By Sarah Bousquet
I’m mid-dream, drifting through an unresolved story, when I feel my daughter bumping against the length of my body like a burrowing ground animal, nudging me into consciousness. Grumpy, I want to hit the snooze button. But the alarm clock is my toddler, and there is no going back to sleep. She is more persistent than any electronic buzzing and just as consistent, almost always 4:45 a.m. on the dot. I open one eye. Darkness, no pink light peeking through the blinds yet.
Still, I can’t complain. After two years of sleep deprivation with slow, incremental improvement, we are finally people who sleep through the night. My early-riser is no longer a baby who cries, but a toddler who climbs up into our bed and snuggles her body close, whispering sweet words like “I love you” and “Remember we go to party yesterday?” Summer felt like a parade of parties, so many events, and to a small child, it must’ve felt like every day was a party.
As we quietly reminisce about cake and games and names of friends and family, I can’t help but wish for five more minutes of sleep. I’ve tried saying, “It’s still nighttime, let’s sleep a little longer,” but she can’t be convinced. Her chant begins. “Get up, mommy! Get up!”
Determined to trick myself out of grumpiness and start on a happy note, I decide on a new ritual. Every morning, we will read Mary Oliver’s poem “Why I Wake Early,” our secular prayer, our ode to the sun as we wait for it to rise. Then we’ll get up and do a few sun salutations. We will welcome the day with body and voice. Every day will be beautiful!
The poem is an instant hit. Voice groggy, eyes half-closed, I open the book and read by the beam of my iPhone’s flashlight. “Hello, sun in my face. Hello, you who make the morning…” When I reach the end, my daughter says, “again, again!”
I read the poem again. Here we are, inside a moment of perfection. I made this happen! I created a way to begin the day with beauty. I’m so pleased with this small victory, I spring from the bed and announce with genuine enthusiasm, “Let’s do sun salutations!”
We face each other with prayer hands. I say, “Namaste” and bow, and she does the same, my brilliant two-year-old. Then I stretch my arms wide and raise them up up up. She raises her arms with a pout. As I bend forward to touch my toes, she shrieks, “Noooo! No! I don’t wanna do salutations! No!”
Bringing my hands back to my heart center, I encourage her in the gentlest tone, “Let’s try one more time!” But her protests have devolved into crying. A hysterical sprint toward the stairs. “Okay, okay, no sun salutations,” I relent, walking toward her as she begins to slowly back down the staircase. I am just reaching the top when she suddenly loses her footing and tumbles like a ragdoll all the way to the bottom. I race after her helplessly.
Within seconds I have her in my arms. Immediately, I recognize her cry is not one of pain. I calmly rock her and ask if she’s alright. Somehow there isn’t a single scratch or bruise, and the crying ceases. Our zen morning is a failure, but we manage to elude disaster.
Later that day, we give yoga another try. “Stretch your arms, sunshine girl!” She reaches up. “Now fall forward and touch your toes.” I move into downward-facing dog pose, a triangle shape, and become the human jungle gym. When her attempt to scale my legs fails, she decides to straddle my neck. I practice ujjayi breathing and try to ignore the 28 pounds squatting on my head. Ujjayi, which translates to “victorious breath,” also known as “oceanic breath” for the the sound made deep in the back of the throat, the sound a conch shell makes when you hold it close to your ear. Here we are in the present moment, upside-down, toddler banging tiny fists on my back, eventually surrendering to a backwards hug. We collapse in a mama-child heap, a messy Shavasana.
We give up on yoga and head outside, my daughter leading the way. The backyard is littered with maple leaves, but the sun is warm and bright, t-shirt weather, the seasonal cusp. She takes me by the hand, “Look, mama, leaves!” Her bare feet dance and we listen to the crackle and crunch.
Here we are inside the present moment, and I see it clearly, my tiny teacher illustrating mindfulness in the crunching of leaves. Faster than a moment, mindfulness is in the millisecond. It’s in the noticing. It’s when she points to the deer darting out of the garden. The geese flying overhead. The noise of an airplane. The smell of geraniums on the front porch. I construct rituals while she cultivates presence. We exchange the roles of student and teacher, back and forth and back again.
We forgo the sun salutations, but keep the poem. One morning, while she’s eating her yogurt and blueberries, cheeks smeared and fingers stained purple, I copy the poem into my journal and begin to recite, “Hello.” Before I continue, my daughter finishes the line, “sun in my face,” bursting into a fit of giggles. And I laugh with her, astonished. I begin the next line and again, she finishes it. It’s not until we reach the middle, when she recites with perfect clarity “to hold us in the great hands of light” that the poem’s double meaning dawns on me. My early-riser, my sunshine girl. The poem is about my daughter, because of course, she is why I wake early.
Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.