Telling Time

It’s already past midnight and I lie awake counting: (1-1-1-2). “What will come next?” could be a test question, but a wider perspective tells the tale: (12-1-1-1-2-1-3-1). My wife’s grandmother’s clock, down the hallway, is ringing out the night hours and chiming once every half hour.

Next morning I sit on a couch in the living room, within striking distance of the old pendulum clock. We are a team, pitching a few minutes back and forth during the week. Professing to tell the time, we are really both told by time. It’s true that I trust my Smart phone to align with the rotating Earth and the orbiting Moon, and get me places on time, but our rickety pendulum clock seems more at home in time than any atomic device.

Neither of us quite keeps the hours and minutes straight, so every day or so we synchronize. That feels appropriate, since nothing about time is really straight. Our modern world divides the span of a cycle into units and then counts those units–like tollbooth tokens marking a journey—and we merely call this time. But the nature of time is not like a toll road. Time wafts into our lives like moonbeams illuminating our waking dreams.

So I wind this pendulum clock every Saturday morning, and make five minute “corrections” now and then during the week. Like old dogs who, these days, can only bark at the cat crossing the front yard, we gather our ticks and tocks and chimes–and I find myself scribbling a few notes about the experience–as we wander together through the fields of time.

Not telling time too perfectly feels like an antidote to our society’s accelerating enactment of sequential time: it feels good to look around a bit as we race full throttle down a one-way street; the past disappearing in the rear view mirror and the future slipping under the low beams. Perhaps we can learn something about the nature of time from the “Little Engine That Could” who bumbled up a mountain pulling a trainload of Christmas toys.

You don’t know about “The Little Engine That Could”? Then let me give a brief summary of one of the world’s minor epic stories.

The Little Engine was pressed into service when the more powerful locomotives had better things to do than deliver Christmas toys to little boys and girls across the mountain. When the powerful engines–too indifferent or arrogant to be seen pulling rail carriages full of toys—turned the job down, the Little Engine headed on out. With the toys shouting encouragement, the Little Engine huffed and puffed (wait–that may be a different story) The Little Engine wheezed and strained up the steep incline, repeating “I think I can, I think I can”. After a lot of “thinks”, late that Christmas Eve she coasted into the town and–with all the toys cheering—she happily boasted “I knew I could, I knew I could”. Of course, she didn’t really know it. The Teddy bears and dolls knew it and the Little Engine, a fairly good listener, went along for the ride.

I’m not sure why I remember the smiling face on the front of this storybook locomotive as a “She”. But I also think of Time as a “She”: a friendlier version of “Father Time”, that uncompromising prophet of inevitable dead ends.

“Is Middle age the awkward period when Father Time starts catching up with Mother Nature?”  I don’t think so. Mother Time never has to catch up because, unlike Father Time and unlike the shiny locomotives lounging in their train yards, she is not confined to any line. We only think of time that way.

The faces on old clocks are circular, which seems right for the cyclical nature of time. However, passing our lives like second hands racing around in tight circles—only now and then glimpsing the minute hands and hour hands—we may fail to realize that we are always cradled within longer natural cycles that keep our world alive. We are cycles within cycles within cycles—days, months, seasons, civilizations, the birth and death of suns, cosmic creations galore.

So what’s our hurry? The pathways of linear time have tributaries and mountain meadows which we scarcely notice as we avidly race dead ahead, determined to reach somewhere that we never left or ever could leave.

My pendulum clock and I are waiting for Godot, but our very clumsiness reminds us that Godot is already here, riding in on the first glow of dawn that steals across my darkened yard, and which every morning surprises nighttime with the light that is the true face of Time.

One comment to “Telling Time”
  1. Reading this, it once again dawned on me why Hayward once said you should write a children’s book. You seem to so easily step into that childlike perspective, and speak from that place in such a sensitive way. Thinking back on some of your remembered passages, I have seen glimpses of that innocent view, as I have with a small passage in this Blog. But I also enjoyed the entire scope of your ‘Telling Time’. Very nice…

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