I think the Jews got it right, the marking of the new year in autumn. Leaving aside any debate about whether life begins at conception or at birth,* there’s something intuitive and irrepressibly hopeful, poetic even, about the seeds of some future beginning taking hold in autumn, lying dormant and warm beneath the earth over the cold, dark, hard winter, to nudge their vernally green buddy heads above the surface of snow-scruff and the pungent mud of spring. Certainly more intuitive than beginning the year on January 1st – only a week or so after the longest night of the entire year; hell, only a week or so after the season of winter has technically begun – when all the world (well, the northern hemisphere) is dead, still, and frozen. That’s supposed to represent a new beginning, then?!? What calendrical maniac hoodwinked a whole culture to swallow hook, line, and all that the new year should begin smack dab in the chapter of death and darkness? It just doesn’t feel right. But I guess it’s a question of orientation: rather than see the year-cycle as an amorphous 360-degree loop, we have immured ourselves to a top-down notion of numerical sequence, with January on one end, December at the other. It’s too intellectual, as if the whole charade is a Sisyphean re-enactment: New Year’s Day at the bottom of the mountain, New Year’s Eve 365 days later just below the summit when suddenly we lose control of our boulder and it rolls back down the mountain. (Actually, depending on what you do on New Year’s Eve – how much you drink, where you wake up in the morning, and how hungover you are – the metaphor of feeling rock bottom is not entirely without merit.) But it still feels too much like some bean-counter with a makeshift abacus marking the days 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…all the way towards December 31st. (It’s not a coincidence that many workplace calendars simultaneously reflect a tally of how many days are left in the year, with a smaller-font “365” beginning its downward descent on January 1st, as though the only point of time itself is to advance and accumulate, continually counting down the days til we are another year ahead.) It’s all very capitalistic, frankly; yet another occasion when poetry is superseded by the commodification of the world.
Again, it makes sense to me on I guess a gut-level that school also begins in September. I don’t think it’s some whim of serendipity that the words pupil and pupal share the same root. Speaking of roots: what better word is there than kindergarten to best capture the sense of fostering the young minds of kiddos? You might even say cultivate, which also connotes a tending of a garden. I think it is worth considering also that matriculate – the enrolling of a student into college – carries within its etymological makeup the concept of “breeding female” (matriculates). Together with that, of course, is the better-known noun of “alma mater” – the school from which one has graduated – that literally means fostering mother.
The month of March conjures something terribly pregnant and bodily to me, which probably is why all this is on my mind. I don’t think a weird or wild imagination is required to entertain the idea of there being a corollary between pregnancy and spring. When we say an artist has had a fecund period of creativity, it is implied that she was “fruitful” and productive, not literally bearing fruit (though that would be amazing) or calling her childbirth of triplets a work of art (though that certainly is impressive and perhaps even worthy of praise). The rivers and lakes breaking free from their locks, what is this but Mother Earth’s own water breaking before she goes into labor. And what labor it is, Jesus! Everywhere there are floods, tall trees get torn from their banks like bed sheets bunched up in a fist. Every goddamned day it’s windy. And the mud, my God! The brown ground bulges out like a bloated belly and belches out earthy stenches that winter’s freeze shielded us from. The still chilly steel-cold sky is a fussy swirl of clotted cream while the land below is a soggy slop gassy and gross. That’s March for you.
And let’s just face it: what month is more indistinctly fickle, totally irrational and unaccountable? March, she’s pretty much a bitchy skank. That might sound harsh, but remember: I’m from New Jersey, and if anyone knows what it takes to be a skank, it’s us.
To be fair, March is actually a hermaphrodite. You think I’m making this up? Wherefore that old adage about coming in like a lion but going out like a lamb? Even though the month is swaddled with all things expectant, which is to say feminine, March is not without its masculine lineage. Fill in the blank: Women are from Venus, and men are from _____. Exactly. Its very name is an anglicized appropriation from the Roman month “Martius,” itself derived from Mars, the god of war (think “martial arts”). And what do armies do? They march. Yes, the month marches from winter to spring, capable of snowing or sprouting. Hence a hermaphrodite.
Last year the mean high in March was 61 degrees. This year it was 34. On the Ides of March in 2012 it got up to 81 degrees! This year the high on that same day was 35. Furthermore, when one compares last year’s temps to the historical average, the coldest day of 2012 – by which I mean the single day in all of 2012 with the coldest discrepancy against its typical mean – was March 3, when it was only one single degree, compared to its average of 20 degrees for that day. That’s what I mean about March: s/he’s unpredictable. Sure, there will be colder colds, but none so heartbreaking as in March, when you are just done with winter already, exhausted and spent, and one day it’s suddenly 47 degrees and sunny and you think, Finally! spring has sprung. And then two days later it’s 17 degrees and snowing and you just want to cry. Or kill somebody. No other month simultaneously slaps you in the face while stabbing you in the back.
