“Clock time has to do with where we are not. Timing has to do with being where we are, paying attention to what is appropriate to the moment at hand.”
A great walnut grandmother’s clock hung above the mantelpiece in our living room when I was growing up. Its movement was governed by a pendulum and three brass weights decorated with fine scrollwork that hung down on thin cords. My father would open the wood-framed glass door and take a little key and wind up the weights from three cranks in the clock face. It chimed once at each quarter hour and then a separate set of chimes for the hours, so 12 o’clock was heralded by 16 chimes in all. It was in no way digital. Its resounding tick-tock and mellifluous chimes were my introduction to recorded time.
It was monks, they say, who first introduced mechanical clocks as a way to signal prayer times, but timekeeping has advanced far beyond such simplicity. It is a double-edged sword. It provides us with tremendous precision and the ability to do things according to schedules, such as the magazine deadline I face right now, and yet as we know so well, it enslaves us in arbitrary rhythms. With computers, we have evolved the notion of “real time,” which so far as I can tell means right away and fast, but real time as we experience it defies the clock. Time crawls or flies or languishes, in keeping with our state of mind.
The Japanese concept of ma refers to the ability to stretch and bend time according to the movements of a human body dancing. If we watch dancers adept at ma, they create time for us as we witness their movements through space. They are the watch face or the weights on the clock. This is time management on a grander scale than the proficient use of an electronic organizer.
Scrupulously measuring the passage of time presents no inherent problem. It certainly makes it easier to make a lunch date or to know when to show up at the airport, but when timekeeping develops into time addiction it can limit development of one of the greatest human attributes: timing.
Clock time has to do with where we are not. When we ask what time it is, we are not trying to find out where we are but rather where we ought to be or ought to be next. Timing has to do with being where we are, paying attention to what is appropriate to the moment at hand. When someone looks at their watch just as you are about to get to the point of what you are saying, it says to you, “I don’t have time for this. I am on a different schedule.” Their sense of clock time may be well tuned, but their sense of timing is clumsy and rude. Adding the “ing” makes time less a matter of math and more a matter of intuition and sensitivity.
Our marriage to the clock and the calendar can breed a false sense of knowing time and place. We know that we are of a certain age and have had a certain job and a certain relationship for so long and we know what day and month and hour it is, but the chaos that governs existence does not let us know when illness, disaster, or good fortune may strike to radically alter our current stack of reference points. We call this unpredictability, but nothing is more predictable than that our schemes and schedules will be disrupted. Yet we often react with panic and throw our sense of timing to the winds. When my father died suddenly, I raged against the schedule disruption, but in the greater scheme of things it was time to do something else.
Measured time gives the illusion of solidity and linearity, but a close look at our lives lets us know that events are much more fluid and hard to pinpoint. On what day were we no longer young? At what precise hour on exactly which day did our relationship to someone change its character? When did our child turn the corner from teenager to adult?
To truly be kind to others (and ourselves for that matter), it helps to abandon time slavery and try to notice what kind of time others are keeping, to notice their face and their gesture, to know when they are ready to say something, ready to be quiet, ready to come, to go, to be led, to be followed. So many times I have been unable to listen or to notice what someone was going through or where they were headed because it didn’t meet with my schedule. Patience and timing are inextricably linked. Patience, which we can regard with such excruciation, offers a hidden reward. When we stop watching the pot, we may learn that it boils right on time.
Sometimes my father would forget to wind the big clock, the weights would fall, and time would stop. We wind the clock. It does not have to wind us.