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Taking time for meditation

You read a lot these days about mindfulness and meditation to calm the spirit, but an old-fashioned, home-made grandfather clock works, too.

Nancy and I acquired just such a stress reliever last summer from her mother. It looks pretty good in the corner of our dining room. When the outside world grows quiet in the evening, the tick-tock of the old clock is a reassuring, soothing sound, and the steady back-and-forth swing of the pendulum is mesmerizing.

Nancy’s dad, a stocky man who worked best as his own boss and business owner, built the clock from scratch in the basement of the home in which Nancy grew up. Paul Gust spent long hours each day at the A&W Family Restaurant on the east bank of the Missouri River at the Interstate 90 exit in Chamberlain. His business required many hours of his attention each day. He unwound and recharged in his basement workshop. You could say the grandfather clock that he put together painstakingly, piece by carefully shaped piece, was his stress reliever.

His basement workshop was filled with hand tools and power tools, lengths of board of all make and the rich, sharp smell of freshly cut maple, oak, cedar and pine. It was a place of magic, a hide-away where he created coffee tables from scraps of mismatched wood and repaired century-old chairs or end tables rescued from the dump. He paused now and then to draw from a scarred old pipe or take a swallow of coffee or beer.

Turning wood on the lathe, cutting tough oak boards with a table saw and methodically sanding the shaped pieces seemed to wash away the cares of the day. Set me down in the middle of his saws and lathes and planes and sanders with a pile of lumber and a set of plans for a grandfather clock, and I’d be there still, turning the blueprint one way and the other, wondering which side was up. In the same situation, it might take Paul weeks and months, but he’d produce a clock as fine as any sold in any store.

Our clock is solid and heavy, but it takes delicate handling. We had to remove the weights (somehow they run the clock hands and chimes and whatnot else) to move the thing to our home. Once we had them back in place, we had to level the clock seven ways from Sunday, attach the pendulum and adjust the correct time and the timing of the device.

That in itself was rather soothing for a person in no hurry who wanted it done right. There’s no rushing the process of getting a grandfather clock set up. The minute hand must be moved forward to the correct time -- hour after hour -- but it can only be moved 15 minutes at a time. When the hand is just shy of the 15 or 30 or 45 or hour mark, one must pause until the clock chimes. Then the hand can be moved another quarter of the dial. That process forces a pause, which gives time for meditation on the meaning of time and on man’s place in the universe. At least is does that if a guy does it right.

Once the time is correctly set, the timing nut at the bottom of the pendulum must be adjusted until the clock keep perfect time day after day after day. That takes many, many tiny adjustments, another forced pause for meditation.

Finally, with the clock set correctly and the pendulum tick-tocking perfectly, the weights must be lifted each week to keep the whole thing running. That means fishing the key from the top of the clock, unlocking the glass-front door, gently tugging on each of three chains that pull three weights of increasing size to the top of their respective settings, locking the door and replacing the key -- all the while thinking of time and the river, of the precision that is a perfectly balanced clock and of the hands and mind and heart that produced such a timepiece.

Tending the old clock nearly always brings a peaceful feeling to my mind.