Playing “Beat the Clock,” or The De-Reification of Clock Time

Do you remember that old game show, “Beat the Clock”? I remember watching it. I wonder now whether it contributed to my learning to embody a habit of rushing all the time.

When last we left our contestant on “Dis the Clock,” it was a cloudy Sunday morning at her AirBNB on Lake Decorah, and she was fantasizing about an “uncalendar” month. She wondered…

Would it be possible to do my life without referring to a calendar? Even for one month? Some regular, weekly appointments might be easy to continue without looking at the calendar.

Lately I’ve been noticing how the more regular my schedule, the faster time seems to go. I’ll arrive at Pilates or Trapeze class, and feel like the week since I was there has flown by. Maybe rather than being about the shortness of the intervening time, it’s about the sense of continuity of presence with the setting/ person/practice. A regular enough practice – a rhythmic one – may feel continuous. An ease of slipping back into that mode…a groove. Not needing to adjust, calibrate, blend… a habit of being there at that time that creates a sense of continuity? Allowing the focus to be on what is new, emerging, in the content of the interaction, rather than focusing on achieving the meeting itself?

During my Pilates exercises that morning, I realized, suddenly, with great amusement, that’ I’d been thinking of time as if the clock time were “real,” in a way that it isn’t! For example, when I accidentally heard the church bell chime 4 times the previous afternoon, I thought, oh, it really is four o’clock! As if that socially constructed agreement to call that particular moment in the flow of time by the name “four o’clock” was more real than my internal or sun-directed sense of what part of the day I was in. Just two weeks earlier, before we’d “Sprung forward” to Daylight Savings Time, that moment would have been called “three o’clock.” Even the phrase “four o’clock” – a contraction from “four of the clock” – no longer means what it did when it emerged in the English language, when clocks were rare, and it was used to distinguish clock time from sundial time or other means of measuring or naming what time of day or night it was. What if we used other kinds of names? In my amusement, I came up with a few, like it’s “waiting-for-the-oatmeal-to-be-done time.”

Of course, as a sociologist, I learned that socially-agreed-upon things are “real.” Social forces, though they may be created by agreements like laws, or by shared habits and customs, and may with great effort be changed, are as real in their effects on people’s lives as any other forces. In fact, the very strength of my belief in and embodiment of the “reality” of 4:00 is evidence of the strength of the force of clock time. A fancy word for this is “reification” – turning a concept into a material thing. Of course, I knew intellectually that it was just a name, an agreement, a collective method of coordinating interactions. But it took going without clocks, and then suddenly and unexpectedly encountering clock time, for me to get at a visceral level how absolute this social construct has come to seem to me. Even once I had this realization, I still found myself writing phrases like “I guess I won’t contact my host again because I discovered that the AirBNB app reveals the time.”  Reveals. As in, revelation of truth?!

I did some writing on my novel that morning, but took a break when I looked up and saw a small island floating past. It must’ve been a segment of ice like the others flowing from the lake into the mouth of the river, but there were large evergreen boughs embedded in it, and a goose was standing proudly on it, head up, neck fully extended, as if to say, look at the new land I’ve discovered!

I went out for a better look, and took my jo. My attention was definitely getting more present to beautiful and interesting things in my surroundings. I’d been noticing some lovely coincidences – how the colors on the cover of the book I was reading in bed happened to match the colors of the comforter, while the colors of a book I was reading downstairs in the comfy armchair, and my shawl, both matched the colors of the fabric covering the chair.

I did some more writing, ate lunch, went outside again to do some exercise. It was still cloudy, but I could see the sun’s location, a brighter spot amidst the clouds. I tried to gauge, is it directly overhead? No, but it is still to our South, so it might be noon, or, more likely, I wrote after going back in, “what we’d call one o’clock-ish”. As I was taking off my coat and boots, I looked at a piece of art on the wall that I’d only vaguely noticed before – an abstract art piece with the words “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” across the top. Suddenly I realized that it was also a clock, without numbers, but with hands that were somewhat hard to see amidst the Jackson-Pollack-style painting. I laughed, thinking it wasn’t a real clock, just part of the art.

