Richard Rodriguez’s Essay: A Tale of Time
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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: For many months now, the travel industry has tried to stir in us a garish anxiety: Where should we go for New Year’s Eve? Should we fly to Jerusalem or to Bali?; should we stand with the mob in Times Square or on the Washington Mall? Should we engage a private jet to see the dawn at over Australia?
In truth, if I climbed up this hillside and viewed my city below at midnight’s stroke, there would be nothing exactly to see — no way certainly to observe one millennium passing.
The frenzied desire to position onesself at this a moment of history, only reminds me that we human beings do not easily live in history. We exist more immediately, more intimately within the Tuesdays and Thursdays of our lives.
After all, that good friend of ours died not “at the end of the twentieth century,” but on a heartbreaking Monday. And our favorite niece graduated from high school on a Saturday in May, and not at the close of the millennium
It was the business of emperors and popes to organize the known world by establishing calendars. It remains the task of parents to note doctors’ appointments on the kitchen calendar.
It is the business of historians, sitting in libraries, to decipher from the wars and the bombs, from the rising hemlines and the fall of markets, from astonishing inventions that beget inventions, to decipher a narrative line, to speak of an “epoch” or an “age.”
In recent months, we have heard from the merchandisers and hustlers with their quickie lists — the century’s hundred best short stories or hundred most important movies. Or Time magazine summarizes our century with a magazine cover.
I incline to the more cautious view that history takes time. I don’t think we know, for example, even now, five hundred years after, what the story of Christopher Columbus fully meant.
But, this terrible century’s great lesson is that one cannot be oblivious of history. For history, unbidden, often prowled the century’s wet streets late at night. And sometimes, history banged on the door, and forced itself in.
America sent its young men to fight in history’s battles. They fought bravely and well. And though they came very close to seeing the face of history, many soldiers returned famished, they said — not for a hero’s parade of tape and confetti–but famished for the mundane: a hot dog or the barefoot pleasure of washing the car on Saturday morning.
The great theistic religions of the world tell us that the Divine — eternal, timeless — has entered history, at various moments. Everywhere in the world, every religion in the world sets aside certain days as holy, different from any Tuesday. Days when people go to temples or to churches. And the sun seems to shine differently and the air is oddly still.
In my own Catholic Church, a feast day comes with great ceremony, after weeks of preparing. But then it passes. Finally, there is more to learn from taking down the tree after Christmas than from putting it up. For what remains, week after week, is what my ancient Church calls “ordinary time.”
We live most of lives in ordinary time. Tuesdays and Thursdays. People ride the bus, a child learns how to swim, a woman waters her roses, two friends laugh at a joke–all within in ordinary time.
In the end, it is worth remarking that the millenium–if such a thing exists–is coming to a close on a Friday. And that treacherous, astonishing vista we dare call the 21st century will begin on a Saturday morning, when somebody somewhere will have to clear the driveway of snow.
Most of us will begin the new century, not at midnight, but several weeks after, when we write a check and catch ourselves writing the wrong year. And then we will know, in an instant, that we are standing in a new era, and nothing has changed. And maybe everything is different, if only there were a hillside high enough to let us view history.
I’m Richard Rodriguez.