illustration by Ruben Castillo

It’s impossible to be a sundial, at least most mornings. Pocket devices buzz and ping. Alarms go off. The coffee maker beeps to say the pot is fresh and ready. Most days begin; most days are already in motion before waking. The cat wants in, the dog wants out. The snowplows whoosh and scrape down the street, their flashing lights pulse through the window, keeping time with the buzzing alarm.

Keeping time. The clocks, watches, phones, alarms, all of them keeping time apart from the timing of sunrise, loosening me from the circadian rhythms of night and day, dark and light, allowing me the choice of when to wake, when to set myself in motion, when to caffeinate and crank up the speed. I rush, shift into high gear, wake children, make breakfasts, talk logistics with my wife, gather shoes, coats, hats, backpacks, lunch sacks, shuffle all of these things toward the front door and, when the time is right, open the door. We move swift through the snow, hunker shoulders, fast-shuffle our feet among slick ice and thick snow banks, children going one direction toward school, wife going another direction toward office, myself going another direction toward the desk where I will try to gather all of this energy of mine, packed up somewhere in this rapid morning rush, and aim it all at a blank page.

But not yet, it seems. Not yet. I walk. In spite of the rush, in defiance of the cold and the slick sting of winter, I walk. Still stepping swiftly as I can. Trying to walk, yet still get somewhere fast until — Whoop! — hit a slick spot, slip, slide a bit, nearly bite it. I catch myself before falling, swift arms swinging outward for balance, feet planted firm, I am suddenly static in place. I have not fallen, only almost. I am no longer in motion. In spite of my hurry, in spite of my marking time by the minute and my destination by the distance broken down by increments — Can I help it if this near spill is what stilled me completely?

Completely still, standing now on the sidewalk passing through Gillham Park, this low valley that once saw a river moving through it thousands of years ago. In the warming days of Spring the valley will be dense with fog from the moisture rising up from beneath the ground where that ancient river still moves slowly beyond our sight but along the same path, yet here and now, in the depths of winter, the same moisture rising from the ground finds the surface and freezes alongside the snow and sleet that fall from above, making everything slick and glistening, monochromatic and almost sighing. The wind bristles against frost-tipped grass in the valley’s field and rustles the frosted leaves still clinging in small numbers to the sycamore and oak trees lining the park’s boulevard.

It’s here that I see it. No, it’s not that I see it so much as become it, the very thing that I know most days is impossible to become: a sundial. I stand still, still guarding myself against a fall, when I glance north across the field, and dark-splashed against the prickly white canvas I see my long shadow. My still body makes a mark of black against the sunlit plane. This figure I now see, that now beckons my attention, somehow both belongs to me yet is separate. The only evidence I have of my connection to it are the tips of my toes, where observer touches observed.

It’s not that I am a sundial in and of myself. The sundial, this ancient tool, this early attempt to let us harness time, control time, manage time by keeping time. I act as a sundial, but I am not being precise here. My body does not give exact measure the same way a sundial’s gnomon does.

Yet here I am, still, witnessing my shadow’s slow movement in relation to the sun and all that its light lands on. I feel the sun’s warmth slowly penetrate my thick coat, feel the dance of atoms in the midst of deep winter. I hear the winds move along the valley path in currents that mimic homage to the path of the old river. I feel my own heartbeat and breath beneath my thick coat, the odd pulsing out of sync with the ticking of a clock’s time — revealing that this body of mine, the one that splays shadows and keeps pulse, the one that inhales and exhales, is always slightly out of step with the minutes I try to keep. What are the implications of such refusals to synchronize?

I won’t stand here all day. I can’t. So I steady myself. I regain composure. I take the first cautious step and watch my shadow wobble before I turn my gaze back to the path ahead of me. I walk more slowly now, paying closer attention to the path, my footing, my pacing. I have work to do. I will take my sweet time to get there, and if I can, I’ll keep it.

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Michael Johnson is the author of two books: “The Thread” and “On Earth As It Is.” His essays and poems have appeared in “The Sun,” “Image,” “Guernica,” “Crazyhorse” and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a Charlotte Street residency, an Arts KC Inspiration grant, a Rocket Grant, a Vermont Studio Center residency and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Leave a Reply