“Teach us to count our days well, that we may obtain a wise heart.”
Sometimes when life gets rough or news is suddenly good or a special event takes place, you think to yourself: “What a difference a day makes!” And it does. In one day you can go from being single to being married. In one day you can go from being married to losing a spouse you cherish. In one day you can get a diagnosis, and in one day you can have surgery to remove a growth. One day you become a parent and life changes forever. One day, you stand on stage and get a diploma and suddenly you are a doctor, lawyer or accountant. It is not that you knew less the day before. It is that one day was picked to confer a different status upon you.
Any transition that takes only a few hours but changes a life, reminds us of the preciousness of counting days and making each day extraordinary when we can. The well-known verse from psalms above, however, points not to the extraordinary days of our lives that appear in photo albums but to the span of time that does not stand out for anything unusual. Days and days pass in monotony. Number those days well, and you have made a life. According to Psalms, you will obtain a wise heart.
We find this perspective in the unusual way that days are counted in Genesis 25:7 and 47:9. In the first verse, when Abraham approached his death, and the text records “the days of his years.” In the second, Jacob shared the hardships of the “days of his years” with Pharaoh when the two finally met. Long swaths of time are broken into the days of the years in these ancient passages as a reminder that years are an accumulation of days. They can blend into each other with sameness and tedium or stand out from the years as times of productivity, joy and distinctiveness.
Mason Currey, in his new book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, offers over 100 portraits of the every day rituals of famous novelists, composers and artists in brief spurts of a few paragraphs each. A few sleep all day and work all night. Some can’t begin work with a strong drink and a smoke; others need complete silence and a morning coffee. Maya Angelou writes in a hotel room to separate work from life. Truman Capote called himself a horizontal author because he loved to work in bed. Most woke early to catch the morning light and the first burst of creative energy and generally wrote 3-4 hours.
Some belittle the revelation of an artist’s rituals because it does not make a difference to us what someone else does to inspire the muse. Yet, we do want to know. Perhaps if, like Stephen King, we sit down every day and reach our 2,000 word quota, we will write the next airport bestseller. Maybe if we can discover a good daily ritual we can maximize our productivity.
William James believed that the best way to make meaning is to create daily routines that we stick to religiously: “The more details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.” Without a plan, he says that the indecision of how we should spend time, wastes previous time.
We are now in the period of the nine days, a season in the Jewish calendar where we grieve over the ancient destruction of Jerusalem and the Temples. We count these nine days as part of the 21 day period of our past violently lost. But what about day 10 and 11 and 32 and 1,045? When we count days, we are essentially saying that each day matters, and we have an opportunity to redeem time every morning. A day makes all the difference in the world.
Sanctifying time day after day brings us to another writer, William Faulkner, who once said: “I write when the spirit moves me, and the spirit moves me every day.”