The depth of time

I keep thinking I should write posts acknowledging the birthdays of historical figures who influenced my books, or other significant dates, as the notifications pass by my eyes in one form or another, but each individually never seems important enough. This is a thing we do, though, and that’s fascinating: we don’t just sing “Happy Birthday” to people we know and love who are still alive, or even remember the anniversaries relevant to those close to us who are gone, or note the thunderingly huge dates in history. We also seek out and acknowledge the smaller celebrations (did you know it was National Kazoo Day earlier this week?), find out the birthdays of famous people alive and dead, read “On This Day” websites on a regular basis.

One of my characters in Time Goes By talks about the archaeological depth of time, that it’s not just important what happened simultaneously all over the world on a certain day in (say) 1941, but what was happening on many different days and years in a particular geographic spot. Perhaps right where you are standing. I received as a Christmas gift an intriguing book, Richard McGuire’s Here, which is a graphic novel (although unlike any other I’ve read) set entirely in the corner of one room, jumping seemingly randomly through mundane events that took place there, throughout the author’s lifetime, and through millennia before when the house didn’t exist yet. It’s mesmerizing to page through, and though at first it doesn’t seem to have a coherent narrative, one emerges as you read: little stories, and the big story of time passing.

We want to know this, we humans: what happened here in this place, that our ancestors or famous people or those we have some tenuous connection to could see; and what happened on this date, that those same people experienced or heard about. The connection isn’t really to events so much as it is to people, though we work that out in our minds in different ways. I don’t expect that most people, noting that January 27 was Mozart’s birthday, think about his parents holding a tiny infant or even about him drinking too much on later anniversaries of his birth; we want to listen to his music. The same day was Lewis Carroll’s birthday, bringing to mind Alice and the Caterpillar and the Red King more than Charles Dodgson’s dodgy photographs of young girls. Realizing that January 28 marked the birth of José Martí, I thought a little more about his life than I would have otherwise, because I’d just quoted him in the first chapter of Book Five, but mostly it was his words that resonated. Creators tend to be remembered for their creations. But of course they were people too, who were born and died and ate meals and danced and took up space.

Is it important to know that on January 30 in 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany? To me it’s more personally important that my dad was born exactly six years later, but… yes, it’s useful to gain that broader perspective from a list of things that happened, and not to forget that the events had meaning. Interesting connections pop out, too: my maternal grandfather would have been 100 years old yesterday. He served in World War II, and he was born on the day that Germany first made large-scale use of poison gas in World War I. It’s both meaningful and meaningless to try to draw a line from one to the other, but I think it helps us remember that the broad sweep of history is made up of lots of little people doing lots of tiny things, like signing papers and pressing buttons, making lunch and writing blog posts, saving lives and taking them. And that we can never know all the deeds and all the connections (it would drive us crazy, if we did), but that in our own small way we’re inevitably part of them.

“On this day” calendars are all over the web. Wikipedia has the most comprehensive lists (not guaranteed to be absolutely accurate), which you can get to from the main page; Reference.com has the short and snappy version. My favorite daily calendar is Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, which focuses on the literary world but includes other important dates as well, and features a poem every day, which you can listen to Keillor read. All of these are pretty American- and Euro-centric, so if anyone knows of more inclusive calendars I’d love to hear about them.

Meanwhile I will be wondering who St. John of the Grating was, celebrating the publication of A to Ant in the Oxford English Dictionary, remembering the space shuttle Columbia, and wishing happy birthdays to Clark Gable and Langston Hughes.

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2 thoughts on “The depth of time

  1. Lena says:

    Loved this post… You make interesting points and I may never read The Writers’ Almanac the same way… I usually gloss over the bios. Thanks.

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