked when I got to college, though.
By the time I drifted into graduate school, I had more practice at waking, working, and wrestling time into submission. I had held a nine-to-five office job, which was a blessed relief from the five-to-one café job I held just prior.
The café year meant arriving home past one in the morning and not being able to fall asleep until four, five, or six. I'd wake past noon to a groggy, sickly feeling, when the world had long since put on its tie and gotten respectably busy. It didn't help that we switched between night and day shifts every two or three weeks. Waking, sleeping, resting—all of it felt beyond my control.
So, while the office job was hardly more glamorous, it gave me an unprecedented grounding in the dignified, regulated world of business-hour adults. Getting up before seven o'clock still sucked, but it felt good to know that I could do what grown-ups were supposed to do.
In college, I read one of those articles with titles like "Twenty Successful CEOs: What They All Have In Common." I suspect the writer of this particular article suffered from sadomasochistic achievement-worship because almost every one of the twenty featured CEOs woke at four or four-thirty in the morning to exercise. Most of them barely slept five hours. I did not, for the love of God, want to run on a treadmill while the birds were snoring, not even for a six-digit income.
I don't remember exactly when I changed my mind about this.
Perhaps it was when I picked up that memoir by Murakami about running and writing. "Focus and endurance," he said, are the most important qualities of a writer. I discovered, too, that Murakami wasn't the only writer who rose pre-dawn. Sylvia Plath rose at four. Benjamin Franklin rose at five (but, well, he's Benjamin Franklin) and so did Immanuel Kant. Six o'clock risers included Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, and Kurt Vonnegut. Popular fiction writers were no less dedicated than literary ones: At five-thirty, Nicholas Sparks gets into his workout clothes and John Grisham arrives at his desk.
These giants—of both corporate and creative endeavors—seemed too mythic to be emulated. Still, I found myself excavating the Internet for morning routines of famous writers and asking everybody else what time they woke up. Perhaps their formula would do me some magic, too.
My boyfriend and I landed in the same graduate school program. He was a year ahead of me. I admired, envied him. No, I was downright jealous of him.
He could swim twenty-eight laps, run every day, lose fat, gain muscle, write a thesis, plan lessons, cook for church, run a vegetable garden and a saltwater fish tank, care for the ones he loved, practice silence, meditate on the writings of St. John of the Cross (another sort of sadomasochist), and still squeeze in a video game at night. Oh no, it was not fair that my boyfriend could do all those things in a day. If I had his determination, I could do anything, be anyone: an entrepreneur, a war journalist, a dolphin trainer. Heck, I could be a mega-church cult leader.
When my thesis-writing year rolled around, I decided I was going to be impressive like my boyfriend.
For starters, I would devote myself to writing a magnum opus (the thesis), which would be read by a worshipful crowd of at least three people (my long-suffering thesis committee). Yes, I needed to write the way Murakami ran six miles a day. I decided this on Christmas morning, a whole week before thousands of drunk revelers sobered up for New Year's resolutions—which demonstrated bright prospects for my future career in overachievement.
That morning, I began to journal on 750words.com, a website that keeps track of daily progress and awards cute animal badges for writing consistently. I needed the cute badges.
On Boxing Day, I wrote my second journal entry: "Okay, here are a list of people I envy: People who know what they want. People who are beautiful. People who exercise regularly. People who smile a lot and are good at being friendly. People who aren't afraid. People who are organized. People who write. People who have published. People with lots of money. People who wake up early. People with passion. People who are very disciplined." Now that I had many reasons to pursue self-improvement, I joined a habit-tracking website called Lift and signed up for one of their twenty-one-day programs, "Waking Up On Time."
Lift's motto is "Succeed At Everything."
Waking up isn't getting up. They are distinctly different events. The distinction—or rather, the chasm—between the two is especially clear to slackers, snoozers, and other losers.
On good days, I hit the snooze button three times; on loser days, about ten.
January. The first day of my new regime. It began with fixing my Achilles heel.
Step Number One on Lift's "Waking Up On Time" program said I had to find a "replacement habit" for snoozing. Instead of hitting snooze and rolling over, I would now get up to sit in a velvety armchair three feet away. I could semi-snooze there.
While in the armchair, I took my temperature with a Watsons digital thermometer while checking the weather forecast and reviewing the day's tasks. After that, I drifted in and out of sleep.
