What’s your mirror year? Mine is 1913. Next year it will be 1912. Your mirror year is the year that occurred as long before your birth as the current year lies after it. Since I was born in 1959 and I’m now 46, 1913 is my mirror year, because 1959 minus 46 is 1913. Naturally, the older you are, the earlier your mirror year.
Why ponder this? Well, the older you get, the more quickly time appears to pass. That’s because (according to my theory) each year represents a smaller slice of your life so far. The early years of your life seemed to last forever (that long summer waiting to turn six), and they still seem that way in your memory. More recent years seem to fly by, and you wonder what happened to them. It works just like space: when you’re a little child, an airplane seat seems roomy. Now that your behind occupies more space, the seat definitely must have shrunk. And when you revisit the places of your childhood, they all seem smaller than you remember.
So it is with time. The more time you occupy, the smaller it seems. If there were a way to go back to your childhood years and revisit them with your present level of experience, those years would also seem more brief in spite of your memories. Without any direct memory of them, though, the years before your birth continually grow shorter in your mind, as you reflect on what a year or a decade means. The span of time that mirrors your life always seems as if it’s about the same length. It more or less defines what you consider “recent history”.
For instance, when I was a teenager, my mirror year reached back to World War II. Just about every middle-aged man in my hometown had fought in that war, and often recalled their adventures, heroic or otherwise. Like the music of the 1940′s, it all seemed tired and outdated to me, but not ancient. World War I and the Model-T were ancient. But now that I’m older and consider that it was only just over 40 years from the end of World War I until I was born, that doesn’t seem so long ago after all, even though now it’s even more distant.
Another take on history: how far back does your experience by proxy go? Take the oldest person you knew well enough to have conversations with about their experiences. How far back did they reach? I knew my great-grandmother well, and she told me stories from her childhood that occurred in the 1890′s. Those years seem real and relatively familiar to me, because I saw them through her memories. She grew up on a farm in rural Virginia that still employed and housed the families of former slaves — they were “free”, but had nowhere else to go. She was twenty years old when she first saw an automobile, and on a July night in 1969 she staid up late with us to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
If you add one degree of separation, how far does that take you? I knew several people whose older family members had fought in the American Civil War, on the side of Virginia “against the northern aggressor”. They called it the War Between the States for political reasons, but my great-grandmother still preferred that name because she “had yet to hear of a war that was civil” — as she said decades before Guns N’ Roses “coined” a similar quip.
And so the 1860′s seem to me to be just at the edge of human memory, and everything else before that seems like it existed only in books. You can listen to someone talk about someone they knew, and feel that you almost knew them yourself, but it’s difficult to add one more degree of separation with any sense of intimacy.
You know you’re getting old when your mirror year precedes your experience by proxy, especially if you include a degree of separation. The oldest person alive now has a mirror year that reaches well back into the 18th century, when the American Revolution was being fought and Mozart was still alive. I never knew anyone who knew anyone who lived then, and I doubt you did either.
And yet, the 18th century seems familiar when compared to earlier times. Even the Romans seem positively modern next to the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians. Any culture with writing seems recent compared to our prehistoric ancestors. And good old Cro Magnon seems just like one of the boys when lined up beside Neanderthal or Australopithecus. Of course, from their time until now is just a minute or so out of the day of Earth’s timeline.
Human culture keeps changing more rapidly with each year. It seems as if soon some watershed moment must arrive, wherein we achieve some great transcendence or final destruction. But such apprehensions have always existed, and yet we go on. Faster and faster, but on nonetheless.