The book I’m currently reading, called World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, was originally a bit frustrating to me. I picked it up to read it on the plane to Maui–it was a thick enough book to last me the trip there, and maybe even the trip back. But somehow as soon as I started, I felt some resistance, and I just couldn’t seem to get into it. I guess I expected something else when I originally picked it up–something like your standard “self-help” book that contains specific advice for slow downing. I’m pretty familiar with books that at least have some some things to consider and ponder at the end of each chapter (kind of like the book I wrote a few years ago), and this book has a little of that.
But mostly it cycles (or rather meanders, as that’s the feeling I get) through two styles: stories relaying the author’s own experiences (which I find interesting), and stories about other writers, poets, painters, etc. (which I find less interesting, mostly because I only vaguely recognize some of the names). This is disturbing, since I used to be very into literature and creative writing back in college. In many, many years I haven’t really read much that’s fiction or poetry. I not only used to love reading these genres, but also dabbled in writing myself. There was a time when I wrote non-fiction short stories and poetry, and even won some contests / awards. I would fantasize about being a journalist.
So now that I have this book, and my reading as of the last many years has been primarily to study yoga and yoga therapy and nutrition, and Reiki, when I get to the sections about the other authors and painters and how they get inspired for their stories, poems and pieces I glean from the McEwen’s words that lot of the inspiration is based in mindfulness, paying close attention, really seeing and feeling experiences, in a way few of us (including myself) don’t really do anymore in our fast-paced electronic and device-driven society. On many occasions I found myself being tested and kind of struggling with just being able to read what she was saying (thus the sense of meandering I mentioned above). The book wasn’t always interesting or holding my attention to read about this author or that poet. I almost put the book down, and in fact I did for a little awhile.
Then today, after my noon yoga class I decided I wanted to sit out in the sun for a bit, and since there were really no good places to do that, I bought myself a little lunch at Whole Foods Domain and found a seat outside to read and eat. Now I’m about halfway through, something I originally considered “strange” started to happen. Of course the book is all about writers and painters and how they really “study” their subjects, not so much in an intellectual way but by looking and integrating what they’re seeing and their experiences into their body, into their souls, and into their being. Well as I was reading today, I found that I struggled a little–sometimes having to re-read some passages and whatnot–but what was also interesting was that it brought to mind some things I haven’t thought of in awhile.
For example I was telling one of my students the other day my desire to walk more places as part of my day. (At least in the part of Austin TX that I’m in, everyone drives anywhere and there’s very little to “walk to”. You can essentially walk around a suburban neighborhood or to a gas station on this corner or that corner, but that’s about it. My recent vacation in Maui, where we walked for coffee, walked for produce at farmer’s markets, walked to the fish market, walked to the beach, etc. makes me feel sedentary here again.)
Anyway, I remember telling the student about how in Boston too, after my bus ride most of the way home (where sometimes I’d just sit quietly and “people watch” or read something “mindless”), I’d sometimes get off 4-5 stops early at Main Street (Waltham Center) and walk the rest of the way home to my apartment, just because. Of course I had my laptop etc. to carry on my back, and sometimes it would be 28 degrees with ice and snow patches on the sidewalk. But I’d put on a silly warm gray hat with two pom poms strategically placed like animal ears atop my head (specifically selected for this purpose), slip on my gloves and enjoy the walk. There were many things to see–shops up and down Moody street that would change on occasion, people and cars, and although I walked pretty much the same way each time it was always a new experience. My body would become warm with the movement, and soon I’d forget about the cold. The exercise was part of my life rather than something special to work into the schedule.
Pondering over this book, remembering telling my student this, suddenly the picture of it became clearer, as if I was feeling or re-living the experience. Like I could actually feel and hear the crunchiness of the ice and snow beneath my boots; I could kind of sense, even though I was sitting in the 92 degree Austin sun, that cool crisp air that sometimes harshly brushed my face, which of course I complained about every now and then. 🙂 And I could see the street–even the cracks or unevenness in the sidewalks where the tree roots had broken through–so clearly in my mind, like I was drawing a picture.
With another passage I had another memory: McEwen was describing how authors often carried little notebooks that allowed them to jot things down–what might seem like random phrases or words but ones that carried a deep feeling behind them that would later be recalled (as in felt) and woven into stories or poems. At that story in her book, I recalled being little and entertaining myself when we had to drive long distances by carrying piles of loose leaf paper and a clipboard or something hard to write on, and jotting down license plate numbers of the cars we passed. I had mountains of plate numbers from Pennsylvania (which is where I lived at the time). But every so often I’d get really excited that I had an “out of state” plate to transcribe. (Maybe that’s where my wanderlust started.) I would write down the out of state plates separately, and count how many I had. I’d collect their combinations like cards.
Which reminded me of another game I often played as child, living hours away from civilization without friends/siblings: I would copy down in my notebook things that happened all around me: things my mom did, my dog did, things I saw outside. I would meticulously record the time and the event, and I called this game “Spy”. I remember bringing my notebook to my mom at one point to describe to her in detail the last few hours of her life, when she had no idea (or at least pretended not to) that I’d been watching her. I took this to mean that I was a very good spy and would clearly be hired one day by some agency that employed spies!
I recalled hiding under the dining room table–not on the floor mind you, because that would be silly, she’d notice my legs! I’d lay on my belly across two chairs, pen and little flip notebook in hand. That way, even a lift of the lace cloth from the grand table that was never used wouldn’t reveal my hiding place. I also used to sit and stare at our TV (which was then encased in a large wooden piece of furniture with ornate details all around the tube, and try to draw it as accurately as possible.
As I’m reading this book I’m having these memories, not just in my mind, but feeling them in my body. And I’m thinking that this is exactly the point the book is trying to make! That although it’s hard for us to let go of the mind, to really slow down anymore and feel and pay attention, it can come. We can remember what it feels like to have that level of awareness, to truly witness the physical, real, tangible world again. But this re-training also does require effort and on some level we have to find once again our desire for this (almost) lost art of being in the world.
It’s hard with our culture having transformed into this speedy, informational, brain-based way of being. I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t books for pleasure anymore–rather we consume information (often on Kindles or on screens) to “learn” or to study with our intellect, not to get inside the story and feel the author’s words, or to see inside the painter’s picture with our hearts. It’s similar to how most of us don’t eat for pleasure much anymore (we eat for fuel, or because we have to, or because we’re stressed about being “healthy”). We won’t do these things to soothe our souls. Where’s our “soul food”?
Needless to say, I consider this book to be a real success because it triggered these visceral, internal memories, and reminded me that there’s another way to be. And so while the book may not be for everyone (and maybe I’ll never read it again), it’s helped me.
So I gently advise you to find some way to slow down today–to find something to take in on a different level–something that will soothe your soul. Maybe that’s picking up a physical book like World Enough & Time to read for pleasure only, taking a slow (vs. power) walk to observe what’s around you, or to feel the sun or breeze on your skin. Or maybe it’s just sitting in a place in your home, your living room or bedroom, on a chair that goes mostly unused, or in any place that offers you a different perspective on your environment, that helps you to really see what’s happening. Because at the very least you will have practiced making some space and time for yourself, and it’s often in that space and time that peace comes, that solutions to problems spontaneously arise, that inspiration and creativity happened naturally, and where we can find gratitude for all that’s right in our (offline) world.