In predawn solitude, I awake to the company of others

BEWARE: This article is the result of an experiment in solitude. Those who are oversensitive to peace and tranquility are advised to go directly to the next page.

At 4 o'clock in the morning, the world is such a quiet place. I sometimes wake instinctively, beckoned by an internal clock that runs in a different time zone than my body.

This morning I reach for the radio, but stay my hand. NPR will be there later, when the rest of the world awakens. The house is dark and silent except for the pings of heat that race through the aluminum ducts from the furnace below and the breathing rhythms of my children in the next room.

I have always admired my father-in-law, whose customary rising time is 4 a.m. Even now, decades past retirement, he relishes the peaceful dark of early mornings.

He is a card-carrying member of "the greatest generation," having survived the Great Depression, weathered World War II, endured the '60s, all the while following Ben Franklin's adage: "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

My children can't fathom why anyone would want to be out of bed at such an hour, but Grandpa just laughs and claims that someone has to wake the rooster!

The silence is eerie at 4 a.m. The regular hum of traffic is missing, a sound more obvious in its absence. We've had several blizzards here in Buffalo, N.Y., and even though the calendar says it's early winter, the piles of snow on the ground say differently. The drifts make terrific insulators, rendering the usual city noises muffled and distant.

4:15 a.m.: A glance out the window reveals more than a few flakes floating serenely to the earth. For a moment I feel as though I'm inside a glass snow globe just shaken by a hand mightier than mine. The stillness is palpable. The blue spruce in the yard is frosting over. A perfect painting. I try to focus on a single flake and distinguish it from its fellows.

Time is suspended from this vantage. The flakes all seem the same, but in my mind I know they are all different. They are intricate and complex beyond my ability to perceive.

I try in vain to calculate the vast numbers of possibilities before me. This is the calculus of poetry, and in an instant I do not feel so all alone.

4:30: In his book "Walden," Henry David Thoreau wrote: "I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude." In his two years at Walden Pond, he discovered that he was never really alone.

Whether it was the Fitchburg Railroad chugging past the pond or the bells of the First Church in Concord tolling the hours, Thoreau was reminded of his ongoing membership in the human community around him.

So too this morning, in the quiet minutes before dawn, I can almost feel the music of radio waves and the thunder of the World Wide Web. With a click of a mouse I can easily reconnect to the world and break this peaceful trance.

4:40: The sky has cleared, and the morning stars are out. Venus accompanies me on my walk, bright beyond hope. Somehow, in the crisp winter air and the solemn quiet of this hour, the stars seem brighter, closer.

The sky is a lens this morning; my eyes are sharpened by its curve. I can hear the distant thud of a snowplow clearing the streets a few blocks away.

Now the lights are coming on in the houses I pass, reminders that my solitude is more imagined than real.

It is hard to be alone, truly alone. Through my experiment in solitude I had hoped that I could really be by myself for a while. Then I would have the leisure to discover new horizons, unexplored countries tucked round the corners of familiar places.

I planned to have big ideas, insights, even profound wisdom whispered in my ear, unheard during ordinary hours and the restless din of society.

Instead, this morning, I learned that it is not really space or time that separates me from my fellows. Time and space are easily resolved by patience and a pair of strong legs. Rather, I understood that solitude serves only to remind us of how connected we are to the rest of the world.

Even in these early hours, my heart drifts back to those still sleeping in their beds. Their warmth is my warmth. Their dreams are my dreams.

Soon the sun will peek over the horizon. House lights will come on, one by one, to start the new day. Homer sang of dawn's rosy fingers, and I watch as her hand spreads across the sky.

In a moment I will have to turn toward home and join the regular beat of humanity. The hours will pass in the company of others, hours made richer by a glimpse of peace snatched from solitude at 4 o'clock in the morning.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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