lenten journal: number


“Teach us to number our days so that we can have a wise heart.” Psalm 90:12 (CEB)

I can’t read that verse without hearing the piano introduction to “Seasons of Love” from the musical RENT, followed by the voices:

five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear
five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
how do you measure, measure a year?
in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee
in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
in five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
how do you measure a year in the life?

I have always heard the Psalmist’s words explained as a call to grasp the brevity of life and understand that the life we live is of incredible significance. Play like you have no discards. We can stay up all night watching Dead Poets’ Society once again and promise ourselves to seize the day, yet in the midst of the midnights and cups of coffee the days roll by. As one of the characters says in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky,

Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

Teach us to number our days . . . .

Our understanding of what things mean changes when we come to terms with the endings. I hadn’t watched David Letterman with any regularity for years until I knew he was retiring and then I didn’t miss a show for the last few weeks, and remembered again how he shaped the way I looked at humor and life back in earlier years. Our Thursday Night Dinners in Durham took on a different meaning once we announced we were moving to Connecticut. We have had a couple of dinners here in Guilford as well over the last couple of weeks. They are not the same, yet they are informed by all the evenings spent on Trinity Avenue with friends who remain deeply embedded in my heart despite the distance.

Teach us to number our days . . . .

W. S. Merwin, one of my favorite poets, offers another angle from which to think about it in “On the Anniversary of My Death.”

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

I’m four days away from marking a month since my mother died and aware in fresh ways of how much of life I think about in terms such as how many days since, how many days before, how many days until, or how many days between. The longer I live, the more life seems to move from grief to grief, which numbers the days in sacred ways. I’ve stacked the stones of memory on certain days so I can tell the stories again and remember. My father died on August 3, and now the third of any month is an altar in my heart. I mark every Opening Day of baseball season remembering my friend David Gentiles who shared my love of green diamonds and hopeless causes. in four days, the fifteenth of the month will become a new marker in my life as I remember my mother. The significance of my life is deepened as I number and name the growing cloud of witnesses who are no longer here; it is also deepened as I number and name those with whom I still walk the planet. There’s no reason to wait till their funeral to say what I need to say.

Teach us to number our days . . . .

Even as the Psalmist calls us to grasp the brevity and significance of this life we have, it seems most of the numbering happens in hindsight. We see what the days mean as we reflect on and remember them. Only after someone has died do we attach significance to the last time we saw them. Only after we have moved away do we understand the deep ritual that fed us in what was once our daily routine. Sometimes what happens in a moment renumbers the days that have come before and we see them in a new way. In losing our mother, my brother and I found each other in new ways that are feeding us both, for which I am deeply grateful.

Teach us to number our days . . . .

The Psalmist calls us to value our time—the one thing we can’t collect. Certainly part of the call is to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God, to dream of an act on ways we can change our world, yet there is a paradox at play in the way a dinner with friends and family that is about nothing more than being together can brush up against eternity. Rather than a question—what makes life significant?—let us make a statement: life is significant. So let us number the two times we went to see Springsteen together, or the forty-seven times we met for coffee, the three weeks you let me stay at your house while my mother was dying, or the one night we all got to take the stage at the Starlight Lounge and play and sing like we did in high school, and eight or ten times we had dinner on the porch.

We number our days, the Psalmist says, so that we can have a wise heart. Yes. That’s a heart that knows how to measure a life in love.





  1. Our Super Bowl weekend went like this: someone rambled through our neighborhood, rummaging every unlocked vehicle; no damage, just crime of opportunity and a minor but unsettling annoyance.

    Then we heard one of my daughters’ occasional softball teammates, age 13, killed herself.

    Then we heard a former co-worker of mine passed away (heart trouble) leaving a wife and 2 young sons. This guy always smiled. Was always helpful. Taught me a couple words of Hindi, including a phrase which people recalled at the memorial: “be cool, brother.”

    “How can I keep from singing…”

    • The phrase that has become almost daily for me is grief is a primary color–not black, but rich and layered. And so we keep singing above earth’s lamentations . . . .

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