I would never have gotten out of the bedroom if I hadn't been so devoted to snagging the Early Rooster badge on 750words.com (awarded for ten consecutive days of writing before nine in the morning). As I heaved out of the armchair and shuffled into the living room, I hauled a heavy backpack, stuffed the night before with a laptop and several books. The exertion shot some life into my blood circulation. I set the laptop on the living room table and sat facing shuttered windows and a locked front door. Gaps in the window shutters were dark blue, almost black, indicating the ungodly hour it still was. The ticking of a wall clock behind me was magnified by the solitude of stillness. There, I began to write. Could I do this before nine a.m. for ten consecutive days?
Leo Babauta, author of the lifestyle blog Zen Habits, advised that I only work on building one new habit at a time.
I ended up tracking eight new habits on Lift: Waking Up On Time, Write 750 Words, Thesis, Exercise, Study Japanese, Take a Technology Diet, No More Noodle Suppers, and Sleep By 11 p.m.
Sounds crazy? It was actually easier to build seven new habits than only one. I had discovered the phenomenon of chaining. When you link habits into a chain of activities—one following another at pre-scheduled, consistent times each day—you relieve yourself of the burden of decision. Overachieving leaves no time for dilly-dallying.
By eleven in the morning, I felt empowered. I had worked on my thesis, the most important task of the year, so the rest of my day was smooth-sailing. Best of all, I was awed and thrilled at having said no to snoozing.
Over the next month of this regime, my body adapted to the ebb and flow of a morning riser. While I used to come alive at nine in the evening, my brain now shut down by nine, exhaustion trickling into every limb and faculty. But I was happy about this and began to love the ungodly hours of pre-dawn.
Waking is manifold.
Waking is everything you did the day before—whether you exercised, indulged in a nap, stayed up late, worried over a meeting, or watched an intense film. Waking is the crucial seconds that unfold when your consciousness hits surface. Waking is a large, intricate machine humming, creaking, groaning, turning upon a million tiny cogs—the amount of the light pouring through your bedroom curtains, the measure of liquid in your bladder, the distance between your arm and the alarm, the bump in your pillow, the color of your dream, the nightmare violently cut off.
Waking is sleeping. If I thought waking early was hard, I found sleeping early to be twice as difficult.
Lying in bed each night, I recited the next morning's schedule. I let the room's soothing darkness wash over dwindling sparks in my mind. Sometimes I would fight sleep and think about what I wanted to achieve in life. Lift suggested taking thirty minutes to determine my life goals. As if those could be "determined" in thirty minutes.
What were my goals, my priorities? School, I supposed. Excellence at school. But why did I feel I had to perform? Was I trying to compensate for years of snoozing? Why did I want the Lit Theory professor to weep with joy at my revelatory three-page analysis of the latest hit video on YouTube, in which two men pranced about meaninglessly in furry fox costumes?
One thing I knew was that I wanted to write well. It was ridiculous but human: I wanted my writing be worth something.
In other words, I woke up early so that my life might be worth something.
It's a short step from discipline to obsession.
Obsession is a kind of tunnel vision, and I was now certainly living in a tunnel. Throughout the day, I moved from one cell to another: A dark bedroom, a nine-by-twelve-foot living room where I typed before shuttered windows, the campus' small Writing Center where I tutored other students, the English Department's tiny seminar room, and my boyfriend's one-room garage unit where we ate TV dinner in front of an eight-inch tablet screen, finally returning to a dark bedroom. I was taken aback one morning when I looked up and found that the bare-branched trees on campus had suddenly sprouted green.
Quickly, the world had become very small. It had become my eight habits on Lift and little else. I tuned out the world, breaking news, trivial updates, books with magic and adventures, reunions, camping trips, and the moist smell of air before rain comes.
I had a roommate, another graduate student. We shared bunk beds in the sole bedroom of a little red-bricked apartment, but most days we could only afford to exchange two words, "Hello" and "Bye." I regretted this because she so looked forward to talking when I came home. She always wanted to know how I was doing. By then I was ready to curl up in bed.
She found companionship in our other female classmates. Their study parties sounded wonderful—all that eating, laughing, dancing—but I couldn't afford a wasted minute. I avoided social gatherings, even chance conversations on campus. My boyfriend was alarmed when I mused about spending less time together.
