My Grandfather’s Clock

[A Traditional Song]

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf

So it stood ninety years on the floor

It was taller by half than the old man himself

Though it weighed not a pennyweight more

It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born

And was always his treasure and pride

But it stopped, short never to go again

When the old man died

Ninety years without slumbering

His life seconds numbering

It stopped, short never to go again

When the old man died

My grandfather said that of those he could hire

Not a servant so faithful he found

For it wasted no time and had but one desire

At the close of each week to be wound

And it kept in its place, not a frown upon its face

And its hands never hung by its side

But it stopped short, never to go again

When the old man died

It rang and alarmed in the dead of the night

An alarm that for years had been dumb

And we knew that his spirit was pluming for flight

That his hour for departure had come

Still the clock kept the time with a soft and muffled chime

As we silently stood by his side

But it stopped short, never to go again

When the old man died

Ninety years without slumbering

His life seconds numbering

It stopped short, never to go again

When the old man died

Reflection: Tock-Tick-Tock-Tick with Rev. Jessica Steward

As a little girl, I would listen to a variation of that song on my beige and brown Fisher Price portable phonograph with its little orange turntable. It was on my “Tale Spinners for Children” Golden Rhymes LP that was a combination of storytelling and songs for kids. Among classics like Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, Three Little Kittens, and Hey Diddle Diddle, My Grandfather’s Clock was strangely out of place. In spite of its uplifting melody, the lyrics were tonally quite different from the rest. It didn’t truly fit with the whimsy and silliness of the other songs or stories on the record and so, of course, it’s the one I listened to the most often. It was a kind of earworm that I couldn’t get out of my head and I’d sing it endlessly—in my room by myself, around the house, around the neighborhood.

The story it tells is one of both symbiosis and mystery: after 90 years, a seemingly inanimate object stops shortnever to go again—when its owner dies.  What was wrong with it? Why couldn’t they get it to go again? It was just a clock. Or was it!? Did it love him back? And did it know the whole time when he was going to die? Was that actually its job? To countdown the minutes of his life? Was that a thing!? Or was it just too sad to go on when the old man died?

My child’s mind needed to know. My adult mind still has questions. 

When I was young, I felt incredibly impatient with time. Waiting was impossible for me. I was constantly wishing time away, whether it was minutes, hours, days, or even sometimes years.

For instance, I couldn’t stand waiting for Christmas morning and so I’d find my presents ahead of time, carefully open them, see what was inside, reseal them, and then practice my “oh my gosh! I can’t believe you got this for me!” face over the next several days.

I was also desperate to grow up so I could have boobs. And so I’d stuff the halves of the L’Eggs plastic eggs in my shirt—the smaller half for a sensible day boob and the pointy half for a more adventurous night look—and then pretend some miracle had occurred. I’d stagger over to my mom while wearing her Candie’s high heel mules and say, “Oh my God! Look mom! I grew boobs! Can you believe it!?”

It’s safe to say she could not. 

I remember one day I was returning home from Chubby Chuck’s with our dinner, carrying the pizza box in front of me on my seemingly interminable walk home. With that tantalizing smell of saucy cheese and crust wafting up my nostrils with each step, I felt the crushing burden of not being able to magically teleport back so I could gobble it up. For some reason this set me off and the unfairness of waiting seemed to deepen with my every step and I began to mentally catalog all of the things I had to wait for and the sheer injustice of having to wait for anything ever. If that song was right, I was going to have to deal with this shit for the next 80+ years and honestly, I just wasn’t sure I could stand it.

It’s incredible, and slightly troubling, that all these years later I can still viscerally feel all the feelings I had that day and the frustration and anger I experienced at something so seemingly trivial—having to wait for good things to happen.

I would love to say I have evolved far beyond that feeling but I’d be lying. Patience is not one of my virtues. In fact, for years I’ve had a little rock with the word “patience” that sits on my desk, reminding me that good things come to those who wait.

God, I hate that saying. Really. Can’t all the good things just happen right now already?

After years and years of battling with this internal accelerator, I understand now that I was always chasing time not because of some undiagnosed case of chronomania. But rather because there has always been some part of me that felt like time was running out.

As children, that feeling is natural. Our need to consume the world around us in order to make its magic a part of us is innately driven. It is urgent and raw and wild. We want to understand all the things we do not understand—which is everything—and are steeped in wonder and awe throughout this time of voracious discovery. It’s only natural to feel frustrated and sad during such an intense process of learning.

And as teens, our desire to be part of a world where our perceptions of freedom and responsibility still diverge so completely from their reality that we are compelled forward by hormones and fantasies of a fairytale future that will likely never come. Of course we feel melancholic and angry during such an intense period of yearning. 

And then sometimes bad things—hard things, challenging things— happen in our lives that make us suddenly understand the fragile threads of our mortality and just how much of it is outside of our control. Life isn’t a fairytale afterall and we don’t get to live forever. And in that moment of unfathomable rupture and loss, seemingly everything changes.

