[Another essay--this one published but unfinished--from 35 years ago. I like the accessories here, but I don't think, way back when, I understood what I was talking about. Really. I was just a kid.]
For years I've envied Henry David Thoreau. 'Time," he said, "is but the stream I go a-fishing in." Of course, his 19th America didn’t look much like ours. "We are so institutionalized," a man once told me, speaking of his church, "we organize meetings just to organize meetings." But then Thoreau exiled himself, he said, simply to avoid the rat race:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
We’re all creatures of time, and often its slaves. Even Thoreau marked his Walden sojourn by the metronome of the seasons, a more "natural" rhythm than the digitals that light up our dark corners, just another means of marking time.
Chaucer's characters lived under the reign of their own strange notions of time. Folks in the Middle Ages saw themselves in an egocentric world where the circling planets were thought to control certain segments of time--not the hours of the day, but the "hours unequal," the hours from sunrise to sunset, and on from sunset to sunrise again. These "unequal hours" were thought to be governed by the character of the planets. We’re heirs to that ancient vision of planetary control at least in the manner by which we name our days: Saturn-day, Sun-day, Moon-day, for instance.
You might think that medieval notions of time were even more tyrannical than our clocks, for a birthdate in the middle of some planetary configuration was thought even to determine the careers of a person’s children: for instance, butchers, hangmen, tailors, barbers, cooks, cutlers, carpenters, and physicians were clumped together under the aegis of Mars.
Silly. But then every generation creates its own tyrannical timepieces to mark time. Not long ago I sat in the home of a woman whose living room decorations explained both her past and her personality. Hung above her library was what she called, in Dutch, her schipperke, a time-keeping, handcarved allegory that was at one time pretty much standard front room décor in the Netherlands of her youth.
An Atlas type--huge, rippling muscles--bears the weight of the entire world on his right shoulder, and he is grimacing, one knee already down, the other bent beneath him, near collapse. Two angels float on either side of the planet, trumpeting their prophecy in the ticking. “Hear ye, hear ye. Atlas weakens, so number your days. Make the most of the time, the end is near.”
Perfect living room accessory for a sweet Calvinist family.
Recently I bought a digital watch with a little bell lit up on its face; after an hour of reading instructions, I discovered the little bell meant that one silly chirp would sound every hour on the hour, all day and all night, as long as the tiny battery would juice the thing.
Every hour of the day that cheap watch chirps a reminder that another hour of my life is gone. It’s intimidating. Right in the middle of my morning it emits one silly high-pitched bark to remind me that counting only our days is not enough in the 1980s--I'm even counting hours.
I'm not alone. A gent in our Sunday School has watch is more musically accomplished than mine. When mine chirps, his sings a chimed chorus. Right in the middle of a discussion, an hour's passing triggers a performance, and we go on as if nothing has happened, even though we can’t help be reminded that it’s time to wrap things up.
Time still pushes us, structures our days and nights--and sometimes locks us in cages we seem as powerless to identify as escape. Timepiece noise isn't news at all. Batteries and electricity put pendulums out of business. Years ago, every home had a ticking clock. There's no significant difference between my chirping wristwatch and an really expensive tall grandfather in an cherry cabinet.
Anyway, who says the chirping or the ticking or the struggling Atlas is moral admonition? Maybe it's just my sense of guilt that creates a scolding. I still haven't decided whether this chirping signals another hour gone or another hour coming--whether I should confess my laziness or firm up my resolve to accomplish more. I’m just way too much a Calvinist.
Once upon a time there was a man called by a whole village of offspring simply "Grandpa Pete." Because his hearing was gone, he never seemed to understand that he talked much louder than anyone else. One day Grandpa Pete buried one of his own sons, a man who was himself a grandfather. A second son helped him to the funeral home, up the steps, and through the room to the open casket where he saw, for the last time, his own boy's face.
He turned to the man holding his arm. "Yeah, John," he said, "Matt beat us to it, didn't he?" loud enough for the whole world to hear.
Grandpa Pete doesn’t have a chirping watch. If he ever had a schipperke, I’m guessing he tossed it or brought it himself to St. Vincent DePaul.
We all know there is no atlas holding up the world. Time is a wonderful gift, or so says Abraham Kuyper; but it’s not even real. Only eternity is.
I’m guessing Grandpa Pete never heard of Thoreau. But I can't help thinking he would have got along just fine at Walden Pond, with the man who said time was just the stream he went a’fishing in.
I know this much--he liked to fish.