Almanacs offer another kind of calendar

by Donna Schaper

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I just love that word “almanac.” 

Whether it is the Farmer’s Almanac, which tells me when the next full moon will rise, or “The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor,” which sends a poem a day to my inbox, I just love almanacs. They say to me that all is right with the world -- or at least predictable. 

They also let me know it’s spring without it -- spring -- being about me. Almanacs are a great tool to combat extraordinary self-consciousness, the kind that cages us inside ourselves so much that we miss the lilac’s bloom while wondering when they will erupt and bless us in lavender.

The origins or the word almanac are not entirely clear. One theory is that it derives from a Greek word, almenikhiaka, meaning “calendar.” Early almanacs, dating back to the days of Babylon, were tables that charted agricultural, astrological or meteorological data.  Experts have said “almenikhiaka” appears just once in antiquity -- mentioned by Eusebius, quoting Porphyry, as to the Coptic Egyptian use of astrological charts ("almenichiaká").

Another origin suggestion is that almanac was originally an Arabic word, al-manākh, meaning the climate, referring to the natural, recurring changes in the weather. I wish my husband were more interested in the changes in my weather, but that is another matter entirely. Less environmental, perhaps? More personal? Not really. The weather changes. The climate changes. And so do we. We run hot and cold, frosty and heated. Men have as many “cycles” as women do, in my own view. Again, that is another subject, and probably changing the subject too far. 

And yet, what if we were positive about internal and external climate changes? Instead of thinking of them as a curse? Or as only being about us and our moment, climate, time zone?

In the modern sense an almanac, or almanakh, is the average weather forecast for a certain period of time. It follows the relatively stable weather conditions covering a specific area, also called climate. Given that we usually hear the word “climate” in debates about the damage we have done to it, it is a blessing to reinterpret the world and give it some respect, the kind of respect it deserves.

Aaron Rubin has proposed a theory that says that almanac comes from the Spanish word, 'alma', meaning the soul, which descended from the Latin word, ‘anima.’ The derivation of almanac from Alma is a product of ancient wisdoms that thought celestial bodies to be the divine sources of the vital breath that engendered mortal life.

Climate change is normal. Severe climate change is not. Gradual climate shifting is normal, like fall blending into winter or summer blending to fall. Rapid, weird change is not normal. Thus, its potential to curse rather than bless us.

If you are old fashioned, as well as hip, you may even put on your Google calendar, “Spring Cleaning.” (Simple magazine advises this sort of thing, trying to help us who are no longer simple to be simple. Martha Stewart issues the same orders about what to do when, in her own calendar in Living Magazine, she tries to be an almanac herself.) 

You could also calendarize, “Clean the gutters.” Or spring cleaning. If you are really old fashioned, something in your mood will tell you it is time to find the shorts you packed up last fall. You won’t even open your phone to put this activity on your calendar.

Almanacs provide an otherwise missing order to the normal, natural world. They release us from the pressure of ourselves as selves and locate us in a larger climate. 

The best part of an almanac is they predict the blessed ordinary. They also remind us that the blessed ordinary is astrological, meteorological, climactic and not just human. This city mouse and country mouse loves their attention to the human plus, not the human dominant. It is nice to know we are a part of things larger than ourselves.

I have a little book, given to me as a present in 1992. It is called “Walk While the Moon is Full.” In it I have recorded just about every full moon I have seen since 1992, my location and the moon’s arrival at my location. In June last year I got the Eiffel Tower as a frame. On September 27 that same year, the blood moon eclipsed right here on East 18th Street in Manhattan. Or at least that is what all my neighbors thought as we emptied out of our apartments on to the street. Truth is the remarkable eclipse happened everywhere, just at different times.

What’s great about the almanac is it could tell me where it eclipsed in Honduras and Rome too. How liberating, to live larger than on East 18th Street as well as living right here, right now.

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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