Just Going through a Phase

Have you ever noticed that you can’t divide the seven days of a week into two equal parts? I water the lawn twice a week during the summer months and my sprinkler system, which knows about minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and even years, forces me to pick two days at one specified hour. So I arbitrarily picked Wednesdays and Saturdays at 7:30 am, which divides the 168 hours of a week into 72- and 96-hour periods.

I’ve started winding our grandfather clock twice a week, ever since it died before reaching the seventh day. I picked the watering days, Wednesdays and Saturdays, just to make it simple. But then a month or so down the road, one Wednesday, after doing the dishes and while working on my second cup of coffee, I saw that this venerable old time piece had given up the ghost again, its pendulum dangling silently, its hands no longer tracking the morning’s sail across the river of time. It felt like something of a realization when it occurred to me that I didn’t have to start winding three times a week immediately. Of course, in this world so marked by inevitable impermanence, no temporary solution lasts forever, but—unlike the sprinkler system with its rigid settings–I am free to divide up the week more evenly. So now I wind early on Wednesdays and late on Saturdays, thereby splitting the week more evenly in half. So far that’s working.

I’m glad that I’m not a sprinkler system that has to slavishly adhere to conventional units of time. But you may wonder why someone with such supposed flexibility would keep this aging time piece around at all. Isn’t the role of a time piece to tell me the time, not for me to keep it tottering along in the trickle of minutes and hours? I certainly have lots of highly alert devices that do that much better.

For instance, I have an “atomic clock” that sits on a bookcase next to where I meditate, read, do a little writing and plan my days, which I completely trust to tell me the time without any need for intervention on my part. But the atomic clock is silent and doesn’t speak about those passing hours and half hours with chimes that ring out into the quiet morning air; it offers nothing like the ticks and tocks that tell me (not only that the old pendulum clock is still alive and ticking) but that I am too: listening, and in tune with the rhythms of morning. Hearing the ticks and tocks, I can better hear the cadence of my breath and the whispering of wind passing over the rooftop under which I am sitting.

This aging pendulum clock reminds me that my own heart is beating, that my body—just like its mechanisms—is aging; and that I am well-along in a life that is measured out through the phases of a natural world. And if we are fortunate enough to experience the later phases of a human life, then we may get to see a lot.

And what about that moon above us (and for half the day, beneath us), telling time in its daily passage from horizon to horizon (or as the Canadian national motto puts it: “A Mare usque ad Mare), reflecting each day the rotation of our planet around its own axis and–in its pale, changing face–its month-long orbit around Earth? Our calendars often include, in their matrix of days and weeks, the phases of the moon: from new to quarter, from half to three quarters to full; then down the scale to three-quarters, half, quarter, and back to new.

Like a cup filling and then emptying every 28 days, our moon gathers and gives back the reflected light of the Sun. Those lunar cycles must be to blame (or should I say to praise?) for our seven-day week, which approximately corresponds to the new, half, three quarters, and full flowering of our moon’s face, as she stands watch over our world. Like the musical octave (do, re, me, fa, so la, ti, do) the phases of the moon faithfully return to the beginning of the next lunar cycle: and when another new moon greets us as we pick up our morning paper or roll out our garbage cans to the sidewalk, we may notice that we ourselves have moved a bit further along in our own lives.

Why praise an indivisible seven day week? Why appreciate that seven, a prime number, has no factors but itself? Because in our world of matrices, ducks-in-a-row, our weeks and months that always seem to be catching up with themselves, we are reminded how time dances to a different drummer than any agenda we set for it.

The shepherds of old must have lived intimately with the phases of the moon, and thereby known much that has been forgotten about the impermanent lives of all things. When I pass on—since no one else has wound its springs for decades—I expect that our family’s pendulum clock will fall silent. But perhaps, like the Velveteen Rabbit coming to life in a pile of discarded playthings and hopping across a field one early morning—it will be rewarded for its faithful testimony that each of us, animate and inanimate alike, are only allotted a few precious hours. Perhaps it will continue to tick and tock in another realm, along with wind chimes singing in a world without wind, and along with unknown galaxies spinning through a cosmos too vast for us to comprehend.

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