Another reason we tend to get feisty and a little fidgety for spring to just get on with things already is that March I swear wakes up something atavistic in that reptilian part of our brains – that something being the distant memories of the Ice Age in the way back of our collective unconscious. I grant you this may sound far-fetched, but hear me out. Human civilization as we understand it – I’m talking about what would become Mesopotamia and the first emperors of China – began on the heels of the last glacial movement’s retreat, about 10,000 years ago (give or take a millennium). To be sure, human beings were around before that, even the ones who looked like us (minus the blue jeans). Recall middle school history lessons about the Fertile Crescent and the “birth” of the agricultural revolution. The conditions for civilization to germinate, so to speak, were in large part in response to the landscape no longer covered in ice sheets hundreds of feet thick. Now think back even earlier than that, elementary school and freezing a small bucket of water, emptying the inverted ice block that you take outside in the playground and drag it against the dirt and grass. It was a hands-on, easy-to-understand exercise in how glaciers shaped the land.
I swear that’s what’s happening in March, the tail-end of winter when what snow there is left is more of those huge heaps remaining from snow plow and dump truck operations months before, those ugly mottled mounds of soot and gravel, leaves, branches, and rocks, one sees around town, mostly in the shadows. They’re little glaciers. And those glacierlings remind us deep down of how fragile life itself is, both the conditions for and the sustainability of.
(One could write a dissertation about how civilization is the byproduct of glacial demise yet go one step further and assert that civilization, gone haywire from hedonism and the premise of “progress,” seeks to eliminate all ice everywhere, as evidenced now by the melting of polar ice and the disappearance of glaciers around the world – how about “Progress Is Regress” as a working title?)
Lastly – and I suppose this isn’t March’s fault outright – it has 31 long days, which period of time seems all the more interminable given the exceptionally brief oddball of February. In the older parts (and people) of New England there remains an idiom of “climbing March hill.” It means what it conveys, as though April is the promised land of spring. I learned of this expression in the context of obituaries; lots of folks die in March. True, not as many as January (the “deadliest” month of the year) or December (the most depressing, what with all the holidays), but March ranks third. While demographers might attribute this to something scientific like the flu season or slipping on ice and breaking a hip, I think the real answer is simply fatigue. Either you just can’t make it all the way up March hill, or you do – but it takes everything for you to do it leaving very little left. If winter is a mountain range to climb, March is the final hill (especially in New England, when winter is six months long). By and by March hill is much more manageable than those peaks throughout December and February, but oftentimes the end is nearest when the end is nearest, the way that it’s darkest just before dawn.
Now I’m not saying March is a leading cause of death for people, but I’m not not saying that either…
All the same, let’s face it: it’s not just March who’s such an a-hole; April also can be pretty skanky. Was it not just two years ago that we scribblers tried to recall the whole season of spring in 2011 thanks in large part to April being such a dreary tease. Scholars may theorize day and night what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote “April is the cruelest month,” the opening line to what is widely regarded as the most famous poem of the entire 20th Century, “The Waste Land.” Sure, it has a lot to do with Europe and World War I (not to mention Homer, St Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer, the Tarot deck of cards, and Hindu Upanishads just for good measure), but I think Occam’s razor applies here: the simplest explanation is the most likely: April sucks. It makes fools of us all, hopelessly hoping for that which we have no right to lay claim to.
If March leaves you feeling mugged, then April is like Lucy with the football tricking Charlie Brown.
Yes, but what other choice do we have? If spring weren’t so wonderful or didn’t feel so supremely good – the thirsty pores of our parched skin soaking up those first warm days of shocking sunshine and balmy afternoons like a derelict lost in a wilderness – then perhaps we’d be wiser about letting our guards down so recklessly. But we can no more resist than can Charlie Brown. It is as if we so badly wish to kick winter away, kick it back to its frozen death-world with every ounce of life-force strength we can muster. Delusional with rejuvenation, we march backwards, get ready, then run like hell to kick the dickens out of it…only to watch it taken away at the last second by a cold front that kills the new crocuses and nixes our picnic plans for the weekend.
Instead of being national poetry month, April teaches us more about canny pragmatism and parsimony, about being a little more reserved and conservative. I suppose it pays to be a tight-wad sometimes. But what fun is that? And so we begin the first day of the month with jest.
* I say this with thoughtful caution, fully aware and wary of the bumper crop of modern-day Republicans seizing with weird zeal the birthday notion in the form of all these “personhood” attempts stating that life begins at the moment of conception – and not a moment, month, trimester, or delivery room in labor later. I guess my basic question then would be this: if life should be considered to begin at conception, how shall we now record our actual birthdates? Do we really want to ask our mothers about that night in order to be precise? I sure don’t! And this is assuming that there would have been one night of conspicuous repute; what if our parents were, how shall I ask this tactfully, a little on the frisky side, such that trying to single out one specific night (or afternoon) would be a hazy surmise at best? I’ll speak for myself here and just say that this way too much information. Or should we become a “+9” society, wherein our birthdays are still commemorated at actual birth, but our true age is nine months plus that? Hallmark would have a field day with this, for there would be a new holiday to buy cards about! Why not call it “Lifeday”? For example, my birthday is in May but my lifeday would be in August. Or maybe call it “perthday” as a nice compromise between “birth” and “person.” No matter; I’m confident the crack team of advertisers will come up with something snappy.)