My daughter’s eighth grade science teacher gave his class an assignment to watch four sunrises or sunsets. As we live only half of mile from Lake Michigan, my daughter chose sunrises, and, several very early weekend mornings, my wife or I roused her to walk east in the dark. Sometimes clouds prevented seeing much and once or twice I half-jogged with her to the lakefront only to find the sun just clear of the water and climbing.
But when we caught the sunrise, it was astounding—one moment, a gray horizon and then a plate of white fire and then, within a minute or so, the show was over. It was day, and we turned for hot chocolate at Starbucks and home.
The same magic minute occurs every dawn. The earth rolls, and a line of light advances. When the earth rolls enough, we can see the sun. The earth rolls more, and it’s fully day. And I don’t note the moments. I’m stepping from the shower or pouring cereal or slipping my computer in my bag or gathering my keys from the dish by the door or walking, head down, toward a sun I can’t—and don’t bother—to see.
Yet it happens. My daughter is a senior in high school now, and I recently asked her why her teacher gave the assignment. She said he wanted the class to observe the sun, and sunrise and sunset were moments when enough atmosphere intervened to get a peek at it.
I thought it was because he wanted them to witness a miracle.
Getting my daughter up before sunrise on a weekend is a sort of miracle, but the sun was better. I almost thought of it as living, appearing as it did so suddenly and so boldly. Its passage is usually so slow, and it slides through the sky unacknowledged as we busy ourselves with life. At sunrise, the sun seemed as surprised by us as we were by it, and, excited by witnesses, it leapt into the air.
We were never alone at the lakefront. People were running or cycling as they probably did every morning, but there were also other spectators still out from the night before or people standing with cameras ready to arrest the second—the less than a second—the guest arrived. It seemed much too special to happen every day.
So seldom do I think about time that I hardly feel it pass. You just have a moment to identify a moment, and it doesn’t seem a particularly valuable use of time to note each of the infinite series of presents we experience. You had one just then. You are having another now.
Nothing could stop that sun either. It wouldn’t sit on the horizon no matter how many cameras pointed at it, but somehow the sun did speak. It said now is now, and now is passing. It said you don’t feel time move but it can do nothing except move in its one direction, and only the instants that announce its progress—like sunrise—make us discern it at all.
I sometimes watch my daughter as she does her homework. I try not to let her notice, but I see her in all her stages—when she wasn’t walking, when she was, when she wasn’t in school and was, when the years started to became stacks of photographs and the days began to flash like sun between pickets of an blurring fence.
Winter hasn’t even really started, and I’m already thinking about spring, when she graduates, and next fall, when she leaves. Maybe it’s time for another assignment. Maybe watching sunrise again can make time real.