Picture, for a moment, your school-days’ diagram of the earth orbiting the sun, and note that its route has no milestones, no square marked “Go” that signals the beginning of a new year. It was humankind, not God, that divided that endless ellipse into months and years with beginnings and endings, to account, I suppose, for the apparent rebirth of the sun.
Even that is arbitrary. With the arrogance of those who consider themselves in charge, it was northern Europeans who reasoned that, as the days become longer, a new year begins. If the Southern Hemisphere had produced the scientists who decide these matters, New Year’s Day would come on the first of July instead of January, when the days are actually becoming shorter in Australia.
So why this slight tremor of apprehension that brushes our hearts at the turn of the calendar?
Maybe I should have saved this column for two years, when the New Year we greet seems to bring a whole new millennium.
I was remembering recently that, as a child, I did the math and discovered that I’d turn 64 just a few days before the year 2000 arrives.
Sixty-four! Good grief, I thought, I’ll probably be in a nursing home, drooling on my blouse. What a waste, to live into a new millennium and not even be aware it is happening.
So much for my poor vision of the future. Pondering my lack of precognition, I paged through old columns (saved in albums in the days before electronic archiving) and found one I wrote about how different the reality of 1984 was from the predictions of Orwell’s dark novel.
If truth be told, I never actually read “1984.” My concept of the World of Tomorrow was no doubt based more on futuristic comic strips and movies than on political prognostications.
As a teen, I pictured a world of stainless steel homes, minarets soaring above the clouds, personal anti-gravitational transports whisking us about, food prepackaged so that a meal would be a simple matter of rehydration, without the labor-intensive chopping-measuring-heating-timing-stirring process we called “cooking.”
We’d hop a spaceship for a weekend on Mars, and when we died — if we died — we’d be frozen for future retrieval. Illness, of course, like poverty, would be abolished.
In my fantasy-future, there’d be no old buildings, old furniture, old cars, nothing old at all, revered or reviled. We’d wear luminous clothes that required the services of neither sheep nor cotton, and are worn once and discarded.
Well, here I was at the threshold of 1984, my column continued, and the moments were being counted down by a grandfather clock that had been in the family since 1921.
“We cherish that which is old and beautiful in our lives,” I wrote, “and I can’t see us discarding our grandmothers’ cane-bottomed rocking chairs or our mothers’ china plates just because chrome furniture and squeezable pouches of nutrients are available.
“And what woman will give up the fun of shopping in a mall, as her grandmother did in a marketplace, for the convenience of shopping-by-computer?” Mind you, I wrote that before one in four households even thought of a personal computer, much less had their own.
I missed entirely that for many of us some of the old cooking chores would be rediscovered when machines like bread-makers made them more appealing than ever. And that the world would literally be at our fingertips through the miracle of the Internet — not to mention instantaneous communication with loved ones on other continents.
“Leukemia and other killers will be banished, like polio and smallpox. Yet the faces of hungry children will haunt us as they do today while we plan our holiday feasts.”
What I wouldn’t give to have been right about the first of those statements, and wrong about the second.
God knew what God was doing, I said, by keeping the curtain drawn between present and future. Bad enough we can remember some parts of the past — the horror of holocausts, the terror of war, the pain of separation within families — without also knowing what is to come.
But, I concluded, it wasn’t so bad, 1984, now arriving. Not like we were led to believe in 1949.
And when the 20th century yielded to the 21st, and my grandmother’s chair still rocked before a glowing hearth, I’m still trying to see through the gauzy veil of time.
“Looking back for guidance to the past — today — we will take comfort that for every change for the worse, there were at least as many for the better,” I wrote.
Was I right? I’m not sure.
Share your thoughts at SallieS@Juno.com.