Broken Time

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The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931

Of all of the clocks in my life right now, not a single one tells the right time.

To begin with, there’s the giant wall clock in my office at work. Up until last week, it was off by an hour plus some minutes. Daylight savings time had ended, but I still hadn’t gotten around to changing it. Often, when a student or colleague visited my office, they would glance up at the clock on their way out. “Is that the right time?” they always asked, alarmed. “No,” I got used to saying. It was a little funny to watch the momentary panic rise up in them and fade. It’s always disturbing to think you’ve lost your grasp of time.

Earlier this week the clock’s battery died, and now my office time is permanently 9:43. It turns out to be a surprisingly useful time, since I teach at 10 am. If I look up at the clock it conveys urgency—class is starting soon!—while at the same time it’s reassuring—I still have eighteen minutes to prepare. All morning now, I work away as if I have eighteen minutes left.

il_340x270.631451604_gfxxThere is another wall clock in the classroom where I teach, and on the first day, it was stuck at 8:20. The class has continued for two full weeks, and every day the time has been wrong in a new way. On Tuesday it was exactly an hour behind, and on Wednesday it was five minutes ahead. To cope, I’ve been checking my iPhone every so often, which I worry makes me look unprofessional, like a texting professor. Correcting the problem would require me to remember to submit a work order from my office so that a worker could arrive during off hours with a ladder and new batteries. I find myself brooding over what this means, that even in a lecture hall full of computers and cell phones the marking of time still requires maintenance; we still feel the need to look up towards the ceiling and see time marked, accurately, on the round face of an analog clock.

At my house we have two kitchen clocks and they are both ten minutes fast, because Kellie insists this practice helps her be on time. I’ve lived with these kitchen clocks this way for about twelve years, and I’m still doing subtraction every time I glance at them. Subtracting ten isn’t hard to do, but still, the action makes it seem like time is imprecise. In the world of our kitchen, I live in the illusion that I’m always late, or that I always have an extra ten minutes.

Digital_clock_changing_numbersThe bedroom alarm clock, a classic faux-wood box with glowing red digits, is also ten minutes fast. In the bedroom, it must be said, loose time bothers me less. What drives me crazy about the bedroom clock is that Kellie often sets it face down so that the glowing red digits don’t keep her awake. When the face is down, I wake up and look around in darkness, unmoored, unsure if I’ve been asleep for seven hours or twenty minutes.

My internal clock is also broken. Stump has broken it, many times and in many ways. Most recently, he has broken me by refusing to sleep past 5:30. Some mornings he wakes at 4:50; other mornings he makes it to 5:10. (Subtract ten minutes from these times. I’m looking at the bedroom clock.) My body likes to rise at seven, but after two weeks of early rising, I jolt awake now at 5:05. I wonder, will this be the morning that Stump sleeps until six? I try not to stir, for he is next to me in the bed. I can’t help it. I move an arm. He wakes. The pattern continues.

I remind myself that time passes in larger swaths too. When this pattern began, I told myself it would last a few days, maybe a week. Now I tell myself that even if it lasts months it’s still temporary, a blip in my life that I may barely remember at the end of this year.

And, once it’s forgotten, once I am rested, the whole thing will be erased from time, more or less.

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8 comments

  1. You have just reminded me that the most mundane things, like all those wrong clocks in my life (I also set mine ten minutes ahead, the oven clock makes no sense at all, the radio clock is one hour and fifteen minutes ahead and Tim sets his clocks about five minutes fast), well, they hold greater meaning, and great fodder for a beautiful, relatable piece of writing. Thank you for that.

  2. I enjoyed this meditation on time. I found your telling of how your inner clock has been broken esp. poignant and how that too shall pass.

    I moved in w/ my bf a few months ago and it’s been a lesson in deeper awareness to see how in small ways I’ve started moving to his rhythm rather than my own in terms of little timings and to learn how to stay inner tuned. With a child undoubtedly the pull of their rhythm is way stronger, I’m sure.

    1. Yes, those rhythms are so powerful! Before we had kids it felt like a big deal to me that Kellie always went to bed at least an hour before me. Now I relish the quiet time. (Like right now.)

  3. I keep the clock in my car a little fast so that even when I feel late, I’m not. I hate lateness. Then I’m always happy to have a few extra minutes. It’s like magical found time!

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