Amid a flurry of autumn traditions old and new — carved jack-o-lanterns, homecomings, pumpkin spice latte — discussions of a less happy tradition arise, inevitable as falling leaves. As the clock adjustments required by the end of daylight saving time grow nearer, a little inconsequential and mostly congenial grumping about the practice can be heard across the land.
Some don’t care which official time prevails; they only wish for an end to switching back and forth. Others, in favor of keeping the practice, argue the case for a national policy. Most seem to consider the fuss over “falling back” or “springing forward” nothing more than a relic of the past, like barn-raisings and butter churns.
Repetitive and predictable as the seasons, the same questions arise year after year. Does clock manipulation save energy? Does it help or hurt school children? Will it lead to an end of a nation-wide vitamin D deficiency?
Clearly, definitive answers aren’t possible, but I work by the sun and not by the clock, so the lack of answers doesn’t bother me.
Like anyone who works from “kin to cain’t” — from the moment the first bird takes flight into the dawn until the last light fades against the hills — I gauge the time of day by the slant of the sun and pace myself accordingly. Still, living in the midst of a clock and calendar world, it’s important to take that world’s realities into account, including the transition back to “standard” time.
One friend takes the mandate to set clocks back one hour at 2 a.m. so literally she sets an alarm. She doesn’t want to be late in meeting her civic obligation, but she doesn’t want to be early, either. She’s done it that way for years, and for years I’ve given her a hard time about it. She won’t be swayed since, as she says, that’s the way it’s “supposed” to be done. Clearly, she believes that if only everyone would set their clocks in the middle of the night as we’re told, the world would be a better place.
I’ve never dared tell her about my approach to the end of daylight saving time. She’d be scandalized to know that I not only avoid changing clocks in the middle of the night, I don’t bother to reset them before I go to bed, and I don’t adjust them first thing in the morning.
Instead, I’ve chosen to consider that hour we “gain” as we “fall back” to be a gift from a minor god. It’s a little chunk of time left lying at the edge of my life, waiting to be done with as I please.
Every year, I save my hour of reclaimed time until I need it, or find a frivolous use for it. While others busy themselves resetting clocks, I watch from the sidelines with a smile on my face, secure in the knowledge of the secret time tucked into my pocket. Eventually I dispose of that extra hour, but only then do I reset my clocks, putting myself more or less back in synch with everyone else.
Years ago, with different work and different expectations, it wasn’t so easy; I had to make an effort to be on the same schedule as my co-workers. Even now, there are practical limits to how long I can hold on to my extra hour. It really isn’t feasible to keep it for Christmas shopping in December, or an especially pleasant February afternoon when time on the prairie becomes a nearly irresistible temptation.
Still, the ability to choose a use for that extra hour can become a delightful exercise.
Imagine, for example, that you’ve spent an afternoon after the end of daylight saving time doing paperwork, or laundry. At five o’clock, you decide you’ve had enough. You pull out your extra hour, declare it four o’clock, and sit back to relax with a book.
If you’d prefer a leisurely, late-afternoon walk, it’s just as simple. Tuck your extra hour into your bag and set off at a brisk clip until you feel yourself tiring. Then, take out your hour and slow down, secure in the knowlege that you’ll arrive home in time for supper.
Over the years, I’ve used my extra hour to repot African violets, read The New Yorker, watch the sunset, and brush the cat. I’ve spent it talking with a friend on the phone, and browsing a bookstore. Once, I took a nap. I’ve used the time early, and I’ve used the time late. What never varies is using it with full awareness that it is my hour to do with as I please. If I choose to save it until Monday morning and dedicate it to an extra cup of coffee or sweeping the patio, so be it.
It’s a game, of course: this pretending that I have a time-treasure hidden away in my pocket like a shiny new dime. But it’s a game that provides multiple pleasures, and having the time tucked away is only the first. Equal joy lies in deciding how it will be spent.
Each year, in the deciding and in the spending, I re-learn a lesson each of us too easily forgets: that what is true for an hour also is true for a day, and that, as the days add up, they become the sum and substance of our lives.
As I rise on any given morning, the time spread before me looms larger than my play-hour, but it’s still my time, and my responsibility to determine how it will be spent. Certain decisions already made — to be employed, to seek education, to raise children, to work within the community — necessarily predetermine much of our day’s normal course, but bits and pieces of time still remain ours alone: hours waiting to be used for creation, renewal, reflection, and relationship. Despite our plaintive cry — “I wish I had more time!” — the truth of the matter is that we have all the time there is. Wisely used, that is time and gift enough.
“There is no shortage of good days,” writes Annie Dillard. “It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample, and its passage sweet.”
As we move from equinox to solstice, leaving the summer’s light and moving again into the darkness of the year’s bleak end, it can be easy to believe that the days themselves are shrinking: that our hours have shriveled, our minutes crumbled. But time is ample, enduring in daylight or dark; pouring into our lives from eternity’s store; waiting to be disposed of as we will.
Of course, time’s flow can be neither stopped nor reversed. In the words of Tennessee Williams, “It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”
Whatever the time, the clocks are ticking.
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