There's a space of time after the end of one year when the new one seems suspended in time, like a train on the platform that we haven't yet boarded, or a person -- awaited but unknown -- who stands on our doorstep, still outside the circle of our acquaintance. We move forward reluctantly, still held by the past: the Christmas tree in the living room, the half-filled tins of cookies, the messages we intended to write over the holidays that still need to be sent. We resolve all sorts of new beginnings but the brandy-soaked fruitcake, baked late, is still improving, and the community pool isn't yet open; surely my good intentions can be put off a few days longer.
Epiphany and Twelfth Night come and go. We've sung all the Christmas music; my choir folder is empty for the first time since September. I've written "2017" a few times now, and each of those Roman numerals inked on the page or appearing on my screen cuts a chink in the armor of the past year; it weakens as the numbers grow into double digits: eight, ten, twelve. The tree has to come down, says my husband, it would be so much easier to do it during this warmer spell. I agree, but bargain for the weekend. He's right, though. The holly berries are brown and falling off their stems, and even the persimmons, which I so happily drew and painted through the season, are soft and shriveled.
Here we are, then, on January 12th. I've finally finished a project that belonged to last year and feel ready to stop procrastinating about several new ones. But I realize that it is not just any new year that's holding me back, it's this year, and the uncertainty about what lies ahead. If I could hold back time, I would.
So I spend my morning reading about ancient Rome and the fall of empire. My intention for the months ahead is to writing something longer about Rome, and about my own life, for which some of these blog posts are notes, a draft. It's difficult to give shape to something formless, but that is the challenge and pull as well. One of the last books I read in 2016 was The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector, in which she shows us her own reluctance to give shape to her protagonist, who both attracts and repels her, perhaps because she senses what she will be forced to do to her in the course of the short novel of her life, in order to be true to the person she is inventing. In this new year where we feel such a lack of control, this exploration of the process of creativity felt somehow comforting.
Silver Roman didrachm from 225-12 BC
Janus, one of the most ancient Roman deities, is always depicted with two faces. He has been associated with the month of January from the time of King Numa Pompilius, seven centuries before Christ. Numa was the second of the seven legendary kings of Rome who ruled after the city's founding by Romulus. He is credited with adding two months, January and February, to the Roman Calendar which formerly began in March and ran through December, followed by an unnamed winter gap of 56 days. The Romans continued to celebrate the New Year at the beginning of March until 154 BC, when the Senate declared January 1 to be the start of the year, probably as an acknowledgement of Janus, whose faces look forward to the future and backward toward the past.
Janus was the god of beginnings, symbolized by gates and doorways; his name, ianus, also means an arcade or covered walkway in Latin, while ianua became the word for any double-sided door, such as an entrance door to a home or the entrance to a temple.
Numa Pompilius is also considered to be the builder of the Temple of Janus, in about 700 BC, one of the earliest buildings in the Roman Forum. The temple was small and rectangular, open to the sky, and enclosed by bronze gates.
According to tradition, the gates of the Temple of Janus were closed when Rome was at war, and opened when at peace. In the Aeneid, Virgil mentions that the gates were closed when the war began between the Latins and the Trojans; Augustus boasted that he had closed the gates three times during his reign.
Sestertius of Nero, 64-66 AD
The emperor Nero issued this coin, showing the closed gates of the temple, in 64-66 AD. It commemorates the end of war with Armenia; the legend reads: PACE P[opuli] R[omani] TERRA MARIQ[ue] PARTA IANVM CLVSIT ("Since the peace of the Roman People was established on land and sea, he closed the Shrine of Janus").
The closing of the gates was a big deal, accompanied by ceremonies and proclamations, because it so seldom happened; throughout the centuries Rome was rarely at peace. I can't think of any modern equivalent to these temple gates, certainly not in America, where the waging of undeclared war has fallen to new depths. My sense of dread is not necessarily about wars to come, but more about how war is even defined in 2017. Despite the outward appearance and gentle rhetoric of the Obama administration, America has been engaged in an escalating drone war throughout these eight years, a war that would certainly have continued and perhaps increased under Clinton. Special forces are covertly deployed in many countries; a new 30-year program will modernize and refurbish America's nuclear capability rather than dismantling it. I doubt that even an erratic president will allow a nuclear exchange. But terror abroad and at home, random acts of murder by disturbed persons (often, sadly, military veterans), domestic police violence, racial and ethnic profiling, detentions and deportations, surveillance, and - perhaps most important of all - the divisions in society in general, have increased and will continue to do so, along with the anxiety of human beings everywhere, and the desperate needs of refugees fleeing violence. So it is not a case of closed gates and open ones, as any intelligent person knows, but the emperors would always like us to think so.