Hearth tenders

It’s 3:30 a.m. and I’ve been awake for the last hour. My mind feels restless and a little bored. I’m not anxious, and I don’t remember a dream. At 40 years old, I wonder if I’m waking due to age. But there was no heat or sweating or urgency to visit the toilet. I was not blessed with children to check on or worry about in the night; there is just the sound of my husband breathing in the dark. Waking at this time is a common occurrence. It happens more frequently than not; whether I have a glass of wine or water with dinner, or a stressful or peaceful day at work, or exercise my mind and body to pleasant fatigue, or don’t make time for exercise at all. I can medicate through it with melatonin or valerian or any number of treatments for cortisol dysregulation, but as a naturopathic doctor, I have to wonder if this isn’t actually normal, when almost every woman over 35 I know who isn’t ill or exhausted wakes between 2 and 4 a.m. 

In poetry and fantasy novels, this is referred to as the witching hour. When spirits walk and spells are cast, and the deep voices of our hearts can finally give form to secret yearnings ignored by daylight. I love metaphor and stories and know that sometimes healing begins with a new perspective. Is there a story here? Is there a commonality between myself and the women I know, my sisters in spirit, that leads us to wake? 

My mind drifts to what we would do at that time if we lived the way people have lived for most of human history. Thought experiments are fun, and I often use them to explore what our unchanged bodies need, even as our contemporary minds enjoy playing on the Xbox until 1 o’clock in the morning while munching Cheetos and drinking Redbull. The middle of the night is good for unchecked thought experiments; daylight brings a desire for research, to examine the work of historians or scientists for evidence that substantiate or disprove midnight musings. 

I lie in darkness, imagining a small, dark cottage around me, or a hand-hewn log cabin, or maybe a reed-roofed hut. A time when the night was kept at bay by candles or oil lamps or torches. Water carried and stored in bladders or pots or tightly woven baskets from the nearest spring-fed well. Warmth provided by skillfully wrought wool blankets and furs and a carefully kept fire. Nourishment from wildcrafted vegetables and herbs, hunted or shepherded animals. What do we do in the darkness of early morning here? What tasks need our presence so strongly that we wake from deep rest to ensure their completion? 

Slowly, answers to my questions begin to form: fire, and birth, and loving care.

We would get up and feed the fire, stoking it so that the embers rekindle and bring warmth. Maybe we’d set some grains to soaking so they cooked quickly in the morning chill, or visit a pregnant animal in the barn, to see if she is laboring through the night for a dawn birth. Perhaps we’d check on our children, making sure they are safe and sleeping soundly. But then we’d return to the hearth and sit, watching the flames and adjusting logs so that the fire burned slowly enough to last until dawn, and safe enough to leave unattended. And maybe there is magic in the flames, meaning that can only be understood by the silent beating of our hearts in the night. Meaning that can’t be attended to during the busyness of unending daylight tasks. Hearth tenders, or heart tenders. Dreamers. Flame readers. Witches. We still wake and maybe it’s because we’re missing our hearth fire, and the messages it has for us. Or maybe we wake because our hearth fires are calling to us in the night, longing to share their secrets. 

ALICIA TREMBLAY is a doctor, writer, and homesteader. She lives in the Snoqualmie Valley with her husband, dog, and two cats.

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