Why I Love My Calendar

We need to rein in the chaos of time to save our sanity

There is nothing as optimistic as a calendar — it takes the endlessly unfolding nature of time and gives it structure and circularity, offering us a sense of fresh starts and soft endings. Calendars (and clocks and all devices that mark time) help us manage the very unmanageable notion of time itself. We’d be literally lost without them.

Take 2020 (please). What an awful year this has been, right? Seeing it as “an awful year” holds out the notion that 2020 is a fixed period of time that will come to an end. No one thinks the pandemic or the economy or national divisiveness will disappear, poof!, at midnight on December 31, but still, it feels like… maybe it will be the beginning of a better year. I have never cared much about celebrating New Year’s Day, but this year I can’t wait. I know it’s not rational, but it feels like January 1, 2021 will be a new beginning, a chance to shed the ugly, wrinkled skin of 2020 and be reborn, sleek and silky and full of promise.

Calendars, of course, are an invention. In truth, time is a linear thing, marked only by the recurring seasons and the arc of lifetimes. Otherwise, time is a long march, ever forward. Calendars are comforting; it’s reassuring to feel that time exists in predictable, familiar units rather than in an undifferentiated existential sprawl. In my first book, Saturday Night, I wrote about how a score of different communities around the country spend Saturday night. What intrigued me was how urgently we all — rich, poor, young, old, married, single, and in every region of the country — yearn for a marker in time. We need to believe time forms an arc that has a beginning, a hump in the middle, a celebratory end. This urge is universal and eternal (hello, Biblical tale of six days on/one day off!). We need to feel that time is a narrative that unspools and renews frequently. In particular, we want to be able to package a bad stretch and be able to tie it up and believe that it ends. I can barely count the times I’ve declared that I’m having a bad week, as if it’s a predetermined stretch that will end magically Sunday night.

One thing about the pandemic has been the strange, smooth nothingness of time. Every day seems the same as the next, a muddied blur. We’ve lost the narrative — our narrative of how time has texture, the narrative that we aren’t on an endless, shapeless journey but are traveling through a series of manageable, distinct periods that have highs and lows, entries and exits, in a cycle that is human-sized, that is comforting and concrete rather than stretching without end into eternity.

This has been a bad year. I can’t wait to start a new, fresh one.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)

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