The genius of brevity

I’ve decided that dawn does not get the attention it deserves. It comes every day without fail, but most of us hardly notice. And maybe that’s because we figure we’ll get so many of them—the average person will be alive for more than 25000 dawns—the average New Zealander lives 28,500, to be exact. Or maybe it’s because dawn comes so inconveniently early in the morning, when we’d rather be doing something else, like sleeping, or, if we’re forced to be awake, it’s because we’re busy and we don’t have time for it.

Dawn is also not so flashy—or so long lived—as its more popular cousin, Sunset. I’ve read about why this is—something about the angles of light and the long time for our eyes to slip from day into night lets sunset drag on but the short burst of light that makes dawn just switch into daylight. If you’re going to see sunset, you can lounge around a bit. But don’t run and get a cup of tea or you might miss dawn.

To be honest, it is this latest cancer scare that got me thinking about dawn and what it means. This question about what if I’ve lived through most of the dawns I’m going to see, and what if instead of 28,500, I get more like 18,000. Those are both big numbers, but I’ve already lived 16,885 of them. And for most of them, I didn’t even pay any attention! But this week I’ll get a call from my doctor, and he’ll tell me whether I need to be counting dawns very carefully or not. And if he says yes, it’s cancer, there will be PET scans and radiation and maybe chemo again. And then the dawns start slipping away by the hundreds, by the thousands.

But if he calls and says it’s not cancer (and he said after the surgery it looked 50/50, so this is a genuine option as well), the dawns still come and go each day. And still the clock is ticking. Even if I make it to 28,500, there will be a day when the dawn comes, but not for me. And that’s true for you too.

We count down the days until our vacation arrives. We count down the days until the baby comes, until Christmas, until our promotion kicks in. But we don’t pay such good attention at counting the days we are lucky to be on top of the planet rather than under it.

Yesterday I opened my eyes at dawn and my room was red, my skin was orange and the white walls had turned auburn and I raced out of bed and to the living room window where dawn is at its finest. The sky was on fire for 5 or 6 minutes, and then it faded into morning, into day. Dawn 16,886 for me. This morning the dawn was grey—hardly a whisper as the black turned to grey black to grey to light grey of this rainy windy wintry day. 16,887.

If one of the things that makes dawn so special, so magical, is how fleeting it is, wouldn’t that be one of the things that makes our lives so special, so magical? Shouldn’t we somehow be relishing the brevity of it all rather than grasping for more and more and more? If the sky were always orange, I wouldn’t race out of bed, throwing my robe around me against the cold morning. I would turn over and go back to sleep.

As I have gotten older, I have gotten so much better at letting go of what is today and not clinging to it. I miss my son’s plump hands reaching for a cheerio he can barely hold on to, but I relish watching his long thin fingers artfully play his guitar now. I miss my daughter climbing into bed with me in the mornings with armfuls of board books, but I love that we’re skyping about the Aristotle she’s reading in her first university philosophy class. I love today and don’t need yesterday carry on forever.

Still, I do feel a little clingy to the idea of a long life, and this week while I wait for the biopsy, it’s making the days I have actually less wonderful. The fear of fewer dawns takes the joy out of this one. I am hoping to turn around this trend. So let’s explore together the delights of our mortality and the ways our humanity makes every remaining dawn spectacular, no matter what the colour.


3 thoughts on “The genius of brevity

  1. I have chewed through about 7500 dawns more than you, I believe, and the number that remain is fewer by far than those I have lived, yet I think I relish sunset more. I am not sure why, although it might just be that it so very convenient to witness them; a matter of convincing myself that they are better as just a lazy rationalization. Or it could be that since my days are fewer in the future by far, compared to those I have lived, I am making the best out of sunset as a metaphor to what I feel is true: My life in its sunset years is so much better now than ever before. Since these are feeling like the best years of my life and I have waited so long for them, I am perhaps motivated to do as you say, prize them – appreciate them – relish and be as present as possible in them, because I feel the limits of them more keenly than before. In sum, my sunset years are more beautiful than my dawn years and my life is now giving me more to love.

    As a (current and hopefully future) cancer survivor, I also know the sharpness of attention to life’s symbols, whether is what the sun is up to or the fury of a storm or just the beauty of the odd blossoming bush, that comes with having my life threatened by a silent stalker/killer. Yet, what also arises in me is a simultaneous awareness of spirit, that relentless and impetuous drive to manifest and evolve that is responsible for all that is. When I tap into that, I know the stalker/killer has no power over Life, even if it can take this small “me” life. I believe I have been here before and will come again. I am/we are elements Life that cannot be stopped in its relentless drive to evolve.

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  2. I love your reflections, Jennifer. They remind me of how few dawns I witness, and how appreciative of them I am when I do. Yet it’s the sunsets that touch a deeper emotional chord, just as fall is my favorite season. There’s something about departure, closing, winding down that for me has more emotional power than beginning. Am I, like Keats wrote, “half in love with easeful death”?

    I’m with you in thinking that it’s life’s limits–i.e., death–that give it meaning. Yet I also identify with “feeling a little clingy about a long life.”

    What your thoughts also bring to mind is that I recently decided to let go of a marriage of nearly four decades, and moved this past weekend into a new apartment. I’m both mourning the relationship that died and celebrating the new chapter in my already long life (18,000 dawns). Death and rebirth at age 71. It feels like something I needed to do to maintain my integrity. Years ago, via the 4-column exercise that you led which was also my introduction to you, I identified the “big assumption” that I would have no identity without achievement of success. I was not able to rewrite the assumption, but I was able to redefine “success” as “leading a life consistent with my values” rather than achieving anything in particular. Having taken a step that felt enormously difficult yet essential to living a life consistent with my values (i’m leaving out the details), I now feel far more ready to die.

    Thanks for using the re-emergence of the existential threat of cancer to launch this blog. I look forward to walking beside you as you share the full experience.

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  3. Thank you, Jennifer, for your lovely post. I’m with you on the Inspiration of dawn.

    I am up for every one but must admit that acknowledging the amazing qualities of this most precious time of the day is not equal in number – if I were to count my days so far. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

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