One day left on the 2010 calendar.
One day — the last of December — in a year that is all but spent.
This day is the remnant, the orphan. It is the last customer in the bar come closing time, the last leaf dangling from an empty tree in winter. And soon that leaf too will blow away in a cold, sweeping wind.
On the other hand, it’s also a day no different from the day that came before it, or the day that comes next. If it’s the last of its old kind, and tomorrow the first of a new kind, it’s only because we proclaim it to be so. Or at least the calendar does.
And the calendar is our creation, an ancient tool born of a still-more-ancient human drive to measure things, quantify things and categorize things. What we can measure, quantify and categorize, we can also control, or so we like to tell ourselves. We’re wired to think that way from birth.
The instinct is so powerful that by now, every physical phenomenon of which we are aware has been broken down into units so it can be quantified. What cannot be measured in inches and miles is measured in longitude and latitude, pounds and ounces, ohms and amperes, joules and BTUs, becquerels and curies, parts per million and billion.
And we measure ourselves as well. We measure how much we weigh, how tall we stand, how much money we have in the bank, how many friends we have on Facebook, our blood pressure and cholesterol, all because of the reassuring if false sense that what we measure, we also control.
But our oldest, most basic units of calibration measure the passage of time. They go back to the calendars of Stonehenge and ancient Babylon, and far, far beyond.
The circadian rhythm of day and night — light and darkness — provides a unit of measurement known to almost every life form on the planet, no matter how simple.
The monthly tidal pull of the moon as it waxes and wanes is known to influence the reproductive cycles of plankton, fish and human beings alike. And the orbit of the Earth around the sun has given us the rhythm of the seasons and the years.
Those measurements of time — astronomical time — differ profoundly from other units of measurement.
Days and months are not inches or pounds. They are not man-made, abstract external measures that we have imposed on nature to give it an illusion of order. Quite the opposite: Days, months and years represent an order that nature has imposed on us. We did not invent the lunar cycle or the solar cycles; we merely recognize and submit to them. They existed long before we arrived, and will continue long after we disappear.
That’s because they measure the flow of time, something that we experience intimately yet have no hope of altering. It is immutable.
A speedometer, for example, records our velocity in miles per hour, which we can then increase or decrease depending on road conditions and, of course, the absence or presence of police officers bearing radar guns.
Our bank statements reveal our financial condition, knowledge that allows us to adjust our spending and saving accordingly.
But no matter how intensely or accurately we measure it, the passage of time cannot be adjusted to suit our fancies. We cannot alter its velocity, and while we can and do measure how many years each of us has spent so far, we have no way of knowing how much time, if any, remains in our accounts.
All of which brings us back to where we began — completing the circle, so to speak. If we cannot control time, we tell ourselves, we can at least try to control how we use it. Today, the closing of the old year and the opening of a new one offers an opportunity to both look back and look forward, to adjust ourselves to time.
It is decay followed by renewal, or at least renewal in a symbolic sense. The old calendar comes down, the fresh, unmarked calendar is posted in its place. At midnight the tree once stripped of days is suddenly green and alive with possibility again.
But tomorrow, the first leaf falls.
– Jay Bookman