By Ashley Lodato

The other day I was at the Twisp library and librarian Dawn Woodruff showed me a broken hourglass. (OK, it was not actually an hourglass; it was a minute-glass, a plastic sand timer used in a board game. But “hourglass” sounds best so I’m sticking with that.) 

The hourglass was broken exactly at the thinnest point between the two bulbs. At the break, the necks of the bulbs had shifted slightly so they were no longer aligned. And all of the sand, which had clearly been located in the upper bulb at the moment of the break, had poured out and was now piled around the lower bulb on the bottom of the hourglass. 

“Isn’t that a metaphor?” remarked Dawn, showing me the broken item. Indeed it was, I agreed, and we contemplated it silently for a while.

Later I thought more about what, exactly, it was a metaphor for. 

The hourglass is certainly a metaphor for the finite-ness of life: once the sand slips away, there is no more. Each grain of sand, each minute, each hour/day/year, seems inconsequential alone, but as an aggregate of tiny increments becomes substantial. It’s also a symbol of the cycle of emptiness and fullness (or sadness and joy) that is life. If you don’t tip that hourglass, you risk stagnation, inertia. The alternating direction of the flow of sand represents balance in life, or new beginnings. It’s a metaphor for the inevitable.

But a broken hourglass? It could be a symbol of the end of something — a life or an era. The sand has spilled out; there is no flipping the hourglass to resume the cycle. The time that the sand represents cannot be reclaimed. It’s a reminder to make every minute count, even if some of those minutes and hours just slip by without mattering much: waiting in line, sitting in traffic, doing household chores.

In contemplating what a minute represents, I thought of friends and others up the Twisp River, as their homes and property and animals are threatened by fire. For two weeks they’ve lived on heightened alert. They’re anxious, and busy with evacuations to be planned for, animals to relocate, and property to be protected. But they also have long minutes and hours of waiting, watching the fire, and wondering if the call to leave will come that day.

When you’re evacuated, the time between warning and departure seems both brief and endless. You run around gathering the things you don’t want to live without. You follow a checklist, turning things on and off. And yet you make time to stand in your home, inhale, and wonder if it is the last time you’ll see it. For a moment, the all sand seems to have slipped to the bottom of the hourglass, irretrievable.

And then you take one last look around, turn your back, and depart, tipping the hourglass the other direction. The flow of sand is restored. You, like the hourglass, will carry on.


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