My time of day is the dark time...
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with a mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone
When the smell of the rainwashed pavement
Comes up clean, and fresh, and cold
And the streetlamp light
Fills the gutter with gold
That’s my time of day.
~ Frank Loesser, My Time of Day (from Guys and Dolls)
In my most silenced and darkest waking hours, there is time to regather. With ambient light dimmed to crepuscular graininess, even the objects and structures in our midst emerge with softer edges. How are the pre-dawn hours so unlike those we call “late night?” Is there a zone of demarcation- like, say, 1 am? I find the noticeable significance when my awakening renews my alertness very early in the morning, before sunrise. Unlike a world-weary after-midnight wakefulness, my regained consciousness parallels hot water and soap, clean clothes and coffee. The windows are still blackened with night, and mirror my interior back to me. The world is still asleep. Muted sounds from my table radio, the sole permitted murmurs through the holy silence of the day that seems not to have started yet. There’s time, in these nascent hours, to reflect on the day passed and aspire to the one yet to form.
Yesterday’s newspaper sits on the dining table, rendered obsolete by the simple traversal of the night hours. At my desk, situated where I’d left them, my wallet, books, sweater, and writing things await. These inanimate objects in their respite, as the parked cars lined up outside at chilled ease- yet lingering with their owners’ residual imprint. What remains of us, when our instruments and habitations remain in our absence? Does your bicycle in the hallway, the notebook atop your desk, and your chairback-draped coat await only you? By the second cup of coffee, the grey light presents a black-and-white photo exterior. Perhaps in this essence of advancement there may be found the difference between the darkest hours before and after repose. More than a marking of time, it’s an alteration of perspective, the division between the winding-down of well-worn thought processes and the restarting of rested reasoning.
In these precious, slower, somber moments of the half-lit day, there is a sense of catching up with time’s pace, witnessing light’s increase. The scenery outside develops, reminiscent of images manifesting in darkroom processing trays. In the holy darkness, we do not wait in vain. These vigils recall creation, with light dividing the uncomprehending darkness. With such thresholds are new thoughts and reflections to accompany my routines through the work day’s structure and its daunting complexities. Such silent spaces are my Divine Hours, and the hushed darkness- those times of less apparent visibility- invite an expanse of inward roads.
I have never found myself begrudging the early-waking. The time seems to belong to me; it is uninterrupted and given gratefully to unstructured contemplation. Being awake is all there is to be concerned about. There is still time to dream. The slate is clear, hot coffee fresh, and the liminal gradations through dusk are navigated with certitude into light. As I learned in memorable wonder through my many monastic sojourns, from vigils and lauds the day silently emerges into being, and with the ensuing visibility a new admiration for the full sunlight that follows. Another set of very-early-morning memories rewinds my thoughts to junior high school years when I began to take to waking before 5am, hearing my Dad readying for work. We were both half-awake, he with his coffee and me with my cereal bowl, and the New York Times sports section before us. And cartoons. Sometimes, at the opposite end of especially prolific baseball days, we would go out walking after 11pm, to buy tomorrow’s Times. We were the vigilant and purposeful souls, awake before the rest of the block, save for- at least it seemed- the delivery trucks and Newsradio 88. This was the safest part of my adolescent day, and only now when thinking of it I realize the origin of all my good connotations and sensitivities attached to these hours.
Walking home last night, scaling the embankment along Pleasant Street, I remembered tracking those same sidewalks after groggy all-nighters in my studio at art college. During senior year, I worked a third shift in the dusty press room of the city newspaper, walking home to grind the ink off my forearms with abrasives. Of the divine darkness, there is no defined duration. Perhaps that cognizance of eventide remains with a soul, in varying degrees and times of day. Dionysius wrote how it is in this kind of lucent darkness that we long to be, “and through unsight and unknowledge to see and to know that which is above sight and knowledge, by very not seeing and not knowing.” About nine hundred years later, in the latter 14th century, there followed the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Perhaps the symbolic cloud is as much a place of uncontrived comprehension as it is a shield to counteract what Dionysius called the “oversensible.” In silence and in sparing shreds of light, the soul may “be borne aloft to the superessential ray of divine darkness.” At this moment of writing, early in the morning, I am borne aloft by an unseeing sense of expectation. Not really rested, but as always a clean slate. Now writing of this gift, I become more aware of the ingredients with which each day begins.