I’m always the first one awake in my family. I usually have about an hour to myself before my wife gets up for work. I read and I write, I walk the dog, and I enjoy what is the slowest part of my day.
This morning, though, Nell got up before I did. I walked downstairs at 5 a.m. and saw her at the kitchen counter on her laptop typing away. She was putting the final touches on some professional development materials for the digital literacy training she was leading today at her elementary school. A teacher’s work is never done.
Our dog was awake too, and she needed to go out. With my morning mug of coffee in hand, Ginger and I set out for a walk around Colonial Acres, the one hundred plus homes of my neighborhood. It was still dark and the air was crisp. I don’t know what I did before I had a dog, but I rarely left the house before daylight.
I love where I live. In some ways, it’s like being trapped in a time warp with the 21st century out there somewhere nearby, just beyond my neighbors’ yards. There are no street lights in the Acres, just the glow of porch lights and lampposts. At 5:15 in the morning, it’s rare to see any cars on our streets. There is only one way in and out. I’ve walked Ginger for more than half an hour at times and haven’t seen a moving car. The homes were built in the early sixties, as was I. There is a distinct feeling I get sometimes of walking back in time as I stroll down our streets.
I felt that way this morning as I walked Ginger in the dark. As I sipped my coffee and slowly woke up, I traveled back in time. I thought of two of my “boy” roles from long ago: paperboy and altar boy. Both gave me reasons to be up before dawn in the little town of my youth. My older brother John and I delivered the Democrat and Chronicle, a morning newspaper, every day of the week for about three years when we were in junior high and high school. This meant waking up around 6 a.m. and walking or riding our bikes while we delivered newspapers to about one third of our town.
On a good day, delivering papers is boring and repetitive, but we made the best of it. On one street, for three customers in a row, I went straight to Straight’s, left to Lefty’s and then right to Wright’s. I’d hold my temples and pretend scream, “Stella!” like Brando when I put the Sunday paper on Stella Maddox’s front porch. I learned that my teachers had real lives when I delivered the news to their homes.
I was an altar boy for ten years. Two or three times a year, I had to serve a week’s worth of 7 a.m. masses with my brother. These masses ended in half the time as the Sunday masses did, and they took place in a darkened church every weekday morning. It was difficult to stay awake sometimes, even during the shortened mass. I remember racing to finish my paper route and then scrambling to get to mass on time when my early morning duties crossed paths. I saw faith and devotion in the hearts of true believers, a faith so strong it brought them together beyond Sundays.
While I had nothing more to do this morning than walk the dog, I thought of those busy mornings of my youth. These days, a middle aged man in a car delivers papers to my neighbors and there are often no servers at mass, but that’s what was on my mind as the sun began to ease me into my day. It was during those days long ago that I learned to wake up early and take advantage of the day before most of the rest of my world did.
During those early hours, my mind would wander and I’d dream of the person I might grow to be some day. I’d drop a paper on a porch and wonder about the lives lived on the other side of the door. I remember my neighbors leaving their garage doors unlocked for me and I remember taking shortcuts through their yards and I remember delivering the news of the world in the silent darkness before the dawn. I remember.
That early morning time provided an opportunity for me, on a daily basis, to dream of an unknown future and to make plans to branch out and see the wider world beyond my paper route and my church. It provided a time for me to notice and name things that made up my world and to invent things that weren’t in it yet. Although I didn’t write down a word, those early morning hours of my youth helped me to become a writer.
This morning, as I walked a familiar path past neighbors’ homes, I could smell a hint of incense in the air and feel the newsprint on my hands. A writer’s work is never done.