Then I noticed that the hands read roughly one o-clock! Uh-oh! Had the host forgotten to hide it? Was it running all this time and I didn’t notice it until now? Or maybe it wasn’t running, and I only noticed it now because its stationary time corresponded with the time my mind thinks it is?! It had a second hand that seemed to be made of a feather, and it wasn’t moving. It’s probably not tracking time, I thought, but the only way to know for sure is to look at it again later, and if I do, and it is tracking time, then I’ll know what time it is! I took it down off the wall and turned its back to me, seeing that it was made from an album cover of a vinyl recording of the book, with a battery unit attached to it. I was learning: with some clocks, seeing them twice is necessary, to tell if they’re actively telling you about time (our shared cultural concept of it). (At the end of the retreat when I put it back, I discovered that it was not running – more kudos to my host).

One of the other books I’d brought along to read was Ancestral Medicine by Daniel Foor. It had writing exercises in it, so as I was reading it I wrote some about what I know and feel about my ancestors. This is also background reading for the novel, though it didn’t seem to be related to my inquiries about clock time. Foor writes about how most traditional cultures have some form of belief in life after death, and in the importance of honoring one’s ancestors. I’ve recently been doing an oral history project with my Dad in honor of his 80th birthday, and hearing stories from him and my aunt about their parents and grandparents. The book made me realize I’d love to learn more about my mom’s side too.

Foor suggests ways of communicating with one’s ancestors – which part of me likes, but part of me – my skeptical heritage – finds a bit too weird. I have had occasional dreams where I felt I was with my mother, and one moment where I felt she was helping me survive – when I “randomly” found the lump in my right breast. One section of the book is about how the ancestors sometimes communicate through synchronicity, e.g. signs in the natural world. As I was reading this section, a squirrel on the railing of the deck outside the window caught my attention. It had its back to me, and twitched its tail at me, took a drink from the bird bath, and twitched its tail at me again – as if to say, look how beautiful my back end is! In somatics, the “back” represents the past, history, lineage – ancestry.

It was still cloudy, and the light seemed to be fading earlier than I expected it to. Maybe my internal sense of time was off, and it was actually already much later than I thought?! I felt anxiety – a tangible sense of “running out” of time. I hadn’t done much “actual writing” – more reading and musing. Maybe I would feel better if I did more writing? Or was that my addiction to “productivity,” and my worry about others tracking what I’d accomplished? I anticipated people would ask me whether I’d gotten a lot of writing done. Even my host, so kind about the clocks, had taken her refrigerator-magnet-letters and spelled out “NO WRITERS BLOCK TDAY” for me (her husband has written two books). I took a music/dance break, did some cooking, listened to a guided meditation Don had given me about time, then read some more. Eventually I realized that, since it was still light out, my anxiety about time had been unwarranted, and that it was indeed the cloudiness of the day that had made me think it was late afternoon already!

Later that evening, I was still noticing time anxiety.  The next day would be my last day there, and I was already anticipating that would make me want to rush, to try to accomplish more on the last day. I wrote:

Okay. Stop. STOP! STOP trying to be ‘productive!’ It’s counter-productive! Argh! What I mean is, if I’m trying to learn & practice inhabiting the flow of time, the flow of life, the flow of lifetime, then I have to let go of any particular goal, or at least, any timeline for that goal. Let your life unfold. Let go of getting any particular scene written…. Let flow happen.

That night, I had an attack of what I was pretty sure was gastro-intestinal pain, but it was in my upper left back, and sometimes radiated down my arm. Though I’d had a lot of heart-health tests in recent years that had all come out fine, I was still a little scared. Being alone, and reluctant to use my phone to seek medical advice because it would reveal the time… and not knowing what medical resources were like in Mauston… I imagined packing up in the middle of the night and driving home to Madison…! I took an antacid, which seemed to help a lot. I wrote about my fear of dying, the activities and people I’d be sad to leave behind. I went back to sleep eventually.

