For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
— The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
I am fascinated by the subjectivity of time.
Once upon a time we measured out our lives by disasters, kings and saints. “Oh,” we would say, “I was born on Michaelmas, the year the old church burnt down.” Or, “I remember it well. It happened in the third year of the old king’s reign. Not him we have now, but his father.”
This seems pretty parochial and quaint now, but I would argue there are a couple of reasons why subjective timing makes very good sense. For one thing, not everybody uses the same calendar.
In the old days, of course, it was a lot worse. Even in good old Christian Europe there was quite a bit of relativity as each region had local calendars and holidays vying with the saint’s feast days. Historians find coordinating dates quite challenging.
My favorite period to drive the historians crazy was after 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was introduced. The old Julian calendar had gotten so far off that Easter was threatening to recede out of spring altogether. But the British (God bless ’em) refused to accept a Papist reform.
This is where it gets entertaining. For instance: Charles I was executed on January 30, 1648. No problem. Except that’s Old Style, as England then celebrated the New Year on March 25, so today we would translate that to January 30, 1649. But it didn’t matter to the rest of Europe, as they knew the horrible deed occurred on February 9, 1649, no matter what the crazy English thought. (In case you’re curious, it took the Brits until 1752 to make the switch….Mustn’t rush into these things.)
I think it can it can be argued that there are still times when subjective dating is both safer and more reliably accurate. More importantly, I think it can also be argued that subjective dating reflects something fundamental about the nature of the human experience. All the calendars in the world cannot replace humanity’s natural scale: The days of our own lives.
Whether we measure out our days in coffee spoons or seasons or sunsets, it is our personal yardsticks that really count for us. We store up our memories calibrated by the points in our lives when they occur.
How many times have you heard someone say something like, “Well, let’s see. My son John was eight then, so it must have been 1987.” Or, “I was a sophomore in college then, so it was 1976.” We human beings synchronize the calendar to events in our lives, rather than the reverse.
As we grow, each of us graduates the internal scale in a unique way. In effect, we each create our own frame of reference and punctuate it with unique mental milestones. Some of them we share, like holidays, seasons and where-were-you-when-JFK-was-killed tragedies. Others are individual, like birthdays, anniversaries and do-you-remember-the-first-time-you…
As you look back over your own life, you may discover that some of the rubber rulers we use are very personal indeed. For me, a surprisingly large part of my life has milestones in the shape of turkeys.
Maybe I should say holidays, but that is not how I remember it. What I remember is the endless succession of turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Easter was always ham…Don’t ask me why.)
I can almost measure my life out in turkeys. I can remember how enormous the inevitable turkey leg was when I was very small (“Here is your piece. Little boys love turkey legs” …I didn’t). I can remember, too, how the kids were exiled off to a separate tables all by themselves. I can track my age by when I graduated from the little kids table up to the big kids table and eventually up to the grown-ups table.
As the years passed and the family got smaller and more spread out and I got bigger, I can remember progressing up the table. I can clearly remember the shining moment when I first got to carve the turkey.
Or measure it another way. The holidays used to be a time when all the family’s women gathered to cook enormous family meals. Later it was just my mother (nuclear family out in Southern California) doing the cooking for us. Later still, I can remember us gathering at their house (only now she was called ‘grandma’) for that special dressing our wives never made quite the way she did. Now we visit and eat together in the dining hall of the retirement home.
Or yet another way. I can remember huge birds for the extended family. The idea of leftovers was laughable. Later, with the smaller family, the birds shrunk and we discovered leftovers. Later still, the birds grew ever larger in a futile race to keep up with growing boys’ appetites and leftovers rarely lasted out the evening. Yet later still my mother tried to adjust the size back downwards but never quite kept up. We all left with covered dishes that lasted us a week.
There are many scales we can use to measure out our lives, but somehow the holidays live most vividly in memory. Besides, it is somehow appealing to discover new uses for things.
Turkeys: The new measure of man.