In Search of Slow
I have spent the better part of the last two weeks trying to understand what it means to live slow. The word definitely lights up a pleasure center in my brain. But it has always seemed abstract. Something that sounds great, but is not really relevant to me.
Most of my time is spent in a state of anything but slow. Actually, I spend nearly all my time rushing. Speed is ingrained into my muscle memory. Partly I’m tapped into the energy of New York City. But it’s mostly just math. I work and take care of my children and my home and find time for leisurely pursuits. When there is not enough time, it seems the only answer is increased efficiency.
Work faster. Accomplish more in less time. Multi-task. Rush.
I know that this is an oppressive way to live.
I hear the word “slow” and it sounds beautiful, if elusive. Like a lovely dream you just barely remember. But I think I’ve gotten a little closer to understanding how it could be a realistic goal in the context of my working, child-raising, need-to-pay-the-rent urban life.
It all began when I discovered Slow Nature Fast City. I love Traci’s message of slowing down to notice the nature around us. The idea that it is possible to be slow in New York City is compelling and comforting, even if I don’t always succeed in doing so.
Then I read Traci’s review of the book New Slow City by William Powers. I bought a copy immediately and devoured it.
This book made a strong impression on me.
The premise of New Slow City is that author and his wife moved into in a teeny West Village apartment for a year and tried to live the slow life in the middle of one of the world’s densest, loudest, un-slowest of cities. I was dazzled by the accounts of how the author passed his days. I can’t have a two day work week like he did. And I can’t (nor do I wish to) move my family into an apartment even smaller than the one we live in now. But still, I found his approach to life in New York revelatory.
What does it mean to be slow?
My understanding of slow has always been limited to a vague sense of what slow was not. Slow food is the… opposite of fast food. Slow travel is… the opposite of seeing ten European capitals in a week. I never quite nailed down the concept. So how could I make something tangible out of this philosophy and inject it into my regular person, not-supporting-my-family-with-a-flexible freelance-writing-career life? I decided to start with something very simple.
I began to explore slow as a completely literal, physical notion.
I did my very best to literally slow my body down. This was no small feat. I’m a serial fast-walker. Rushing is programmed into my cells. Slow walking people who block my way have caused me many blood pressure-raising episodes. But I know in my heart that, like so many things, rushing is a conscious decision. Why do I need to get everywhere so fast?
So I tinkered with this impulse.
Here’s where it gets interesting. I found that the mere act of walking slower has altered my outlook. It is not a total shock. In more extreme situations, I have freed myself from a toxic mental state by pulling back. I recall an evening driving my kids to a Met’s game. It was Little League night and the Little League-ers get to run around the bases before the game. I left with time to spare but a wall of traffic had other plans for us.
I felt a panic attack rising through my throat, envisioning the disappointment that my son would feel. But I avoid feeding into stress if I can, and, that night, I decided that I was going to just let it go. The situation was beyond my control. There was no point trying to will the universe into setting things straight with a herculean display of grotesque anxiety. I breathed, I turned the music up, I chatted with the kids. We were too late to run the bases, and that sucked. But to inject a wound-up awful energy into the mix would have made the whole thing worse.
So why not bring this good instinct to those smaller, ordinary moments?
It’s not just walking fast. I’m constantly dropping things, bumping into furniture and spilling drinks as I rush to get everything done. Slowing down makes almost every process smoother and less unpleasant. It doesn’t feel natural to me to reject these rhythms that I’ve lived with for so long, but I’m working on it.
The big irony: I did more in my slow-walking week than I ever do at “peak efficiency.”
This is the real revelation. I think the mere act of rushing triggers an exhaustion response. A compromised state of mind that steals your energy and drive. By the time you walk in the door you’re fried. But stroll in the door in a calm state and not only does cooking seem more bearable, but so does a quick game of catch at the park before dinner.
The spring-like weather helped, but I had a very unusual week. Instead of eating at my desk and reading the internet, I stole away to the Morgan Library during lunch, one of my favorite places in New York.
I took a two hour yoga class in the evening and went to the park every morning. We visited cousins in New Jersey, nourishing a beloved family bond. My husband, who is engrossed in his own book about turning time into quality time, suggested we go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art during breakfast. We were on the subway within half an hour.
I was nearly derailed once.
I planned to visit my parents, but I forgot that I had a conference call. I was going to rush to get to their house so I could do my call there. My typical inner dialogue: Gotta get there early so I can get home early!
Then I thought, why do I need to get there early? I headed over later in the afternoon, my mind less scrambled because I conducted my call in front of my computer, as I needed to.
When I arrived, instead of just hanging around for a few hours like always, I felt inspired to drag everyone to Staten Island’s Tibetan Museum, a true urban sanctuary (a theme I loved in New Slow City). We sat in the garden and watched the birds.
Reading this, I can’t believe how much I did in the last seven days.
Mostly unscheduled, I went with the flow. I was surprised at how much I unintentionally ended up doing, without the constant rushing weighing me down. My little slow down led to all kinds of great moments. As we walked through the ancient armor room at the Met, I was just smiling because I’ve always loved that section so much. My husband looked at me and said “this is why we live here.”
This seeming contradiction was one of the things that really struck me in New Slow City. The author and his wife managed to experience so many different things. Slow didn’t mean sitting in the park all day, though they certainly did that, as well. They would hop on the subway, or hop on their bikes and head to every corner of the city. It was no big deal. I very much want to dive deeper into this elegant paradox.
I intend to explore this topic more, but here are two important things I learned this week:
-The slower I go, the more mental and physical capacity I have to do more of the things that I truly value.
-Being on time is over-rated 90 percent of the time.
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