“There are the stars—doing their old, old criss-cross journeys in the sky…this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.” —Stage Manager, Our Town
Today is my 10th birthday, and I turn 40. I am a Leap Day baby. Generally speaking, this strange fact has always worked in my favor. Once people know it, they rarely forget it, and while birthday greetings might wane during the three years between leap years, I achieve a sort of celebrity status on the years there is a February 29th. I believe I could make a fairly strong case that, at least in the areas of recognition and popularity, Leap Day is the absolute best day of birth to have. But, of course, there are aspects of it that have always bothered me.
A few weeks ago I spent a Sunday afternoon in front of Agnes Martin’s Wind at the Columbus Museum of Art. This work looks like a penciled grid of thin vertical and horizontal lines—like a narrow calendar grid that, rather than just one month, encompasses an entire life or two. Were it that, which I know it is not, I wondered how it would account for time’s refusal to fit into a nice, reliable grid of our own making.
Creating a visual vocabulary for time is an immemorial conundrum. Nothing will suffice. We’re all familiar with timelines, but this means of visual representation is just a little over 250 years old. Until the mid-18th century chronologists used complicated tables, charts, and matrices of varying forms to convey the passing of time visually. The timeline offered a needed simplification, but it is problematic. We make a line to represent time, and then we hash mark a point on it and name it with a title of an unacceptably short length that we can fit on a diagonal just above or below it. We take events, narratives packed with details and lives and emotions, and we cliff note them into a phrase. Monumental moments like births, deaths, weddings, wars and treaties are marked briefly, but all of the events leading up to and following them are left out. Their significance and context are left out. We all know this.
Even further removing life from cumbersome specificity, we bracket years and file them away as “Civil War,” “Renaissance,” or “BC” or “CE”. Yes, there is a practical purpose to this well-established practice of recording our histories, but it comes with the caveat that we must always remember more is going on within any moment of time than we can possibly recognize, much less remember or know.
And to go even further, let’s remember that before we put any of our own experiences within time, we have to go about creating calendars and clocks that will help us conceptualize it. But even those, with their long history of some of the most complicated math the human mind can muster, have to be adjusted so we can stay in sync with our seasons. The real clock is our solar system. Our time pieces are just meager attempts to capture what is going on up there and display it on our wrists, mantles and walls.
“So do you celebrate on the 28th or the 1st?”
This is almost always the first response when someone learns my birthdate. It’s as predictable as a new time traveler’s reaction upon entering the Doctor’s spaceship/time machine, the TARDIS (short for “Time and Relative Dimension in Space”) in the BBC’s famous sci-fi show, Doctor Who. On the outside, the TARDIS looks like a 1960’s London police box, but on the inside it is infinite in size, going on and on and on and on. No one ever sees the entire thing. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, newcomers will walk through the creaking doors of the TARDIS and begin stumbling upon their words, but eventually they will get it out, “…It’s bigger on the inside!” Every time.
In a recent episode, the Doctor was allowed to enter his own TARDIS incognito. His companion didn’t recognize him, and so, realizing the opportunity he was walking into, the doctor paused before stepping in and smirked, “Finally. It’s my go.” He begins his reaction with the usual line, and then he carries on in true, Shakespearean fashion, dramatic arm gestures and all, “My entire understanding of physical space has been transformed! Three dimensional Euclidean geometry has been torn up, thrown in the air, and snogged to death!! My grasp of the universal constants of physical reality has been changed…forever.” Then he turns toward the camera and says, “Sorry. I’ve always wanted to see that done properly.”
I am not sure what the proper response to the Leap Year phenomenon should be, but as I am one of those born on the day that often isn’t, I think about it a lot. The question, “So do you celebrate on the 28th or the 1st?” always seems like the wrong question. Neither day satisfies. On the 28th my birthday has not yet happened, and on the 1st it’s a thing of the past. Visually, it occurred somewhere within the thin line between the boxes of the two dates on the calendar grid. Were the hash mark “My Birthday” looking for a place to land on my timeline during those non-Leap years, it would be rebuffed. On a timepiece, the moment occurs somewhere between a tick and a tock. The real question seems to be, “How do you recognize something of such significance when it’s not allotted even an actual second?” And suddenly, my birthday only serves as an easy example of something that is happening all the time.
On the plaque next to Agnes Martin’s Wind is a quote from Martin, “…perfection can’t be found in something so rigid as geometry. You have to go elsewhere for that, in between the lines.” So now I am a tiny version of myself trespassing into Martin’s painting. I am walking around on it, walking through the days, hopping from space to space, moment to moment. I imagine the pencil lines as cracks that perhaps I could wriggle into. On those years where I am not allotted a vertically oriented rectangular space, maybe I could alter the grid and make one. Or better yet, maybe I could do this for any moment that needs more time for recognition, not just my silly birthday. If I could squeeze myself into one of the lines, maybe I could press against the days or hours, claim a space, and expand the crack through which, to borrow from Leonard Cohen, the light could get in. I could conjure up the strength of Samson and make it…bigger on the inside. I could twenty-four hour a second.
I recently enjoyed a performance of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town at Kenyon College. I’d read the play a number of times, but I don’t think I’d ever seen it performed in a theatre, and was fascinated with the way it lends itself to both speeding time up and slowing time down. It is divided into three acts between which a number of years are implied and summarized, or “timelined” if you will, by the stage manager. But in this particular adaptation of the play, time is occasionally slowed down within an act. The actors pause, and a chorus of voices planted in the audience sing a singular and sustained dissonant chord. This happens during Act 2 when the characters Emily and George, as their teenage selves, recognize their mutual love for one another. She has just reprimanded him for becoming “conceited and stuck up.” She expresses her hurt in having to tell him, but also her responsibility to do so, and George, surprised, receives it with gratitude, “I…I’m glad you said it Emily. I never thought that such a thing was happening to me.” They then have a nervous back and forth, and she drops a school book. He kneels down to pick it up, and then the pause begins. The wonderfully dissonant chord comes from all around us, and time slows down. We watch them lock eyes as he hands her the same book over and over and over again in slow motion. A few seconds are expanded, offered as a gift to show the beautiful weight of what is happening within them.
“Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you,” Emily cries toward the end of the play. She then pleads with the stage manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”
“No,” the stage manager replies, “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”
That line there is a beautiful one, but I have to take issue with it. I don’t think “realizing life” is limited to saints and the poets unless the realization includes the fact that the saint and poet dwell in each of us. I believe the tension we feel against our perceived constraints of time is a common one. I am just using my birthday to highlight a shared longing. I believe we all recognize our life-long responsibility and desire to expand and carefully witness our moments here. Whether they be experiences of joy or sorrow, we know it is important to be attentive within our days and remember them well. Our star, the sun, is not the only thing “straining away all the time.” The task is brilliant and overwhelming, but in many ways, it is the only task we have.
Today is not a day “added” onto every fourth calendar year. It is always there. We just have trouble figuring out how to make room for it. But if we could squeeze ourselves into it and press out some space, I believe we would find it, as well as every day that comes before and after it, infinite in size and much, much bigger on the inside.