Yo-Yo Ma once famously said that music happens between the notes–one way of explaining what I love about the mysteriousness of edges, cusps, those in-between places that demand our attention.
A skim of ice on a sun-drenched lake.
The shape of clouds against the sky.
The month of February, when the oh-so-incremental shift from winter-solstice darkness to light suddenly becomes noticeable.
Groundhog aside, all you need is to pay attention to the light to know spring is on its way.
Of all the months in the year, February has me most mystified. How/why did February become the shortest month? What would it mean to be born on February 29th, a leap year baby? More to the point, learning that, in ancient times, it was the last month of a 355-day year and it gets its name from the god of ritual purification sealed the deal on the title of my novel. What sounds like a simile—Just like February—has all the makings of a metaphor.
“Even in an age of femtoseconds and star clusters 11 billion light-years away, time defies true objective measurement,” writes David Ewing Duncan in Calendar, a book very cleverly subtitled Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. “It can seem to go slow and even stall out at certain moments only to brashly and breathlessly rush forward at others.” Albert Einstein taught us everything we need to know about time and its relative aspects, something Alan Lightman captured so poetically and brilliantly in Einstein’s Dreams.
There’s no stopping time but doesn’t the very notion of mindfulness, coupled with meditation, speak to slowing it down in a way that brings on the present-moment sense of timelessness?
Time measurement is as universal as it is personal. We count on our calendar to tell us the day/month/year. But don’t we more often measure the passage of time in terms of rituals and events both personal and part of our collective consciousness? Jewish holidays, based on a lunar calendar, come on different dates each year. Christmas, a day fixed according to the Gregorian calendar that rules are secular year, is always December 25th.
Yes, the expertise of astronomers factored into how the calendar might be synchronized to the seasons and the stars, but politics and religion played their part. Priests and aristocrats kept the calendar a secret. A year might be lengthened to keep a favored senator in office, decreased to get a rival out of office sooner. (How frightening a thought is that?)
Until one year, a crafty plebian, Cneius Flavius, pilfered a copy of the codes that determined the calendar and made it public, smack on tablets in the middle of the Roman Forum. (An early descendant of Edward Snowdon?)
Alas, poor Flavius did not entirely win the day: the calendar would become a public document but patricians could still manipulate it for financial and political gain. From here the plot gets thicker with scientific and egotistical calculation: Julius Caesar’s calendar reform, which moved the new year from March to January, in fact brought a pretty accurate calendar to the year 45 B.C. — only to be thrown off by leap years every three years instead of four.
Emperor Augustus took care of that some years later, a reform for which he got the eighth month of the year named after him. Heaven forbid his namesake month should have 30 days when Julius Caesar’s had 31! That was an easy fix–lop a day off February. making it 28 days, with an additional day during Leap Year.
You can’t make this shit up. But you can, as a writer, take great pleasure in the research that answers as many questions as it raises and brings enormous context to a narrative.
February. Lengthening days. A month on the cusp between winter’s darkness and the encroaching light of spring.
A transitional time that reminds us that no matter how much we count on a certain order to the universe, time and again something is bound to throw us out of whack. Some might see it as a fateful event, a teaching moment. I see it in the way my father, a gambler, might have seen it: an aspect of chance or randomness, maybe even luck (good or bad), changes everything.
All of which brings a particularly timely moment for a novel with the mysteries of Leap Year at its heart. If you haven’t yet read it, now could be as good a time as ever. And if you have read it, now could be as good a time as ever to share your thoughts with anyone who asks: what should I read next?