Monday, December 31, 2007
The Roman deity for whom January is named is Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. He is the god of two faces, one facing back toward the past and the other looking forward toward the future. Tonight is his night, as we reflect on what has been and what is to come.
This night we Americans become more aware of time than is usually the case. It is a night when we experience a fleeting awareness of the persistence of the past and the presence of the future (we sing a song of regret about the past, albeit without full awareness of what its words actually mean). Though we are renowned for being a people who are oriented towards the future, in fact we are deeply presentist: we distrust the inheritance of the past and neglect the future in our tendency to pursue our immediate interests. We trust that the future will take care of itself and live in rebellion against the limits about which the past would instruct us and evince an increasingly uneasy optimism that the future will be better, that any unintended consequences or costs of our current ways of life will be wiped clean.
I have always disliked that the celebration of the passing of the old year and the celebration of the new bears no relationship to the changing seasons. How much more appropriate were we to celebrate this date on the Spring equinox or summer solstice. And what more pleasant weather we'd likely be able to celebrate in.
Nevertheless, this year I find it wholly appropriate to mark the day in the dead of winter. For the past few months we have been heating our home with wood - wood that I've been accumulating for the past year and gradually splitting during spare hours of the evening or the weekend. The simple act of heating with a woodstove is a window - admittedly, a small but not wholly insignificant one - on the wholly different experience of time that was the experience of our forbears. The day is marked out by intervals when the stove needs to be fed as the previous load fades to embers. Each piece of wood is the presence of the past in my hands. In passing I'll think of its past as a tree, the accumulation of seasons of sunlight and rain, of ground and air. At times I lift a piece of wood whose shape or markings bring back to mind the day I split it (invariably, I remember the wood with knots or with twisted grain over which I spilled not a little sweat) But, burning wood also makes one keenly aware of the future, particularly as I burn down the seemingly large piles of split wood that had accumulated over the past year in the back yard. The pieces I burn now have been seasoned for about a year, waiting in one part of the yard even as I build a pile for next winter in another part of the yard. How slow and painstaking the pile grows as I slowly split each piece; how quickly the pile decreases as I assemble load after load outside our back door awaiting its swift conflagration.
How much our modern form of life has allowed us to escape thinking about the fullness of our temporal dimensions with such directness, such immediacy. Our gas furnaces, our automobiles, our industrially produced food - and yes, our housing tracts built in complete neglect of the direction of the sun's rays or the placement of rooms in relation to the earth and sky - all contribute to a profound ignorance of the reality of time - past, present and future - as it was experienced when so much more was done by ourselves in providing the daily and annual sustenance of our lives. This night we momentarily recognize the circularity of the time that governs our lives, a circularity we have sought in every way to make straight and flat so that we can walk easily over it. With modern technologies fueled by geologic - not annual - energy, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are no longer governed by circular time. Tonight we recall the ending and return, if even momentarily. Tonight we are also one year closer to a time when we may no longer enjoy the luxuries of this illusory and fleeting experience of linear time and we will be forced to reacquaint ourselves with annual, cyclical time and the necessity, not the luxury, of community.
Now, I leave to add another log and then settle in for an evening of family board games before declaring the new year at 10 p.m. and sending the young ones to bed. I wish the faithful and quite unexpected readers of this blog - tonight a year old - a very happy and blessed new year. I hadn't expected anyone to find this site when I started a year ago, and have been frankly surprised that its readers continue to visit, even to grow in number month after month. Much as I'd really like to discontinue writing here on the first anniversary of its birth, I feel now obligated to a readership I do not know but whose interest I respect and hope to continue to stimulate. So, one of my resolutions is to spend less time online, including less time here. Still, I will continue to post, if less frequently, as the spirit moves about what I saw, see, and will see in America.
Happy New Year!