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Issue 79. Structured Time September 13, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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AQUA_BOOKLast week I spoke to some dear friends from Recife, Brazil through an internet video chat: one of the many ways it has now become possible to stay well-connected with friends over long distances. In Recife, the temperature has started to creep up from the barely cooler July and August temperatures of  81 farenheit/27 celsius and so the opening of the summer has been declared and all on the same day, people flocked to the beach as they do every year, even though the previous day was every bit as lovely and warm. It just wasn’t summer yet. Here in New York at 40 degrees north of the equator where the change of seasons is more marked, the temperature is nearly the same but fewer people go to the beach now because the US Labor Day weekend marks the traditional end of summer.

According to Wikipedia, there are currently 41 calendars in use around the world, although this includes the fiscal year calendar and ISO weekdate. Each calendar has a variation on a leap year cycle to account for the time it takes for the earth to rotate around the sun, and there are various ways to determine when a new year begins. For example, Rosh Hashana 5770 in the Jewish calendar begins in less than a week. Other calendars begin the year with the vernal equinox. The different cyclical schemes used to correct for the rotation around the sun also mean that in some calendars an entire month is added to make the correction while in others it’s a more frequent additional day.

To return to the Brazilian calendar, which structurally is exactly the same as the US calendar, there are still differences. The names of the days of the week from Monday through Friday translate as 2nd Market Day through 6th Market Day, and all days may be abbreviated by their numbers. You don’t have to be in school to think of the year as having two semesters in Brazil, while in the USA, financial news is given by the quarter year. And while the US week starts typically on Sunday, for which reason the 7th day Adventists consider Saturday to be the 7th day on which God rested, in much of Europe the visual layout of the calendar week starts on Monday and many people think in terms of numbered weeks as much if not more than they do in months. The Iranian week starts on a Saturday and ends on a Friday. Variations of the Zoroastrian calendar include 30 named days in a month.

Even a day is not easily standardized. This article from Scientific American give some of the Western oriented history of our standards of time. It’s worth reading this article just to contemplate the idea even in the higher latitiudes, summer and winter days could both be considered to have 12 hours of sunlight, but that summer hours would then be substantially longer than winter hours. I feel certain that I would live differently than I do if I carried this concept of time, but just knowing that other ways to structure time are possible is liberating.

This liberation may explain why people who have had the experience of living in another culture often feel so profoundly affected by this experience. They have the choice to consider other standards, to know other realities and to understand how life is organized differently someplace else. And even if, as often happens, they return home to embrace more fully the familiar patterns of life there, they know better the value of these patterns they choose to follow.

Before we had to say goodbye and saudades, my friend and I talked about the way time passes. My friend asks me how it is possible that the years pass so quickly when the minutes pass so slowly. It has to do with missing friends and family far away, and about not having so many places that one has to be on a given day. I have been intending to return to Brazil for about 10 years, but each year it doesn’t happen.

But if I can count my hours by the passage of the stars by night or the clouds by day, or by the amount of time it takes me to read a good book or walk to the park and back, then surely there will be time to return to Brazil and to slow the passage of the years and make the minutes fly by.