on waking early in the summer

July 22, 2017 · 6 comments

Deep in the summer, when Susan’s schedule changes — she works longer days but spends every other Friday at home — the alarm clock goes off earlier than usual. The dog is still asleep, the cats are still asleep, I’m still asleep. A splash of pre-dawn light filters through the window over my dresser. For a long time, I rolled over and went back to sleep, but lately, I’m getting up with her, which is not like me. It’s five in the morning and I hate five in the morning, especially if I’ve slept fitfully, which I often do when I’m in the throes of anxiety or the after-effects of excess. (This is usually an attempt to stave off the aforementioned anxiety and frankly never works. Fuel on fire.)

Lately, I find myself looking forward to these early mornings. Most days I lay in bed and read — actual books of the actual paper variety — until seven or so, and then I get up to feed the wild hordes and walk Petey around the block. I make myself a cup of coffee and sometimes a hard-boiled egg, I check my email and try not to get sucked down the wormhole that is Facebook, and then I get down to work: I re-read the previous days writing and pray that it propels me forward which, if the stars are aligned, it sometimes does.

I’ve been reading a lot of morning poetry lately, before I’m even upright, drawing from a stack next to my bed: Mary Oliver, Marie Howe, Hafiz, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, Jane Hirshfield, and always, Mark Doty, who many years ago showed me that the line between exquisite prose and poetry was gossamer. I picked up Heaven’s Coast after two of my best friends, a couple, died of AIDs within a year of each other in the early 1990s, leaving everyone who knew them staring into an abyss, broken and wordless. I watched Peter and Tim — kind men and practiced meditators who, every day at their country cottage rose before the sun to sip tea in their garden — shrink and fade into vague glimmers of themselves, aging before my eyes as their lives became a litany of cocktails and T-cell counts and hospital visits. One by one, their friends began to die, their beautiful upstate New York weekend houses in bucolic places like Saugerties and Mount Tremper sloughing off cherished possessions like skin. Couches, dressers, dining room tables were passed around until there was nobody left to pass them to; estate sales and auctions turned up familiar place settings, and first edition leatherbounds that might have been read three years earlier in front of a fireside dinner party. I have pictures of Tim in my first Manhattan walkup apartment from the years before he and Peter got sick, ebullient and beaming over a blue and white Conran’s planter that I bought for his birthday, which he used strictly to grow Genovese basil on his Chelsea windowsill. And I have his last Christmas gift to me: a small wall sculpture in the shape of an angel.

So I clung to Heaven’s Coast like a blanket, and I let its words and its sorrow fill my ears and knit my heart back together. This is what good writing does; it’s a balm for grief. And when Susan and I were still in the earliest phase of our relationship — she had just gone through a breakup and we were emailing but hadn’t yet met (although we had first set eyes on each other in Central Park in 1986 back when we were mere children in our twenties and thirties) — and she told me that she was spending a lot of time in the early mornings sitting in her kitchen reading Donald Hall’s Without, that was it for me. That was all it took.

It’s been a very noisy few months here, filled with the clatter of uncertainty, of not knowing: my mother’s accident and her sudden need for eldercare; my cancer scare; politics so loud and unhinging that steadying myself has become a full-time job; writing my next book, which actually is my full-time job. So the need for quiet, for an anchor, for psychic ballast, is ever-present in my home. Waking early before dawn to read poetry grounds me like almost nothing else except, perhaps, cooking. It’s a genetic thing: when my grandmother died and my mother cleaned her apartment out, she found Gaga’s Complete Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, copyright 1915, its spine shattered and held in place with silver gaffing tape. When she couldn’t sleep, my grandmother paced her Queens living room from one end to the other while reciting Evangeline mostly from memory until the sky turned red, the book clutched in her hands.

Getting up before the day is what she used to call it. Waking before the noise, windows open, sweetness in the air, up before the din. It’s soothing and restorative to hear good sounds; like poetry, it’s music to my ears.

Tim’s Pesto 

Admittedly, the world does not need another pesto recipe. This is the first one I ever made and it is good, if elemental. Tim and Peter were vegetarians and ate this tossed with pasta, as one does. When they weren’t looking, I often left out the cheese, thinned it out with a little water, and drizzled it over hard-cooked eggs or the freshest white fish I could find — Halibut or Black Sea Bass — which I still do today, all these years later.

1 large bunch (2 heaping cups) Genovese basil leaves, washed and patted dry

2 cloves garlic

1/3 cup pine nuts (or 1/4 cup walnut meats)

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for storing, if necessary

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano


In a food processor or blender, blitz together the basil leaves, garlic, and pine nuts until coarsely chopped. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil and continue to process until smooth. Taste and correct the seasoning, and add the cheese. Continue to pulse until smooth. To store, place in a lidded container and top with a slick of more oil.







{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sharon eisen July 23, 2017 at 7:16 am

Beautiful and resonant .

2 Linda July 23, 2017 at 4:47 pm

Morning sounds are the sweetest to wake up to and taking them all in before getting on with what lays ahead is the best way to start a day.

3 Jacqueline July 23, 2017 at 5:15 pm

I’ve finally begun Treyf. Like this post, like all your writing, I’m drawn close, imagining we are at the kitchen table sharing stories. You have a sneaky way of making me feel that these are my people, too. That you’re reminiscing with me rather than for me. Like all good writing, one is unaware how and when it’s happened, but it feels like a gift to be immersed in your stories.

4 Elissa July 23, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Thank you- 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

5 Elissa July 23, 2017 at 5:23 pm


6 Margit Van Schaick August 8, 2017 at 7:14 pm

Many years ago, in a time of unbearable grief, I found my way back by watching the dawning light change to that magic moment when it becomes golden (around 8:00 A.M. there in the Vermont woods). I loved the calm quiet, hearing the first bird calls turning into a joyous clamor. Reading your post evokes a similar calm, healing feeling. It’s magical.

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