Most mornings I walk to my office about 5am to start this work of writing. I am not a morning person (far from it) but once up, I love being up and outside at that hour. In this grey city it seems it’s the only time it’s ever truly beautiful, or at peace. This morning a fingernail of a waning crescent moon hovered over the houses to the southeast and cast a dark and surreal glow on the neighborhood. The sounds from the freeway and the factories along it never really stop, but at that hour they are at least at ebb tide.
When I walk the streets in the early morning hours I walk right down the middle of the street, almost never on the sidewalk. Occasionally I have to move for a passing car, some other early rising soul headed to work, and I think about where they’re going at this hour, what job they do that inspires or requires such early devotion as to rise before the sun and leave family, home, to set out before the rush hour. I walk down the middle of the street, down Courtland Avenue in the stillness walking West, and at the end of Courtland six blocks ahead of me is Allison Elementary school with its giant lighted cross on top. It shines there like some celestial presence over this backwater Appalachian neighborhood. It lights the street in the pre-dawn like a moon, like a star, and on mornings like this, where the real moon is just peeking through and about to become new, it is nearly the only light in the dark morning sky.
I started walking in the street on winter’s day when the snow made the sidewalks impassible. The largest snowfall of the winter dropped only about four inches this year, but it was enough to make these old city sidewalks a maze of ice and snow. I walked that snowy morning in the tracks of the only car that had yet traveled that road, and I marveled at how walking in the street changes your view of a neighborhood. Walk the sidewalks and you walk with your head down, watching for the cracks. You walk with a closed mind, pointed inward, and you don’t see. But walk in the street and there are no cracks to avoid. You walk with your head up because you can see. No branches block your view, no fences hide what’s around the corner. You are impartial between the houses on either side, in no-man’s land, an observer. And you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see. On snowy days you could almost believe the white expanse covered something other than concrete, and that you were somewhere other than in a city of two million people that will soon come to life in all its noise and pollution and tension and strife. On a spring day walking in the street allows you to actually see the trees and the flowers in the few yards that have them. You’re out of the forest and can have some perspective, and just that small change removes the stifling claustrophobia a nature lover feels when trapped in the city. There is sky overhead and the buildings, while still surrounding you, are held just a little at bay. It was necessity that first drove me into the street by now I walk it by choice, whenever I get the chance.
I am amazed how dark it is this morning. Only two weeks ago the moon shone full on a new snowfall and it felt like mid-day before sunrise. I could imagine at the poles, where the sun never sets in summer, how light it must be all the time with that midnight sun shining on the ice fields. But today, it is early March. Spring hovers like the wafting aroma of a good meal and all of Cincinnati licks its chops at the prospect. Yesterday it was sixty-two degrees, and despite a brief cold afternoon rain it was a glorious sunny day. We will almost certainly get one more cold snap before the warmer weather truly settles on the Queen City, but at least today we have hope. Cincinnati can be dreary. When we moved here a friend told me what to expect: “About two weeks of a beautiful spring, followed by three months of hot, oppressive heat and humidity, then another two weeks of gorgeous Autumn followed by seven months of grey, dreary cold.” He wasn’t far off. Cincinnati is made for the transitional seasons. Before coming here, I heard Cincinnati was in the Midwest and though of the great Midwestern winters with snow and ice storms and power outages and shoulder high snowdrifts. Turns out Cincinnati, in the furthest southwestern corner of Ohio, shares its weather more with Kentucky and Tennessee than it does even with the rest of the state. A large cold front will come in and dump five or six inches of snow on Cleveland and Columbus, it may even hit Dayton just forty-five minutes to the north, but it will leave Cincinnati untouched. Here we sit in the Ohio River valley, a weather no-man’s-land, either the southernmost Northern city or the northernmost Southern city in the United States, but mostly in twilight.
Today will be rain. Right now it’s warm outside, warm enough at six am for the trees to be fooled into budding and the tulip bulbs to foolishly poke their heads out in search of the sun. By tonight two inches of rain will have fallen as a cold front moves in, and by tomorrow we’ll be lamenting the return of the cold. But before then, the sun is about to rise on a beautiful false spring day. Out my window to the East I see the sky lighten and grow orange. The birds are singing outside and the snow is gone everywhere except in the woods by the tracks, where the sun can’t yet peek through to root it out. A beautiful morning is a thing of wonder; blessed, and nearly enough to make a person forget what a place is like the rest of the time. All the metaphors, hope, the dawning of a new day, are apt. This morning all those old clichés are new again and their truth seems fresh and unspoiled.
Out the window the houses are the same, their paint still chipping off and rotting, their porches and foundations still sagging and cracking. The giant old cathedral next door is still slowly falling down, its slate tiles occasionally crashing to the ground, and the rain carving and smoothing and shaping its once sharp lines into softer curves and wrinkles. But any minute now the first rays of the morning sun will shine brightly on its copper dome, and the green will reflect through the neighborhood like the leaves that will soon spring from the trees toward the light. Right now everything is potential. That’s the best time, better even than when it comes, when you know the life and change and the renewal are all there, just bundled tightly inside, and needing only the light of the sun to set them free.
Spring is on its way. It’s not here yet, but neither is it far off. It’s been a long winter, and we’re all ready for it, the trees, the birds, and the earth, all of us. In my own heart I cultivate this renewal, and am thankful for my awareness of it this year. It’s more than just metaphor; it is life. I have been dormant for too long, and I am ready for new life. No, it’s not here yet, but it’s coming. I can taste it.