Time sculpture

In the two years i’ve been off-and-on house-sitting this lovely Tofino home, one of the many eccentricities has been this impressive grandfather clock. It’s a real old-school baby, made many decades ago by a relative of the house-owner. It’s completely mechanical, powered by three heavy weights on chains that have to be re-hoisted every four days or so. There’s a pendulum with a brass disc that swings back and forth, eliciting an authoritative tick … tock with every swing. Listening closely, the left-swinging tick is higher-pitched than the right-swinging tock, which seems to have the falling intonation of a declarative sentence ending. It’s like the clock is making a statement, over and over again: “Tell me. Don’t go. Be free.”

That sound has been problematic for me over the months. Most of the time, i heard it as the soundtrack of an existential European movie, where the close-up of swinging pendulum and insistent tick-tock is a trope for the implacable march of time, the constant insistence that “Your life is slipping away, second by second, irretrievably.”

When one is not entirely sure that one is not wasting one’s life away, that reminder can be as unwelcome as the drip-drip of a Chinese water torture. Besides, i have in the past spent huge chunks of life basically lost in time — usually while travelling, when the day of the week and exact hour of the day are largely meaningless. I know how completely artificial our parsing of time into measurable bits really is.

This time around, however, it’s different. I hoist the weights with relish. The ticking is a background beat, like the clap of an high-hat to the day. And the chimes — did i mention it chimes every quarter hour? — are both musical and reminiscent of temple bells. Both are easily ignored, if required, in that way we humans have of not hearing what we don’t want to hear.

But the very best thing about the grandfather clock is something that i’ve only just realized in the last week: It’s an ideal meditation timer. I can sit down any time i want, without fumbling with my usual timers (cell phone or stovetop timer), and have a guaranteed sit of somewhere between zero and 15 minutes. I sit with my back to the clock, and i really like that i don’t know how long it’s going to be until the next chime, because that short-circuits the mental timer that is always unconsciously anticipating the end of the session. If the chime sounds after just a few minutes, i just remain seated, knowing it will sound again soon.

Furthermore, those unbanishable technological background worries of power failure or batteries dying are not a factor with the granddaddy clock. It conveniently ticks every second, so i can tell at once if its weights have reached the bottom of their descent and the clock has stopped. (It’s a strange background worry, borne perhaps of too many Twilight Zone episodes in my youth, that the meditation timer fails and they find me, days or weeks later, still frozen in the kneeling posture, waiting for the beep or bong or buzz to ends the sit.)

Grandfather clock fixes all that, so i can sit contentedly till — just like in a real Zen temple — the bell rings.

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