Free Time. Break Your Clocks, Smash Your Watches.
Once there was a boy named Time. He grew up like most kids, meandering, playing ball, chasing cats, eating his vegetables.
He learned by exploring the things around him, came to know himself in relation to these things. He paid little attention to grown-ups and their efforts to build fences for him, schedule their lives around him.
Like most boys, he was more concerned with expanding his world than obeying its limits. Lost in a land of Let’s pretend, he created rolling horizons without borders and universes without boundaries. His mind was focused on the task at hand, not what would come next.
When lunch was ready, he would be called. When darkness fell, he would go inside. He assumed this was the way his world would be forever.
As happens, eventually he began to go through changes. He started to feel differently, see himself and the things around him differently. He moved more swiftly, became hungrier, noticed girls. The world was shiny and new again. He visited new neighborhoods, tried new food, stayed up late.
He didn’t want to miss anything.
Again, he thought life would be this way forever.
And then one day he woke up. On his way to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, he passed a clock in the hallway. He stopped to look at himself in its glass and accidentally got a different glimpse of reality. It was as if overnight, the world he knew was stolen and replaced with one that looked the same, but wasn’t.
It was as if someone had let him in on a lifelong secret, an unpleasant truth he’d been sheltered from his whole life. He would never be the same.
How could he have lived so carelessly for so long? How was he so blind to his own nature? And how did it come to pass that so many people depended upon him, scheduled their lives around his own, worshiped his name?
Worse yet, for everyone who revered him, there was another who cursed his name, spat at the idea of him.
The most uncomfortable thing was the realization that there was nothing he could do. No matter what, his life would march forward. There was no stopping, no getting off the ride. No matter how he tried. He would get drunk, stay out all night, and sometimes sleep for days.
Still he would keep moving. When he awoke, slowly he’d realize that he hadn’t changed a thing. That his namesake marched on, even in his sleep. He was unstoppable. He could not be incarcerated, distracted, or derailed.
He tried everything, including seduction. He consulted holy men, great thinkers, prostitutes. But no one seemed to have the answer to his riddle.
Years passed. Then one day, while walking across an old stone bridge, he spied a glimpse of freedom. A woman stood on one side, her head bowed, sobbing quietly, tears streaming down her face. He wanted to comfort her, but had no idea what he could ever do that would make her feel better.
Then, as if she suddenly became inspired, she lifted her head, removed her wedding ring and tossed it bravely into the water.
Apparently gratified by the act, she continued. Next came her diamond earrings, then a bracelet, followed by another ring and her wristwatch. As the watch came to rest in the river bottom, the young man instantly felt a small relief.
The secret, he realized, was that he only existed in people’s imaginations. He was a creation of their minds. A way for them to measure their lives.
If he could just get people to stop thinking about him, he could disappear. He could escape the cages they’d built for him. But how was this possible? Everywhere there were timepieces painstakingly constructed in his name.
How had this cult grown so large? How had they become so dependent upon him? How had they mistaken the tree for the fruit?
He went immediately to the nearest clock he could find and punched it square in the nose. The big hand lost its place first and both hands soon fell slack into six thirty. He started breaking into jewelry stores and clock repair shops, smashing the watches and pulling the guts from grandfather clocks.
In public places and in broad daylight, he couldn’t pass a clock without moving time forward and backward. He snickered to himself as he watched people take morning lunches and have after-work cocktails in the noonday sun.
They would show up at work when the day was nearly over, and puzzle over why the sun was still up at bedtime.
While these mischievous acts always made him feel better, they did not solve the bigger riddle. So he devised a plan. Late one night while a young writer was sleeping, he crept in his open window and scribbled a few lines on a scratch pad.
So now, if you know what’s good for you, if you have a heart and are willing to be brave, do us all a favor. Break your clocks. Smash your watches. Free time.
*A revised excerpt from the novel Waking Up at Rembrandt’s, © 2009 and 2012, Thomas Lloyd Qualls.