I woke to a clear, sunny day, and a dream that seemed to be about an ancestor trying to communicate with me, but me messing it up by moving around too much. I was grateful that I’d been able to sleep, and that the decision not to seek medical attention was the right one. And that I was still alive. I did some Pilates, but the pain recurred. I was scared, but I meditated and sang and did some breath/movement exercises, and worked on listening to the pain, rather than trying to make it go away. I was in a creative space, making connections and following a sense of inner guidance about what practices to do – how to inhabit my time.

I went outside and did some calisthenics with my jo – squats, lunges, and stretches. The church bell began chiming again. I stopped. I’m not counting!! (it’s probably around 10 am) I’m NOT counting! Not trusting myself not to count, I fled into the house before the final bells chimed. That was when the old game show “Beat the Clock” came to mind. I wrote “A new kind of ‘Beat the Clock’! Beat it indoors so you can’t hear it. Cover it with tape. Take it down off the wall and hide it!”

I listed the things I wanted to do with “this next bit of lifetime,” and over the next couple of hours, did several of them, including some writing in response to a prompt from a writing class I’d missed the previous week. The results seemed like they might go into the novel, which made me happy.

After I ate lunch, the pain recurred again, and I started to worry about going through another night alone with it. I was reluctant to cut the retreat short. I’d worked so hard to carve out this time! Yet, I knew that the following day would feel rushed, and in some ways it made sense to go home that night even if I wasn’t in pain and anxious. One of the activities on my list was to transcribe more of the interviews from the oral history with my dad, and I did some of this. Synchronistically, the bit I was transcribing was about an episode in my dad’s life after his father had died of a heart attack, when he himself was having chest pain. A doctor told him it was stress-related, and he immediately felt completely better and it never recurred! Realizing this synchronicity while journaling, I decided to go back to do more transcribing, despite the pain.

The pain seemed to worsen, though, as I tried to ignore it. Suddenly I caught motion on the edge of my vision, and looked up to see the squirrel on the deck again. This time it was facing me, and waving its tail frantically. And waving and waving it. As if it were literally trying to get my attention. Yoo-hoo!! You!! Becca!! Pay attention!!!

I stopped transcribing. Went back to my journal. Wrote “Okay. Okay, I will listen. To what? To my fear? To my body.” I decided to pack up and head back to Madison. Though I felt sadness, I didn’t actually feel incomplete. Would there be more to learn about time by spending longer “unclocked”? Maybe. Would I learn it in one more evening? Probably not. That, too, is a form of what I’ve been calling “time greediness.” Maybe this decision to leave half a day “early” was actually a sign that I’d managed to get off clock- and calendar-time enough, and onto body-time, or what people call “event time.” Sensing when it’s time to go – rather than going by the clock or calendar.

I did all the packing I could do without my phone first, because I wanted to prolong the unclocked state as long as possible. I wanted to use the phone to take a picture of a few things – the synchronistic colors I’d noticed, the layout of my altar. I also needed to let the host and Don know of my change of plans. Eventually, I gave in and turned it on.

After I arrived home, I realized how good a decision it was to come home early. The pain had mostly subsided, but it was much better to have a slow, relaxed re-entry. I had time to tell Don about my retreat, and a slow morning the next day. It was a much more gentle re-entry into the world of my Tuesday afternoon appointments – which would operate according to the reified clock time – than I’d originally planned! I felt gratitude to my own pain, and to the squirrel, for getting my attention.

The effects of the clockless retreat have lingered somewhat. I’m still not wearing a watch, and haven’t turned the clock on my computer display back on. I began a new practice the first morning home: letting time inhabit me. It’s an image of allowing myself to fill with this moment’s flow of time. Time flowing in with the in-breath, flowing out with the out-breath. Letting time inhabit me, rather than me trying to inhabit it. There is no such thing as “wasted” time. Just different ways of living it.



1 thought on “Playing “Beat the Clock,” or The De-Reification of Clock Time”

  1. Lovely experience Becca. I often dream about being able to go off “clock-time” and loved living on “Naropa time” when I was there (although we got annual lectures we were suppose to abide by clock time for classes -the sense of slowing down and time stretching out was so valuable for me. Thank you for sharing about your retreat -and helping me realize that even a small amount of time “timeless” can help re-set, re-fresh and allow the body to come forward!

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