Slowing down

By Marina Schauffler | Aug 11, 2017

“I have struggled all my life with a constitutional impatience with anything that threatens to waste what’s left of my minutes here on earth. I start fidgeting at any community meeting where the first item on the agenda is to discuss and vote on the order of the other items on the agenda; I have to do discreet yoga relaxation postures in my chair to keep from hollering, ‘Yo, people, life is short!’ I was born like this; I need to get a move on.” — Barbara Kingsolver, "Small Wonder"

Constitutional impatience: when I read those words of Barbara Kingsolver’s, they hit home. I am a recovering tailgater and someone who routinely opts out of activities if they involve a wait in line. Whether biking or driving, I go direct to my destination — no leisurely lingering.

So I wouldn’t be expected to celebrate the lowering of a speed limit — like the one put in place last spring along Interstate 295 north of Portland. But when I heard of the Maine Department of Transportation’s decision, I was relieved — and inspired.

The relief came from knowing that a congested stretch of road would be safer, with fewer humans and other animals risking injury. The inspiration is harder to explain, an odd response to a prosaic move by a bureaucratic agency.

The switch in signage, while mundane, struck me as symbolic — perhaps even significant. Over the course of decades, the speed limit there has only ever inched up. Following the 1973 oil crisis, it was 55 mph (that being near optimal for fuel economy). It rose to 65 mph in the late 1980s and then to 70 mph in 2014.

Now we have dialed it back, finally admitting there is such a thing as “too fast” and we were past that threshold.

Of course every child who learns to ride a bike gets a tangible introduction to the high personal cost of moving too fast. But somewhere along the road, Americans have lost touch with this essential life lesson.

Even in Maine, once caricatured as “life in the slow lane,” a frenetic pace is now common, even expected. Maintaining a crazy-busy lifestyle becomes habitual, making it hard to take pedal from metal.

Slowing down can feel threatening, a sign that we might be slipping behind, losing touch, failing. In a culture captivated by youth, productivity and efficiency, we all learn that the race goes to the swift.

But who decided that life is a one-way race? The problem with that underlying metaphor surfaced in a class I once took on Native American Spirituality. The instructor, Dana Sawyer, drew a long line across the board and began marking out milestones of a typical American life — noting the future focus that marked each stage.

In preschool, we look up to the big kids who have entered school. Then in early years of schooling, we anticipate the relative sophistication of high school. Reaching those years, we chafe to be away and experience travel or college. Once we embark on work, we look forward to vacations and anticipate the freedom we’ll enjoy in retirement. At each stage, we look toward some point farther down the line — until retirement, that is, when we spot the end point. Then, Sawyer speculated, how many people regret that so much of their life was spent rushing to get to the next phase?

Viewed through the eyes of Native Americans, this linear race makes no sense. It runs counter to the cyclical nature of life, and deprives people of being in the moment — the only time one is ever guaranteed.

Forfeiting that linear mindset is hard, though, far harder than adhering to external restraints like speed limits. I am continually amazed at how quickly my mind reverts to puritanical judgments about speed and productivity — turning an activity that could be savored into a breathless sprint to some imaginary finish line.

This mind game manifested recently when I confronted a bumper crop of raspberries in our home bramble patch. Berry picking, an iconic summer ritual, should be the essence of mindfulness. But in short order, I transformed it into a rushed swipe at efficiency — trying different techniques to maximize picking speed and feeling pressured to get through harvesting and on to other tasks.

Fortunately, something stopped me short. Grabbing at berries early one morning, I spotted a garter snake coiled atop the raspberry leaves — suspended 3 feet above the ground. It was luxuriating in the sun’s warming rays, its sleek pattern illuminated in saffron light.

This reptile, I realized, had a wisdom I still needed — for all the purported advantages of my mammalian brain. It embodied a knowledge of cycles — of work and rest, speed and languor, activity and hibernation — that would never come easily to me.

The real work for me that day, and every day, is not to harvest faster. It is to find that effortless balance that lets one float in the warmth of the morning sun.

Marina Schauffler is a writer in the Midcoast whose work is online at naturalchoices.com.

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