When my mother died, 30 years ago this month, I realized that there probably is some invisible God clock out there counting down my every remaining minute and I have no idea how long that actually is. And even when a bad thing makes it feel like my world has stopped, the pendulum of my life keeps swinging. Paradoxically, in fact, it almost feels like it begins to swing faster, even when I may feel trapped in the surreality of the moment.

With every tick of the clock there is a tock. For every second seemingly wasted, there is another opportunity seemingly missed.  

And with that pendulum still swinging, the quiet yearning of teendom gives way to the quiet urgency and anxiety of adulthood, where I want—need—all the things to happen but not only am I now responsible for making them all happen for myself,  there’s also now a real possibility that I might run out of time enough to do them. It’s only natural for us to feel anxious with this paradoxical “both/and” of suspended animation and a fast-forwarding of life during such an intense period of churning.

But regardless of the advent of my great loss—and long before crashing headlong into the realities of my mortality—I’ve always been a “tock” kind of girl. Sure, the tick is lovely but I have always been that person—the one who flips to the back of the book to see how it ends. I have been—and always will be—the one to lobby for the importance of starting with dessert first, just in case. I will always make the argument for eating breakfast for dinner because we all know it’s the most important meal of the day, so why not have it twice? It goes on and on and on…I have always wanted to know what was coming so I could be prepared. How it was going to end, so I could have a plan. To make sure it was worth my time so I could cram as much life into life as possible.

Tock-Tick. Tock-Tick. Tock-Tick.

At times my Tock-Tick approach to life has felt like a curse. (I’ve already shared the tragedy of my long walk home with the pizza that day and the crushing reality of having to wait to eat it.) And at other times, it has felt like an incredible gift. For a long time, it felt paralyzing, this need to know and this need to get it right, particularly when coupled with this sense of urgency and a feeling that time was running out. What should I be doing and how should I be doing it so I don’t waste a moment? I have taken on the role of the impatient procrastinator far too many times and for far too long. But now, in what I hope is mid-life <ahem, you hear me, God?> I find approaching life by considering the end first not only highly motivating but deeply clarifying, like the dense richness of a delicious ghee. 

When I consider the end first, when I tock before I tick—I stop wondering what others might think of me now and instead start asking myself how I want to be remembered when I’m gone?  

Suddenly the idea of wasting my life on shallow cocktail banter makes prioritizing deep and meaningful relationships that much easier. Suddenly spending my days in a soul-eating corporate job just to earn a few more bucks seems silly and wasteful. Suddenly focusing on the depth of my character and my contribution to the world instead of the size of my thighs seems like an easy pivot. And while I still fully believe in “divine timing” and moving at the “sacred pace” of life, I also know that I’m committed to not wasting any more of my precious remaining moments on worry or regret…or diets. 

As we know, the perceptions and attitudes regarding time vary dramatically from culture to culture. For instance, in America, time is money and we are beholden to the clock and driven to be productive. Whereas the Spaniard or the Arab would scorn our submissive attitude to schedules because for them, time is a subjective commodity that can be shifted, stretched, molded, or shaped regardless of what a clock says. In America, we see time as linear, as a journey, a road we’re traveling. We believe we know the outcome of time because we are so careful to count it and plan it along the way, forgetting that life is unpredictable and uncontrollable in spite of what we believe the clock is telling us. In other cultures, time is cyclical. They believe we are on a curving trajectory with life and we may travel through similar terrain in the future but rather than try to predict time, we are better off harmonizing with the laws of nature instead.

In America, we believe time is a commodity to be controlled. In other cultures around the world, they believe time is a gift to be enjoyed, played with, and learned from. But regardless of culture and country, there are theoretical and quantum physicists all around the world who have been saying for years that time as we know it is, in fact, an illusion all together. Recently, they developed the mind-blowing James Webb Telescope that can effectively show us 13.5 billion years into the past. And while I don’t pretend to understand it, I have learned from a very young age that the scientists are right—the concept of time has always been an illusion. Anyone who has experienced deep loss of any kind knows what it is to hold the paradox of sorrow in one hand and joy in the other and have to walk simultaneously through both worlds at the same time throughout their entire life. 

A constant intermingling of past with present, while moving towards the so-called future.

With every loss I’ve experienced, with every moment that passes, with every step I take towards my eventual demise, I can feel the pendulum of life counting out the moments, a rhythm and reminder that my time here is precious and limited and not something to be taken for granted. I don’t know what happens in the end or even when that’ll be—I don’t have access to that kind of God clock in my life like somebody we know—but I do know that until then, I will do my best to stay curious. To be kind. To let myself be loved and to love well in return. I will walk with wonder. Stay open to joy. And let myself laugh in delight when I am given the gift of another day. 

And in the end, if Heaven is real, then I know—I am, in fact, certain—I will be met there by my mother, holding a fresh box of Chubby Chuck’s pizza, and for every meal we eat together, we’ll always start with dessert first. 

Just in case. 

This reflection was offered during our Sermon on the Couch Sunday Service through our free kindness community—the House of Belonging—on Sunday, March 12, 2023. Yes. The day we “spring forward” for Daylight Savings Time.