Each day began to constrict, every hour tightly wound. If some shard of distraction threatened my schedule, I sprung loose with irritation or simply coiled up dangerously tighter.
I got annoyed when people talked to me while I was reading or writing. This couldn't be avoided at the Writing Center, where my fellow grad students shared a small waiting room. A framed award on a wall declared I was a tutor who "demonstrated exceptional hospitality." While waiting for students to tutor, I crammed in as much reading as I could and got annoyed when they showed up for help.
One Friday afternoon, after a long week of school and tutoring, I walked into the Writing Center and saw, on our pencil-scrawled schedule, that four students had already signed up for appointments. Three requested specifically to see me. In that instant, rage boiled up within me. I took a seat next to one of my colleagues, a blond-haired girl frowning at a thick novel. She looked up and asked amiably, "How are you doing?"
The room seemed hotter than usual, and I shot back, "I am pissed off."
My colleague put her book down, mildly startled.
Some days I felt I couldn't breathe. One night, upon reaching home to find books strewn over our apartment floor and an equally anxious roommate trying to sort them out—her hair in puffy disarray, her thesis overdue—my heart began pounding and my hands shook. I avoided her, too weary to exchange news or explain why I was tired or even admit I was tired. I headed straight to the pantry and pulled out a packet of instant noodles, my comfort food.
Upon lifting chopsticks to mouth, my hands shook again, and the noodles trembled.
I walked back to the pantry. On another shelf were dozens of pill bottles. The larger ones contained vitamins from my mother, who was as religious about consuming supplements as she was about redeeming time. The lone black bottle was Probiotics, for irritable bowels I developed months before. The smallest bottle was melatonin, for nights I had trouble sleeping from excitement or anxiety. The orange tablet strips with round white pills were daily medication I had been taking for eight years; the folded pamphlet that came with them listed a litany of potential side-effects including deterioration of vision, hair loss, skin rashes, nausea, diarrhea, anorexia, abdominal cramps, muscle atrophy, nervousness, nightmares, psychosis, headaches, dizziness, and vertigo.
I rummaged for a small bottle of Calms Forte—a vial of peace. My boyfriend had given me these; he swore by them. He'd had trouble sleeping for several months, also from anxiety.
Another night, my boyfriend dropped by the apartment unexpectedly while I was writing a paper, just to see me, for no other reason. I was angry to see him—a first in our relationship—angry that he had deviated from our usual schedule. Later, he remarked, "You're a train: speeding too fast and about to derail."
Step Number Twenty-One on Lift's waking-up program is "Anti-fragility." The instructions read, "You're almost a regular at waking up on time. But what about when things are chaotic? The term 'anti-fragile' refers to things that get stronger over time and as things get more chaotic. It's worth reflecting on how you can improve this habit to grow stronger under difficult conditions."
Alright, but what if I'm going crazy?
One morning, after some sixty days of Lifting, my body simply rebelled. When the alarm went off before seven, I hopped lithely out of bed, slid the alarm shut, and tumbled back under the covers without a conscious thought. I was asleep before I could protest.
I woke two hours later. The fatigue of past months hovered faintly close by, but my body felt like it had been refreshed by a light sprinkle of air and rain.
I slouched into the velvety blue armchair, shut my eyes and tried to pretend I was leaning into a large cradle. I wanted to pray but listened instead to an insistent chirping from outside the window. The thin, pale curtains were drawn shut but I could feel the circling presence of a small, merry troop just beyond. I had no clue what birds they were (and 'til today, the only birdsong I can identify is a rooster's).
When it dawned on me that I hadn't listened to birds singing in a long, long time, I laughed out loud to an empty bedroom.
Waking is imitation. It is an act of magic. It calls upon the good fortune of others to conjure our own lives into something of value. Waking is delving. It is to open the black, heavy-lidded box of our deep, dangerous desires. Waking is tinder, the first link in the chain of everything. And waking is arriving. It is scrambling to a hilltop just in time for sunrise.
Lately, I have been waking at eight or nine, snoozing once or twice. On a slow walk around the neighborhood, I said to my boyfriend, "I guess I don't have to be amazing." He smiled back, and a rain-tinged breeze ushered us gently on.
A year of earnest trying passed but I never did snag that Early Rooster badge.
Title image "Yawn" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.