Slow Going

In my years of peak career and parenting, I often longed for the kind of life I saw depicted in books and films set in earlier times. A life where people had time within their work day to sit down for a cup of tea or to write letters longer than strictly necessary. (Think 84 Charing Cross Road or Call the Midwife.) It was a slower world, one where a person had to wait longer than we are now accustomed to for news and products and services, but I dreamed of having days in which I wasn’t constantly racing the clock and fighting exhaustion and cutting corners on everything I did. I yearned for community, rest, health, connection, and meaning–all things that require time to cultivate.

I wondered, then, if I was being taken in by sentimental fantasy. Had such lives truly existed? Could they, now? I became aware of slow movements of various kinds and wrote a bit about them on the blog Cane and I created (an endeavor that was part of what made my life the antithesis of slow). I read blogs by women who were seemingly living gorgeous, throwback lives full of real food and hand-made things and soulful children playing in sunlit meadows. As getting through a week without resorting to fast food eaten in my car with a sweaty teenager or two felt like an impossible dream, I love-hated these online spaces. I knew they were selling a fantasy, but damn: I wanted it.

And now–I think?–I sort of have it. Not some idyllic, click-bait sponsored dream-life, but a genuine slow life. There are no chickens in the backyard, no bespoke linens or cunning needlework projects or seed catalog orders waiting to sprout. I still have a TV, and I watch it. But life has slowed, and it’s better for it.

I think the shift happened in February, when I began skating. Or maybe it happened in December, when I decided to take the winter off from writing here. But it was in March that I noticed my days were being lived at a different pace. It was in March that I noticed the absence of some kind of driving force within myself that had, for decades, pushed me to do and be and accomplish more and more and more. It was in March that I stopped thinking of time as wasted if I had nothing tangible to show for it, no real progress toward some thing I wanted to make or learn or do or achieve outside of those things I needed for our life to function.

Maybe it really all started a year ago, with the broken dishwasher. We still haven’t fixed or replaced it. Dinner now is often a 2-3 hour event, from the beginning of food preparation to the drying of the last dish. I usually don’t bake my own bread or mix my own salad dressing, but we’re eating more real food in which none of the ingredients end in -ose or –ate. Monday night I tore up part of a loaf of bread to dry croutons for a chicken Caesar salad, and I made pasta sauce from whole (albeit store-bought, canned) tomatoes. If I were a person who always bakes my own bread or cans home-grown tomatoes, I likely wouldn’t have had time after school on Monday afternoon to sit on the sofa with my old dog Daisy–a highlight of both our days–and feel myself soften and expand in response to the poetry (truly, poetry) of the final episode of Pamela Adlon’s Better Things. I think my life is better for having spent time that way than it would be if I’d used it to restore furniture or sew clothing or write a poem of my own.

We seem to be in a cultural moment of reckoning with our values around productivity and capitalism, so I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but I want you to know: It feels good to let go of feeling that I need to be breaking any kind of ground. That I have to write Things That Matter. That I need to make Cool Things of any kind. That I must Do Good.

I have whole days in which I do little but move my body, take care of sustaining our lives, and engage with people I love. And it is really, really good. I have other days where I go to work, and I am rested enough to care well for the children who are mine to care for. That is really good, too. As of last week, both of my young adult children are living with us again, and some days are full to overflowing with going to work and maybe taking a walk and then making dinner and cleaning up and talking with each other and carrying the dog down and back up the porch steps because she too-often tumbles on them now. What the days are not full of is any kind of striving.

It feels so right not to strive.

I am being what and who I am, as I am able to, in the time I have–imperfect wife, mother, teacher, daughter, skater, writer, gardener, homemaker, citizen of the world–without feeling that I have to be great at any of those roles or take on any new ones or do more than is healthy given the resources available to me. Although in my life I have absolutely been bound by punishing structures and forces outside of myself that I could do little about, I am seeing that some of my struggle came from within my own head, which is filled with the voices of my (pretty damn toxic) culture.

Maybe my growing ability to silence those voices is a thing that’s coming with age, as I get closer to the end than the beginning and am understanding how fleeting life is. Maybe it is living through this time in which guardrails and safety nets I once thought would always stand have disintegrated, not likely to be rebuilt in my lifetime (or, perhaps, my children’s), and realizing that anything I might do is not likely to significantly change or save (whatever that means) the world.

Whatever the cause and whenever it began, I am grateful that in this week in which we are reaching, again, for Mary Oliver’s “Of the Empire,” I used my time to eat slow dinners with my family and care gently for our dying dog and meet my students with compassion and skate until my body broke a sweat and sit on our front porch in the early evening sun. I am grateful I had space to write these words for no one but you and me and to imagine going back in time and taking aside that struggling, striving woman I once was and telling her this:

You don’t have to earn your right to be here, to take up space on your little speck of the planet, for the blip of time that is yours. You have no more obligation to the world than a tulip or hummingbird or raindrop does. You, too, get to just be. Make your choices knowing that everything you have and do and love will pass. Everything. The best way to serve the world, probably, is to grow and be guided by a heart that is large, and soft, and full of kindness. That’s a project it will never be too late to start, but the sooner you can, the better. Maybe don’t be so slow with that one, yeah?

8 thoughts on “Slow Going

  1. Kate says:

    Beautiful, as always, Rita. Life is at a hectic and tiring pace here at the moment. May always is. My plate is overfull, but I played in the garden today (some of my peas are just coming up. Others are just going in) and I got to bring my mom coffee in bed for her birthday and see my sister (also her birthday).

    I’m glad you’re getting to live slower. I don’t think there has ever been a time where life hasn’t been filled with a great deal of labor of one sort or another, but it sure is lovely when it can feed your heart.

    • Rita says:

      I’m glad you got to play in the garden–looking forward to seeing beautiful photos of the (literal) fruits of your labor. It’s been far too wet here to do much gardening. We’re all getting tired of rain, but I keep reminding myself that it is what is making everything so wonderfully green right now. I will long for rain in August, I know. Hoping your May labors are filling your heart. May is a busy month when you’ve got tweens/teens. All the wrapping up of things before the summer break.

  2. Kari says:

    YES. I “yessed” along to this entire post, Rita. THIS. You get it.

    Also, Ella and I both cried at the conclusion of Better Things last week. Which means we have to start it all over again…:)

  3. Ally Bean says:

    I agree with your conclusions about who you have to be, that is you only have to be yourself in your own way. Striving leads to clinging and clinging leads to suffering. I learned that in yoga class years ago, and it stuck. Do less, enjoy more!

    • Rita says:

      I like the idea that clinging leads to suffering in yoga. I will remember that next time my body just can’t balance.

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