Meditations on a Cuckoo Clock by Lisa Wright

I recently found myself purchasing a broken cuckoo clock on Ebay. But why a broken cuckoo clock, you may ask? And why a cuckoo clock in the first place? The answer to both of these questions is simple enough—it was Christmas; my partner’s father loves to tinker; and he has, of late, began restoring and repairing cuckoo clocks. If you go to their house, be prepared  every hour, (usually) on the hour, to hear an oddly discordant yet somehow melodious jangling that is the parade of cuckoos. This is an unsettling, yet oddly endearing, soundtrack that I imagine they don’t even notice anymore. So, there’s the background. The following is an exploration of how, in the weeks following my purchase, this clock has loomed large in my thoughts about time, memory, and the nature of lost things.

Enter the broken cuckoo. I, like so many people this holiday season, relied (somewhat optimistically), on the already heavily-overburdened post office to deliver the majority of my holiday gifts. Unlike previous years, however, I actually began shopping extremely early in a frenzy of hopeful over preparation that is completely out of character. This is how I found myself searching for the final gift for my partner’s father, the finishing touch, the piece de resistance. In recent years, after his retirement, he has become increasingly interested in fixing up and restoring broken-down cuckoo clocks to their glory. A perennial tinkerer, this burgeoning devotion to all things cuckoo has really captured his interest of late. Thus we began our search for the perfect “broken” clock to add to the cuckoo collective.

The first time we were presented with a newly-restored cuckoo clock to marvel over, the wave of nostalgia I experienced was, quite frankly, astounding. My beloved Great Aunt Dot had a cuckoo clock in her cabin that I spent much of my childhood and teenage years gazing at and wondering about: Why is it here? Why doesn’t it work? For this cuckoo clock also didn’t work—well, at least it hardly ever did. In plumbing the depths of my increasingly unreliable memories, I seem to remember it working at some point in time (albeit incorrectly, and sporadically). But can this memory be trusted? Or am I simply willing it to work all those years ago to fit this current narrative? While it’s possible (or not), that the clock never really worked, what is certain is that it existed. It was there, I remember it, and though it has disappeared into the depths of history (or perhaps my parents’ basement), the knowledge of the clock itself is enough to induce a wave of nostalgia at the sight of any seemingly random cuckoo clock.

Perhaps this was why I began to think about this broken clock—and other broken things—more and more. People fix broken things all the time, and for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s for profit, sometimes it’s for a hobby, and sometimes it’s just the simple joy of mending something that was seemingly lost into something whole again. This joy is understandable, and quite possibly universal—who among us has not felt the simple satisfaction of repairing something that was broken—whether it be something as simple as sewing on a button or patching a tire, or something as complex as “fixing” our relationships. The desire to fix what is broken or to find what is lost is an intrinsically human trait. It is also an interestingly complex one as it combines our curiosity and steadfastness with our stubbornness and hubris.

Many would say that we currently live in a throwaway, relentlessly consumptive society. We often consume more than we produce, whether it is natural or man made. Technology has allowed us to consume information at the click of a button, and so we are constantly consuming and digesting news, politics, entertainment, and cute animal videos as fast as we can get them. But for all that we consume, what do we keep with us? What do we retain, submit to memory, attach meaning to? And why is this important?

Our memories are certainly not always reliable; they are fluid and often subjective. I have found that as I get older I am sometimes guilty of performing a type of subconscious wallpapering over memories or experiences that I either find painful, or shameful. And I know I am not alone. There are many reasons why we might want to reshape—or fix—our memories. It could be that they are too painful or traumatic to face, or it could just be that sometimes you don’t want to remember (or at least you want to remember with a little more editorial license). Our strangely mysterious minds cope in a variety of ways, and with a variety of traumas. The lucky ones among us are the ones that do find a way to somehow reconcile our memories and experiences—and find a way to live with it.

Like a clock, we mark time with our memories; they are signposts and beacons that allow us to arrange our thoughts into some kind of meaningful order. They also allow us to connect with larger, more shared experiences. I imagine this is why we still see people asking questions such as “Where were you when you heard JFK was shot?”, or more recently, “Where were you on 9/11?” Our memories of where we were and what we were doing on significant (and often tragic) days in history are yet another way for us to cope. In a way, comparing our memories with others is a way to entrench them more firmly in our own often unreliable and tricky minds. However, collective memory is also not immune to being dangerously subjective, and, like our individual minds, often has the capacity to whitewash (and rewrite) unsavory truths.

Keeping time, marking time, telling time—we spend much of our lives worried about the passage of time. Before smartphones, we relied on more traditional timepieces, and of course we still do. I, for one, feel naked without my watch and will usually look at my wrist for the time before ever checking my phone. The problem is, my watch relies on me to make sure it is keeping the correct time, and even if I set it correctly, it could still potentially be wrong. Maybe I set it wrong in the first place, or maybe the battery is winding down, or maybe I forgot to adjust is during Daylight Savings. If you have more than one timepiece in your home then you know chances are they will often be set to different times. As of this writing my phone says 11:46, and my analog kitchen clock says 11:45, and my watch says 11:47. The cuckoo clocks at my partner’s parents’ house all operate the same—while a couple of them may chime reliably in tandem, there are always one or two that are out of sync.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are losing time, we are simply interpreting time—the way we often interpret and organize our memories—in a subjective way. This is why some people set their clocks back or forward because they have a hard time with punctuality. If your clock is ahead by fifteen minutes, no one will know except you (as long as you arrive “on time”). The way you keep your own time is also often intrinsically entwined with establishing routines; and there is comfort to be had in routine, a reliability, a repetition that can be immensely satisfying. Routines are yet another way to cement our own chosen reality. As we can rely on a cuckoo clock to strike the hour, whether it’s right or not, we can use established routines to parcel out bite-sized dependable chunks of time to our often chaotic (and sometimes broken) lives.

In a way, one could say that 2020 itself has been “lost.” Our lives have been put on hold, and our routines interrupted, or even cancelled. The beginning of the pandemic, at least for me, was marking time through the changing restrictions in my state: no indoor dining; outdoor dining only; some indoor dining; no alcohol without a meal (forgive me if my restrictions all center around dining, as I was, up until recently, a bartender and server). In the beginning at least, time was being measured by the changes that took place monthly, and sometimes even weekly. It was easier to digest time in this way; especially as the pandemic didn’t magically disappear, I found myself unable to think ahead for more than a couple of weeks at a time.

However even though time was bent, warped, and stretched during this hellscape of a year, it still passed. Somehow we are now once again at the beginning of a new year and we must decide once again how to reconcile the past year with how we want to spend the next. Though 2020 was broken, it is not lost. Though it cannot be fixed, it can be remembered. It is up to us how we decide to assign it a space in our memories. 

No matter how we choose to interpret time, or our memories, the fact remains—sometimes things will inevitably get lost or broken. Such is the fate of the cuckoo clock that inspired my own recent rambling introspections. It started out broken, with the potential to be fixed and made whole; and it ended up lost, victim to a neighborhood porch pirate or the sadly overburdened post office. Thus, it is doomed to forever be broken, it’s potential unrealized. But just because it was lost, doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. It was, albeit briefly, a part of my life— and so it will continue to keep its place, marking discordant time not on the wall, but in my memories.

Lisa is a freelance SEO writer/blogger trying to get a full-time writing gig. She enjoys photography, reading, cooking, baking, and British crime dramas and panel shows. Though she generally makes a habit of avoiding social media, you can find Lisa on Twitter @dolphy_jane.

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