It's Time


It’s different standing in front of it than it is to watch the great clock ring on YouTube. The videos I’ve seen made the whole thing look rather underwhelming–particularly when compared to the technical wonders of the modern era. And yet, here I am, stricken with a sense of awe and wonder I did not expect to experience in its presence.

It’s striking the 11pm hour–a time at which I would normally be dozing off into an anxious dreamland. Instead, here I stand, looking up at a clock that was first developed in the 1400s, in a city that reminds me of the fantasy of Disneyland and Harry Potter, a true marking of my own time.

Although it’s superbly beautiful and a tad overwhelming to see for the first time (particularly when I haven’t done my research on how to read it), it isn’t the clock face that holds my attention. Nor is it the figures of the apostles rotating in the open windows. Nor is it the beautiful gothic and baroque architecture that surrounds the clock and provides its other-worldly ambiance.

What I’m really interested in–captivated by, really–is a small skeleton puppet on the right of the clock face, rotating an hourglass and ringing the bell of the hour. A meditation on death. A little morbid perhaps, but I feel a strong appreciation as I stand before it. Suddenly, the idea of rushing through time–like the way we rushed through town this evening after a slow dinner service to get back to the apartment to take a work call–seems completely absurd. The idea of trading time for money seems like not a good enough answer to the question, “and what will you do with your one and precious life?” And the way so many of us choose to live: preserving our momentary comfort at the expense of doing the right thing (in one’s relationship to self, others and the world) seems now a completely inappropriate way to move through life. Or the false sense that more time is guaranteed (or at the very least deserved), which enables me to discount my blessings and obsess over my existential problems. The skeleton rings the bell, the apostles rotate in the windows, and all else is quiet on the Old Town Square as we each stew in the contemplation of our lives.

24 hours a day, death rings the toll of time, gently reminding all of us who gather in front of it of life’s impermanence and specificity. The impermanence is obvious to me and has been for a while: I’m now old enough to see my temporality when I look in the mirror, and I can also feel it in my body’s function. It dawns on me that I often wish I were younger, even though it’s a small wish that exists below the threshold of language and doesn’t drive my conscious thinking–it’s just a general sense I carry around in my bones. But the specificity of time. This is a new thought. Most immediately, the specificity of this 11pm show which has brought together this particular group of people, who have configured themselves in the square in such-and-such a way, gathered each with a distinct psychological landscape, and are viewing the world’s oldest working astronomical clock welcome a new hour. Some people coming to terms with their own mortality, others accepting the mortality of their loved ones. I imagine it’s not much different from Prague citizens gathering around this clock in the middle ages, with their own specific histories and problems and contexts–each of them learning to accept the reality of life’s terms the same way we’re doing now. And so, who better to welcome the hour than death, the ultimate perspective-keeper and evaluator of a life well-spent?

I close my eyes and lean into Oli, who feels like home. It’s strangely calming to meditate on death in front of this great clock. An emotional unease starts to bubble up, which I recognize as anxiety that arrives when I confront something I’ve been avoiding. I’m surprised by this, as I consider myself to be someone who contemplates death fairly regularly. But perhaps I have not known how to contemplate it productively. Perhaps I’ve always framed it as something scary, a scene from a horror film. Perhaps it has always seemed something to endure in private, alone. It has not seemed to be something to bring into the public square, to confront as regularly as you would your to-do list, in the company and presence of your loved ones. It has always seemed big–too big–overwhelming, in fact. But maybe death is actually a little piece of knowing that ought to be cherished and carried around as a beacon to light up my concerns about how I’m spending my time. Without death as a companion for decision-making, it’s tempting to think that today will be a copy of yesterday, and tomorrow a copy of today, and so on and so forth to infinity, until I find myself falling asleep feeling vaguely hardened and calloused night after night without ever understanding why or where I went wrong.

How can I be certain that I have spent this moment well unless this moment exists within the context of a life that eventually ends? Without contemplating death, can I ever really know how to celebrate life? Sure, I can perform celebration such that others perceive me as someone who knows how to live well, but will I ever know celebration in my bones, as my own lived experience?

The clock rings 23 times, then leaves us in silence. All around us–tourists, locals, drunkards–basking in the specificity of their own moment, their own experience in front of the great clock. We let the quiet linger for a moment, and eventually break the tension with a collective cheer. As people dissipate from the square, we snap a picture of the clock–a picture that has no doubt been taken millions of times before, and yet there’s something different about taking the picture yourself. As my current present starts transforming into the past, there’s a comfort to knowing it’s on the camera roll–I imagine myself looking at it in the morning, stoking my memory of this wonderful experience. The idea of tomorrow brings relief.

We turn to continue our late night walk through the city, and I glance over my shoulder to get one more look at the skeleton. No longer lit up, no longer moving, just looking over the activity on the square until it’s time to remind us that another hour has gone.

We make our way through the cobblestone streets; past the tourist shops selling puppets and Absinthe and stuffed animals of their famous little mole; past the stands selling Czech desserts; past the modern-day department stores; past the pubs serving folks their third round; and up towards our apartment on Wenceslas Square (another piece of history I currently know nothing about and am slightly overwhelmed by).

I fall asleep thinking about the great clock, about how differently I might choose to live if I kept in mind death’s hourglass. Would life be different if I lived in this city, if I were exposed to this clock multiple times per day? Or would the novelty eventually fade, and I would find myself tuning out its significance to amplify the drivel of whatever momentary opinion, issue or excitement happened to be crossing my mind?