Unclocking yourself is not easily done

(With apologies to Dr. Suess, Oh, the Places You’ll Go)

I set out last Friday to do a three-day, clockless retreat. I’ve been reflecting and writing a lot about my relationship to time for the novel I’m working on. The idea for this retreat came to me when I noticed a flare of jealousy upon hearing about a friend returning from a trip to Mexico, where she experienced a very different cultural approach to time. I realized that, short of actually spending time in another culture, I could perhaps temporarily create a respite from our culture’s approach to time.

My husband Don, who is a practicing Buddhist and super supportive of my writing and retreat time, took to calling it my “timeless” retreat. I corrected him– not timeless, clockless. I started calling it my “unclocked” retreat, or sometimes, my “declocked” retreat. Because, in order to be clockless, it is necessary to actively extract oneself from a variety of ways that clock time is embedded in contemporary life. This is more difficult to accomplish than I imagined it would be!

I eased into it somewhat during the planning for it. I quit wearing my wristwatch a week or so ahead of time. The last time I tried to stop wearing my watch, I lost my wedding rings – because I’m in the habit of taking them off together for various activities (swimming, trapeze, ceramics), and putting the rings on the watchband and buckling it. It took me weeks of angst before I found the rings. Not wanting that to happen again, I googled, found, and purchased this cool wristband with a zippered pocket for keeping rings.

I also figured out, with Don’s help, how to turn off the clock display on my laptop, and operated this way for a week or so before the retreat. I’d had no idea how frequently my eyes went to the upper right of my screen to check the time there, until it was gone!! I also discovered that when my computer goes to sleep and I have to log into it with the password, the time is displayed there, even when it’s turned off on the menu bar. So, I learned how to turn off the password feature at the beginning of the retreat (and turn it back on at the end).

Also with Don’s help, I determined that there is no good way to turn off the clock display on an iPhone or iPad. This meant I’d be unplugging much more thoroughly than I’d initially planned. I didn’t mind the idea, having been on meditation retreats without my phone before, but the scientist part of me was worried I’d be conflating the two effects. How would I know what aspects of the experience came from the lack of clocks, and which came from the lack of constant connectivity to the Web and to other people? Oh, well, it couldn’t be helped – at least not without buying and learning to use an Android phone, which seemed excessive for a 3-day experiment! And already, it was giving me an understanding of how thoroughly clocked my life had become.

Not having access to digital books meant I’d have to obtain hardcopies of the books I wanted to read while on retreat. One of them, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a different order of time, by Judith Shulevitz, I already had in hardcopy, and had been reading in bits and pieces for months as part of my Shabbat observance. (Since the hardcopy I had was borrowed from the friend who loaned it to me (thanks, Liz F!), I did a really old-school thing with it on retreat: I took hand-written notes from it!! Talk about slowing down!! Not even highlighting with a marker, much less with my finger on a screen!) (By the way, I highly recommend this book, a beautiful, personal, and well-researched exploration of the history, psychology, and sociology of the Sabbath).

I also had to find a location to do the retreat. Holy Wisdom Monastery wouldn’t do – bells that ring every quarter hour!! I found an AirBnB that sounded nice, on Lake Decorah in Mauston, about a 75 minute drive from Madison. I messaged the host about my plans for an unclocked writing retreat, asking whether it would be ok with her if I disabled her clocks, and was there an audible church bell in the neighborhood? She said there was a church bell downtown, but that she’d never heard it from inside the house, she thought it rang at noon. D’oh!! I wish she hadn’t said that last part!! Because if I didn’t know when it was ringing, it wouldn’t reveal the time to me!!

I decided the location sounded workable for my experiment. A day before leaving, I put a small piece of post-it note over the part of the screen on my car’s computer that shows the time. I checked the weather report and paid more attention to the predictions 3 days out than usual, since I wouldn’t be using the weather app. I thought about a few of the other apps I use on my phone – like my meditation timer, InsightTimer. I’ve been using it for my daily meditation practice for … how long? I just looked – it says I’ve had “931 days with at least one session since Feb. 05, 2015,” and 262 consecutive days since Jul 09 2018. (It would be longer but last July I was at Kallah, a Jewish Renewal retreat, where I wasn’t meditating every day – though I was doing other kinds of spiritual practices like praying!). I’ve become attached not only to the timer feature of this app, which has beautiful bells, but also to the incentive to meditate every day in order to not break the continuity. Fortunately, it has a feature where you can add a session manually after the fact, and since I knew I’d be meditating some every day during my “declocking” retreat, I wouldn’t have to give up the personal-best record. I also use InsightTimer’s amazing array of guided meditations on occasion, especially when I can’t sleep, or for power napping. I’d just have to do without those!

