Once Upon A Time

Happy New Year!

This coming year, 2012, has already become legendary and it hasn’t even started yet. Due to some distorted understanding of the ancient Mayan calendar, it is said to be the year the world ends, whatever that means.

The first month of the year, January, is named for Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, transitions, and also doors, gates and thresholds.

Janus, courtesy of Wikipedia

 As a boundary god, he has to be looking in both directions.
In the modern world, we experience Time as a commodity, as something that is finite in quantity and always moving away from our standpoint, in a straight line. Our New Year’s rituals often depict an old Father Time, with his reaping scythe, passing away and beginning reborn as the baby New Year.  Two-headed Janus shows a more ancient view, that what goes around comes around, that history is always repeating itself, that the end and the beginning are just two faces of one unity.
Mircea Eliade called this “Eternal Return.”  Ancient cultures believed that time was cyclical, and within certain intervals everything is always repeating itself, and the world (cosmos) is continually being created and re-created.  Myths are omnipresent in this “mythic time” that is continually reoccuring.

This is the reason English fairytales always begin with the phrase “Once Upon a Time.”  The phrase doesn’t mean anything, which is pretty much the point. “Once Upon a Time” tells the listener that they are being transported to that place and time beyond our everyday world.

A well known folkloric story by Washington Irving called “Rip Van Winkle” tells of a man who wanders into the Catskill Mountains where he watches a group of men playing a game.  He falls asleep and when he awakes he returns home thinking only a few hours have passed.  He finds to his dismay that twenty years have mysteriously gone by and the villagers no longer know who he is.

Rip Van Winkle, courtesy of Wikipedia

Many such stories are told all over the world.  Most of us, though, have experienced the flexibility of time in our everyday lives. When we’re bored, it seems to drag on and on. When we are having a good time, it flies too quickly to be believed.  When we are very happy, not focused on passing time, or in altered states, we can experience a sense of an eternal “now” in which time stops altogether.  This experience is very common in children, various religious and mystical traditions, and preliterate societies.

When I was a child, I frequently was in trouble for being late to school.  I left home on time, but walking that block between my house and the schoolyard always took longer than it should. Only later when I was repeatedly questioned did I begin to understand, that when I stopped to inspect a bug, or play with a water sprinkler, or talk to a friend, on my way down the street, that this thing the adults called time was slipping away, and it was this measurement that was making me late. Eventually I learned to view time the way adults view it, as something measured by clocks, rather than a number of interconnected events.

After I grew up, I thought that such ideas were forever gone, that I would never again be capable of the “eternal now” of childhood. It turns out I was wrong.

A few years ago I lost my job.  Along with that I lost all the adult references to time: no more alarm clocks, deadlines, weekdays or weekends, dedicated laundry days, and so on.  After a few months of suspended animation, I found I was again in a childlike world.  Time stopped moving, and what was more, everyone and everything around me seemed clearer and more interesting. Sometimes a week felt like a month, or a month like a year, and yet it was a positive state of mindfulness.  I started visiting people more often; I made a trip to Arizona and ended up at a party where I became reacquainted with some folks I hadn’t seen in 12 years.  A young puppy from those times was now a crippled old dog; an infant girl was now a blossoming adolescent.  It was a harrowing, Rip Van Winkle experience.  I suddenly realized a large block of time had in fact passed, and I had not been paying attention.  Somehow I had gotten so completely wrapped up in my career and other mundane concerns that I had forgotten about other things in life.

I now think that some of those old folktales about “lost time” are in fact an attempt by the storyteller to relate a personal experience of enlightenment of some kind or other.  A way to remind people that while we are madly spinning around on the rim of the great wheel, the hub doesn’t move.  Sometimes a journey to that hub can clear the dizziness, and lead us onward to a new hope.


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