A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life

Photograph by Xuebing Du


words by willow defebaugh

All life has a rhythm. Our biological clocks do more than just tell us when it’s time to wake and sleep: they connect us to nature.

“We have made clocks that are perfectly in sync with the industrial machinery and the Information Age and perfectly out of sync with nature and our circadian rhythm.”

Khang Kijarro Nguyen

The time is 7:04. It’s Thursday, the day I always write my newsletter. I’ve just woken up with the sun, as I do every morning. I spend half an hour sojourning in bed, which I keep directly on the floor for exactly two reasons: so that I can feel closer to the Earth, and so that I can look up out of my bedside window and see the sky. Once a month, when the moon is full, I open my eyes to her beaming down on me long before dawn. I know that I could avoid this, that I don’t have to keep my curtains drawn, but it feels right: to live my life by the passing of the light.


After getting out of bed, I take my clay teapot off its shelf and begin boiling water while I brush my teeth and wash my face. Once I hear whistling, I take my pot to the spot on my rug where I always have tea. Over the next hour, I sit for three cups. I close my eyes and I focus on the taste from the leaves, the heat of the water, the gentle breeze coming through my window. I don’t have a meditation practice anymore, but I do this on Thursdays because I find it helps the words flow more easily. And it reminds me that even in a big city, we can connect with nature. 


I use the leftover water to make myself a bowl of muesli mixed with sunflower butter and dried cherries that my best friend brought me from home. By the time I get dressed and sit down at my desk, it’s 9:17. I answer a few timely emails and messages from my team, and then I close Slack so that I can focus on writing. I put my phone on the other side of the room because I know that it will distract me, too. I open a blank document, and I remind myself of the theme I had already chosen for this week’s edition: chronobiology and circadian rhythms.


I begin as I always do, with research. I gather my sources, a mix of articles, studies, and journals. I start with the etymology of the word circadian from Oxford Languages: a combination of the Latin circa, meaning about, and dies, meaning days. Then, the definition, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences: “Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. These natural processes respond primarily to light and dark and affect most living things, including animals, plants, and microbes.”


I learn that these processes are governed by biological clocks: specific protein molecules that interact with other cells in our bodies. I learn that they exist in most tissues and organs of most organisms—including animals, insects, plants, and fungi. Even more to my amazement, I learn that all of the clocks contained in a living thing are kept in sync by what’s known as a master clock. In vertebrates, it’s a cluster of 20,000 nerves in the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is located in the hypothalamus and receives light directly through the eyes.


And so I start to write—all the words you’re reading now. I write about how our circadian rhythms and biological clocks tell us to be awake during the day and asleep at night. I write about how they keep us healthy, how they help regulate our hormone levels and body temperature, our appetites and digestion. I write about how they tell sunflowers to rotate their faces with the sun so that they can absorb as much energy as possible throughout the day. I write about how they tell phosphorescent organisms to shine at night and grow dim with dawn’s light.


It’s afternoon now, which means the sun has begun pouring into my office. I think about why I chose this subject in the first place: a reminder that our days have a rhythm, that all things do. I think about how easy it is to miss in the midst of our busy lives, buzzing beneath the surface, only perceptible with presence. I think about the concept of small clocks kept in sync by a larger clock. I think about nature and the world outside my window. I think it’s time to take a walk.

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