- Education and Science
Armsful Of Clocks: A Meditation
It was still dark when I arrived. Six AM, time for the ragged end of the night shift clocking out under the fluorescent glare, and the headlights of early commuters slicing a dark gone just slightly opalescent with the first hint of approaching day.
I hadn't been here for a handful of months--a new full-time position had made part-time shifts at the Convention Center hard to schedule, but miraculously I remembered the gate code, Security was the same as ever, and the time clock recognized my ID and fingerprint without trouble.
I'd come to set the clocks. The school year had wheeled around nearly to its conclusion, and the more scholarly students would be taking their Advanced Placement exams. Watched by monitors, they would be chewing pencils and watching their time with the aid of a score or so of wall clocks, mounted--a little incongruously--on pipe-and-drape posts throughout the cavernous convention hall. Naturally, it wouldn't do to embarrass the School Board (or the Center) with clocks set to different times. My job to prevent that.
A quick check of the paperwork confirmed my assignment--to be completed by 7:30, it said. But there's no time like the present, right? Off to the hall.
The monitors were there already, distributing the test papers, checking assignments and talking quietly among themselves. The clocks were fairly well set already--this wasn't the first day of testing. But they were not high-precision devices; I'd have to check each separately and that would take a while. My wristwatch would be the time standard for the County this time!
Round the hall, check the clock plus or minus thirty seconds, adjust as necessary, advance a station and repeat. Two clocks have stopped; I'll have to fetch new batteries for them. One has had the face opened up, and--as I discover when I try to reset it--the hour hand has been bent slightly upwards, causing the minute hand to hang up on it. Easily corrected.
A half an hour, and the task is complete. Now it's "babysitting"--standing by in case of need. I decide to walk back to the office by the outside route behind the building. I don't mind the slightly nervous chatter of the early students in front, but the quiet predawn light, grown now much nearer fullness, seems more alluring.
We've all had circumstance change the world in an instant--something, perhaps insignificant for all practical purposes, that seemed to set reality slightly askew . That's what happened next.
The Center is built in part on top of one of the many small, mostly hidden lakes scattered across our suburbs, supported on massive piers above the narrow arm of muddy water. As I pass the water, my eye is suddenly caught by a ghostly movement: disturbed by my passage, a Great Blue Heron is on the wing, utterly silent, as majestic as these birds always are, under those tons of concrete, steel and glass, toward the light marking the open portion of the lake beyond. It is as if the spirit of Wilderness itself were threading its way through that cold and geometric passageway.
Unthinking, I reached for my cell phone and its camera--too slow, of course, for the heron, out of sight long before phone could clear pocket. I took a picture of the passageway under the Center anyway. Perhaps I could find the heron still--perhaps I could still create an image that would capture something of this strange juxtaposition of technology and nature.
Then I think: I want a picture of the clocks, too. It's not just the wildness and the strangeness in the midst of the technology. It's the rules and regulations, the schedules and plans, yes and the natural rhythms, too--the cycles recurring over and over in our days and in the days of the herons. I turn back to the hall, pausing to snap a picture of the "quiet" sign on the Ballroom door--there's no testing in there this morning.
But as I approach the Hall, I notice the quiet: sure enough, the students have been admitted to begin their tests, though it's still not 7 AM. Good thing I didn't wait to begin my clock setting, lulled by that note to finish by 7:30!
If I want a picture of a clock, it will have to come from the Ballroom. There, I meet the Manager and learn that the clocks there can be stowed away until next time: another task to do. It's unexpected but hardly onerous; there's only an even dozen, plus a microphone and stand.
Armsful of clocks, up the stairs and into the cardboard boxes awaiting. I pull the battery from each before stowing it away until its next turn in the cycle.
But the room is different: all the gear previously stowed there is gone--even the shelves that had held much of it. That handful of months since my last shift had brought an unexpected change. Where had all the gear gone? More of the unexpected: gear storage hadn't changed in all the time that I'd worked at the Center.
Now I could have a look for that heron. By now, the sun was well up, creating brilliant flashes on the lake's surface--and a striking pattern on the wall of the Lake gallery.
Outside, the heron was nowhere to be seen--no real surprise there. But I couldn't see the whole lake surface yet. What I could see were Canada geese, feeding by the waterside, two adults and four fuzzy goslings in their downy plumage. I sidled over, as close as I could without alarming them.
One generation, nurturing their successors: the cycle of life. A little further along, I spied a plot of rose bushes in full bloom; past that, a curve revealing the last heel of the lake. No heron. But there were more geese, feeding busily in the parking lot. What they were pecking at, I couldn't imagine.
My heron had come and gone, as elusive as the spirit I'd thought of first--flown straight out of the frame I had to operate within for the time being. The cycle of my shift was winding down now, though. There would be a couple of small calls--directing a delivery truck on to the main loading dock, taking a couple of fresh batteries down to the office--but mostly I'd be free to think of circles and lines, wilderness and technology.
I'd remember Bruce Cockburn's line about the first Christmas: "Redemption rips through the surface of time/In the cry of a tiny babe." I'd think how the singular rips through the circle of time, and how that always sets me back on my heels for a moment, how it stirs imagination and makes almost anything seem possible. And I'd see the armful of clocks again in my mind's eye, and think that maybe that was a truer picture of how life really is: you have little choice but to embrace the circle--and hope that each time around sees you just a little wiser than last time--a little more ready for the singular.
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