I didn’t plan to completely stop looking at clocks until bedtime on the first night, figuring I’d need time to get settled in, unclock the house, etc. When I arrived in Mauston at 5pm on Friday, my hostess Amy was waiting for me to orient me to the house. She had already unplugged 2 clocks, covered the stove and the microwave clocks with painter’s tape, and hidden a wall clock, face turned to the wall, in the bottom of the front hall closet! (I discovered it there, very quietly ticking, only because several hours after she left I was searching the house because I realized I ought see if I could find a flashlight, since I hadn’t thought to bring one. “Flashlight” used to be an entry on my packing list, but I removed it a year or two ago, because I always have my iPhone handy and can use the flashlight app!). Before Amy left we had to collaborate on figuring out what to do about the thermostat – a recently-installed “Nest,” which she and her husband use to program the heat at their lake house from their home back in Madison. She eventually figured out how to set it to manual mode, and we added some tape over the lower half of the screen, where the time seemed to want to appear, especially if I made the mistake of pushing the screen rather than turning the dial.

I went for a walk that evening, bringing my iPhone with me, figuring I might want it for the map feature, so I didn’t get lost. The house was on Lake Decorah very close to the mouth of the Lemonweir River, and Riverside Park was within easy walking distance, with a walkway along the river. The river was slightly flooded, and occasional large rafts of ice broken loose from the lake floated down it. Ducks and geese were everywhere. Riverside Park had a “Story Walk” sponsored by the local public library, which had placards with a new page of a story every so often along the route. The current story being depicted, synchronistically, was one called Unplugged, by Steve Antony, about a computer-like character named “Blip” who spends all her time plugged in to her computer, playing games and learning new things. But one day there’s a blackout and she trips on her cord, comes unplugged, tumbles down the stairs and out the door, and discovers the wonders of being Outside! Since I was getting hungry and tired, I decided it was time to stop and turn around before I got to find out what happened, but I just found and read the rest of it online here!

Unfortunately, there was a large clock tower on the route between my temporary home and the park. The clock on it seemed to still be set to standard time, which I thought might be sufficient for me to feel unclocked… this might have worked if I hadn’t seen the time on my iPhone to know for sure that it was an hour off. Maybe I could shield my eyes from the sight until I passed it? I experimented a little, but it seemed quite challenging, given that the relative height and angle of it kept changing as I walked. Plus, my arm would get tired, and people might think I was crazy, shielding my eyes from a clock!! I eventually resigned myself to staying on the AirBnB property for the rest of the retreat. It had a large backyard and was right on the lake. I’d brought my hula hoop and my jo (a staff for doing the movement form from aikido that I learned in somatics), and I could do squats and lunges and other calisthenics for exercise. The property also offered plenty of bird-watching pleasure, with bird feeders and binoculars, and migrating water fowl (including occasional swans!!).  In warmer weather it would also provide kayaking and canoeing, though far enough from land that dreaded clock tower might also become visible…!

On the return trip of my walk that first evening, I realized I was very hungry. This made me feel rushed, without any specific time constraint. Interesting. The house had a very well-equipped kitchen, and I enjoy cooking, though I realized I hadn’t thought about my attachment to listening to the radio while cooking! I probably could have figured out something to listen to on my de-clocked computer, but a radio station might announce the time, and I wasn’t sure which websites and computer apps might also do so (I’d checked my writing app and its display was clockless, except for some functions that I could avoid using). It was also Shabbat, so I decided to opt for quiet.

Speaking of Shabbat, I realized that first night that avoiding the use of my phone and clocks was triggering old habits from childhood about strict Sabbath observance. We weren’t that strict in my home growing up, but we had friends and family who were stricter than us, so I was familiar with the practice of not turning on lights or using electricity, and had apparently internalized it somewhere deep inside. The first day or so I had to keep reminding myself it was okay to turn on and off lights!

I noticed an actual aversion to clocks developing, which, when I eventually turned on my computer to do some writing, extended to an aversive reaction to any numbers on the screen (they might be the time! Squint so you can avoid seeing them!). I understood viscerally how trying to avoid something makes it more salient. For instance, later the first evening, I accidentally saw the time twice, once when I mistakenly pressed the Nest rather than turning it, and once while turning off my iPhone and stashing it in an out-of-the-way location for the duration. The last time I saw – 8:20 – reverberated in my awareness, 8:20!  8:20!!  8:20!!! as though it were accusing me of trespassing a taboo, or as if it were flashing, counting out seconds, on my retina.

To be continued…






5 thoughts on “Unclocking yourself is not easily done”

  1. Fascinating reading Becca. I used to start a lecture on biological clocks by asking the students how their lives would be different if they had no access to clocks watches and other signals of time. Quite an array of answers. Then I pointed out that it is critical that animals time their daily activities if they are to thrive and survive. All by way of saying you can go clockless with respect to the external world but much more difficult to inactivate your internal clocks. You are one interesting intrepid person. Love from Berkeley.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Nice writing, Becca. I’m glad your time went so well. I look forward to reading more.
    Also, just to mention something, I wanted to read what vegetables Americans are not to eat. I clicked on that topic, on three different links on your post. While I did go to another page for the Dr., the video with the article did not appear. Maybe it is my computer or something. Oh, yes, would you tell me what the vegetable is? 🙂

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