Walking Against the Clock
by Glen Sorestad

Almost every morning when I set off on my walk through our urban neighbourhood that leads me through Lakewood Park on a more or less circuitous route that also takes me through the much smaller Heritage Park and back to my home, I tend to follow an identical route. Begin at home, follow a brisk thirty or thirty-five minute circle and end up where I began. This morning ritual seldom varies, day to day; though there may be occasional brief stops along the way to stop and watch certain birds or animals, the circuit is generally predictable and I always walk this route in a counter-clockwise direction. This morning, however, I decided to reverse my usual pattern and walk the same circuit, but in a clockwise manner. It was as if I had entered an unfamiliar world and had entered foreign territory. This abrupt transformation of familiar into new or exotic was quite provocative.

After all, why is it, I mused, that I always choose to walk this daily circuit in a counter-clockwise fashion?  The moment I set foot outside the gate of my condo community, I have always been completely free to head off in a choice of several directions. Yet I always start by walking in a direction that will take me on an arcing route and I always walk against the movement of the hands on the clock face. I remembered living in a small prairie village with an indoor hockey arena and I remembered how it was a well-established practice, enforced by the rink manager, that everyone should skate around the rink in a counter-clockwise direction. Later, in another larger town rink where I would skate and where we skated to music played over the rink’s sound system, the person in charge of playing the music would call for a change of direction and everyone would reverse their routes and skate clockwise for a time. This made sense to me as a hockey player because the game requires players who are adept at skating and turning equally well in either direction.

But this little tidbit of memory did little to answer why I felt some internal need to walk the same route in the same manner each day and I began pondering whether there is something in the human physiology or perhaps in the human psyche that is at work here. Am I alone in this? Is there a tendency in human activity to adopt a counter-clockwise movement? What happens on the dance floor? Again, my memory turned up mainly a counter-clockwise movement, at least to the older traditional dances with which I was familiar. I switched my musings to sports and the floodgates opened – race events at every distance, an oval track, always counter-clockwise movement.

Speed-skating, auto racing, thoroughbreds, harness racing, steeplechases – all run counter to the movement of the second hand as if to stop time in its tracks. Is this movement against the clock then a rational decision of athletes because they are obviously so conscious of time in the competition and because setting records for time is a goal?

So why, then, this apparent preference in human activity for a counter-clockwise, or anti-clockwise movement as it may be called in England and other places?  We do know that the movement of the clock’s hands is derived from the clock’s predecessor, the sundial, so are we heading towards the nub of the phenomena when we are looking to the sun for answers? Does the earth move counter-clockwise around the sun in its orbit? If that is so, then is it a natural inclination of humans to move in similar fashion? Are we just trying to keep ourselves in tune with planetary movements of the universe?

Or does moving in either clockwise or counter-clockwise fashion have more to do with handedness and in turn with the matter of right and left brain? It seems that right-handed people are predominant in the world and that right-handed people tend to favour moving in a counter-clockwise direction. Since they are in a majority position, then can we attribute our tendency towards a right to left circular movement to be entirely a matter of majority rule? It is interesting to note, as one source indicated, that most left-handed people will draw a circle in a clockwise manner, while right-handed people will tend to draw it counter-clockwise. Do all left-handed people prefer to move in a clockwise manner and have they therefore been subjugated to unnaturalness by the overwhelming will of the many?  Or is the nub of the answer involved in the fact, as one source suggested, that the human heart is located on the left side of the body and that moving in a counter-clockwise movement was better for the heart than moving in a clockwise fashion because the main vein is thought to take blood from left to right to the heart. This might be disturbing news for anyone who was born with a heart on the right side of the body.

Since I am right-handed and part of the 90 % majority, it follows that I am naturally inclined to follow the counter-clockwise route that most of my morning stroll will take me. But every once in a while, I get a notion that I should go against or fly in the face of this preference. So this morning that is precisely what I did and now we come back to whole phenomenon of how a known and familiar landscape or terrain can be altered so dramatically by merely reversing the direction of your movement through it. Everything changes. Everything you see you are perceiving from a different perspective. So again, my curiosity led me to wonder why this should be so.

It makes complete sense to me that any time one disrupts a well established routine and goes off on a new tack, the experience will be altered. I accept that. So if I walk through the same environment, the same gravel paths through the same assortment of grasses and shrubs and trees, follow the same curved paths and the same rises and falls of the terrain, day after day, to do this in the opposite direction does nothing to change a single thing about what is actually there. Nothing has changed. But my perception of the same paths, the same grassy spots, the same small pond, the leaning aspen tree, the sloping of the trail – everything is seen differently. It is all new, even though I have seen it almost every day. It astonishes me because I have no way of explaining how something can be at one and the same time both familiar and new.

Since I have no answer to this phenomenon, I am inclined to attribute the altered perception to the way our brains function. When our eyes see something the receptors in the retina of our eyes pass the message along to the brain’s processing centre for interpretation of this visual stimuli, so that the brain can determine what it is that is being seen, how large or small, the shape, the colours, movement – the things we need to know about it for proper recognition. Hence, I am walking clockwise on my usual route and my brain recognizes that the tree is a trembling aspen or a burr oak because my brain has already established its essential characteristics in its memory bank. But now it is being seen from a different angle or perspective; it is the other side of what the eye usually views, so the brain can’t rely on previous stored images, except to recognize that it is an aspen or oak. It is a new experience for me because I am seeing the same natural world, but it is being presented to me in an altered condition. It is as if it is an entirely new scene. Depending on whether I like to give my world a small shake-up from time to time, or whether I desire the security of having my world left undisturbed, every morning offers me the possibility of walking against the normal flow or being surprised again by the ordinary and familiar.

Finally, we are all walking against the clock in the sense that we are all operating on a finite life line. We know that our time here has a limit, even if we do not know what that limit is. Perhaps we all want to resist this reality and the prevalence of the counter-clockwise movements of our human world is also a manifestation of our desire to push back against time, to try to keep it at bay as much as we can for as long as we can. Tomorrow, I believe I’ll go back to the known and the familiar.

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