He presides over war and over peace. He looks after entrances and exits, births and deaths, comings and goings. He gave us January.
I wonder if Janus approves of the grocery store in his special month. In our neighborhood store, the escalator comes down slowly through a vista of the entire store. The escalator bisects the seasonal items and I stand like a captain, surveying the seas of consumer goods around me. To my left, shiny new displays of organic and "healthy" foods. All green and white in their carefully marketed finery. They flank the throne-like center display of juicers, fat-free grills, and exercise accessories. To my right, the clearance Christmas candy, tattered and picked over in jumbled heaps, with the luster lacking like prom dresses the morning after. Sometimes it seems we all stand like Janus on this descending escalator, a head in both directions, wondering which way we'll turn when we reach the solid ground. Mercury and Ceres know this, I think. Commerce and harvest join hands and catch us no matter what we choose.
It seems I spend half my life in grocery stores. They become a microcosm of our great teeming American life. They know us well. They know what sells. It deflates me that we fall for this year after year. Soon the New Year diets will be discarded, just in time for the Super Bowl and Cupid's mad celebration in Mylar and chocolate. The clean lines of green and white will be shoved aside for great towers of beer, salty chips and disposable dishes shaped like footballs. Barely a few steps out of January and the keen resolve of so many will be broken. The clean, fresh calendar a forgotten whim as televised gladiatorial events take precedence. Are we really so fickle a lot?
In ancient Roman culture, Janus had no particular feast days or specified priests. His two faces were invoked at the beginning of everything, regardless of the occasion. The Romans of antiquity, it would appear, knew what was up. We stand with both our faces in the beginning of all things. Holiday foodstuffs aside, we know this is true in the deepest of our natures. We spend a lot of time looking in two directions at once. Where I've been and where I'm headed. Who I am and who I want to be. What I should have done and what I'll have to do now. What will end if I start this new thing? We invoke Janus throughout the year, regardless of the month, because what is life if not a series of beginnings and endings of things? We really are so fickle a lot.
I have made no resolutions this New Year. I rarely do, in fact. There will be no new calorie counting or Stairmaster regimen in my coming weeks, mercifully. I will not be eating what I imagine the cave men ate, nor will I learn to dance the Tarantella. A trip down the escalator in my grocery store is evidence enough of how that is all so much marketing. My calendar, decided all those centuries by Pope Gregory, tells me that it is January, the beginning of a new year. January, named for Janus, the god who swings both ways. In honor of this new year and every new year for the last several years, I choose a guiding theme, an idea to cling to in the center while my Janus self looks this way and that, watching my back and scouting ahead.
My theme is personal and will remain so this year, but I share these thoughts on our two faces as we launch into the new year. In ancient Rome, the temples of Janus kept their doors open when the Empire was at war. In peacetime, the doors stood closed. I believe there are times for closing doors, keeping the world at bay, retaining the peace within. But with the doors shut tight, you'll never get out or in; you'll never go anywhere. To consciously open some doors is to invite conflict and unrest into your life. We are, I believe, conditioned to avoid this. But perhaps it was with greater understanding of our nature that the Romans invoked the god of two faces, the god of gates and doors, at the beginning of all things. The god whose one face understands and accepts peace and the god whose other face knows the necessity of battle.
So it is, that I start this new calendar, in the month of Janus, by recalling the words that William Shakespeare put into the mouth of another illustrious Roman, Julius Caesar:
"Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!"
It's time to open some doors.