On this date in 1883, standard time zones were established in the United States and Canada. The railroad was the driving force behind the establishment of consistent time zones, and it was called Standard Railway Time (SRT). Prior to the use of SRT, all towns set their own time, and east- and west-bound trains in particular found it impossible to publish and maintain a consistent schedule.
There is something lusciously intriguing about “all towns set their own time.” Imagine that. You set your own time. I am still not used to the “new time,” when the Time Gods (at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England?) arbitrarily forced the world to reverse its clock. Every six months I chafe at the clock-fiddling edict. We are already so time-crazed, so clock-hounded. There aren’t enough hours in the day…. We hardly need this unnatural “falling back” and “springing forward.”
It is the “unnatural” part that we have to face. We have so little sense of natural time. The Time Gods tell you to fiddle with your mechanical clock, and you do it. The clock on your cell phone changes mysteriously at 2 AM in October and the next morning you rub the sleep out of your eyes and march off to the “new time.” We are prisoners of clock-time.
It is ironic that the Time Gods send out their edicts nearest the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, because those are great big natural cosmic times. Or so our ancestors thought, anyway.
Before there were mechanical means of telling time, long before the railway came through demanding a uniform clock, men and women looked to the heavens. They needed to know when to plant and when to reap—and when to celebrate both—so they looked up. The night sky was the only clock. Even the simplest observer could see that the moon went from a slivered crescent to a gibbous full in 29 to 30 days (actually 29.53). The cycle marked one lunar month. The steady observer could see that nearly twice every twelve lunar cycles there was one day with equal hours of light and dark. These days they called the vernal and autumnal equinoxes—they marked the seasons.
Imagine living like that, where the moon and the stars and the sun told you what time it was. You couldn’t just look at a chronograph—a machine—to “tell” you the time. You had to tell for yourself. It sounds corny and new-agey to say it, but you had to be aware of the universe. Actually, it wasn’t something our ancestors “had” to do, it was simply taken for granted. This is how human beings knew when to plant, when to harvest, when to lay up stores for winter. And it’s how they knew when to celebrate—when to feast, when to fast. Long before any religion established “holy” days, people had a deep sense of the mystery of time.
“All towns set their own time.”
To live spiritually in our day requires, in some way, that you and I set our own time. The Greeks had two words for time. One was chronos, clock time, linear time. The other was kairos, the time between time, an indeterminate moment when something special happens. When you say, “It’s time I had a talk with my husband,” or “It’s time I went for a long walk,” you mean kairos.
So, tell your own time. Slow down and look up, at the way the unleaving trees are casting long shadows at noon! What time is that? Slow down and look in, at the way your body is feeling slightly heavier, in need of a wink more sleep these days. What time is that? The railroad clock is never going to tell you this. You have to tell this for yourself.