It was an assignment any writer would be intrigued by, if only for the ironies.
“What I want you to do,” said Utne editor Hugh Delehanty as we sat in the magazine’s production room munching chocolate-covered pretzels, “is try to live your life at a slower pace for a while. See if it can really be done. Then write about it for the magazine.”
My boss was ordering me to slow down! Very Utne. And a clever match of subject and writer. Hugh had seen me on many a caffeine jag, dashing through the Utne corridors like Aldrich Ames on his way to the paper shredder. But did he know that I could also sit staring at the lower left corner of my computer monitor for half an hour, up to my eyeballs in the paralysis of procrastination? I hoped not.
No, time and I were not pals. So doing this story might teach me something.
But I smelled a rat.
“What about here at work?” I asked. “Am I supposed to slow down here too?”
Hugh made a little back-and-forth motion with his pretzel that could have meant either “within limits” or–more ominously–“that’s up to you.”
“Deal,” I said.
Deciding to live simply can be time-consuming–you have to unload clothes at Goodwill, reconfigure your budget, sell your car, plant a garden–but you can start living slowly without losing a second. I took a deep breath, gently nibbled the last chocolate pretzel, and (slowly) pulled on my coat. Heading down the office stairs, I made a special effort to transform my usual jerky gallop into a serene one-step-at-a-time glide, what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “walking meditation” in his eloquent books about mindfulness. One step. Another step. Another.
It was taking me forever to go down the stairs.
I began to feel a jab in my chest, just behind my sternum. It was my little inner New Yorker, flailing his little arms and yelling, “Hurry up, moron!”
I am not a New Yorker–I come from small-town Iowa. But I did spend eight years in Manhattan, where I perfected my rapid-fire speech, my tendency to constantly vocalize vague worries, and my general air of being pursued by inquisitors out of Dostoevsky. In the process, I had fed and groomed this impatient little guy. And he was definitely not happy about this project.
My first serious experiment with slowness came at the dinner table that evening. I told my partner, Laurie, that I was going to try to eat without rushing.
“Good idea,” Laurie said, rolling her eyes. I can eat an entire Cornish hen in the time it takes her to unfold her napkin.
I dangled my spoon in my soup for a while. I breathed. Then with awkward deliberation I raised a single spoonful of tomato bisque to my lips, splashing a little back into my bowl. I tried to savor the warm soup as it went down. It hit my stomach and roused an immense, rolling hunger pang.
I panicked.Time was passing! I was famished!
Laurie’s hopeful smile faded little by little as I began chattering away and increasing my spoon speed by what I thought were subtle increments. Soon I found myself wolfing a bagel in three bites. I washed it down with a violent slosh of mango juice.
“How are you feeling about your job?” Laurie asked.
The job was fine, but I wasn’t making much progress with my slowness assignment. At work a few days later, I played back the tape of what I thought had been a dignified telephone interview and listened to my voice. I sounded like a chipmunk on crystal meth.
Every time I tried to ease out of my usual frantic, trying-to-look-busy hallway sprint, the little man behind my sternum gave me the finger.
As for the rest of the modern world, that wasn’t a problem. In fact, the modern world was the only thing that slowed me down at all. Traffic gridlock allowed me to follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice: breathe and accept, breathe and accept–when I could remember to. Writing e-mail messages and faxes instead of talking on the phone gave me time to deliberate about what I wanted to say. Voice mail made every phone call a choice, not a distraction.
My problem was the inner twinge that told me that there was not enough time in the whole universe to do what I needed to do. Sometimes the twinge prodded me to rush around like a maniac. Other times it whispered a bleary “what’s the use?” in my ear, and I did nothing for what seemed like forever.
I put off the assignment. I figured I could always cram in a little slowness at the last minute, just before the piece was due.
Meanwhile, at home, the laundry was piling up.
Laurie and I had been living in our house for a year and a half, and home ownership was weighing heavily on me. I didn’t want to think of myself as anything but an apartment guy, a sort of eternal ex-New Yorker. “Get the super to fix it!” was my battle cry.
I was vaguely blaming Laurie for “trapping” me in a purgatory of household responsibility. Now it’s not as if she’s some kind of demanding domestic goddess–she’s an artist. She dresses in black with funky, colorful accents. (She taught me to dress in black, for crying out loud, and rescued me from my powder-blue Jantzen pullovers.) But she was sending signals that she would like me to do my half of the chores.
“All this home owner stuff is driving me crazy,” I said one night. “Laundry, laundry, laundry!”
“We’d have to do laundry even if we lived in an apartment,” Laurie said. She’s always saying things like that–things that make sense. It drives me crazy.
So, with a little black cartoon cloud over my head, I gathered up the dirty clothes, hamper by hamper. There were eight hampers. I would never, ever, get all this laundry done.
And then the black cloud turned into a lightbulb. I suddenly saw my way into conscious slowness. The way was acceptance of complete defeat.
I never would get the laundry done. It was an insurmountable mountain. Having run up the white flag, I simply started putting dirty underwear in the washer. There was nothing in the world except me, the white things, the black things, and the funky, colorful accents.
The evening passed like a pleasant dream. The laundry got done. I had overestimated the time it would take by about two days.
Later in the week I experimented with conscious slowness in my home office, which looked, as usual, like it had just been ransacked by Mafia goons. “I’m just arranging papers and reorganizing piles, and I’ll be doing it until the end of recorded time,” I told myself. Everything got nice and tidy in about 20 minutes.
Surprise! Unhurried but undeterred, animated and cheerful, consciously chosen slowness is not the opposite of speed. It’s the middle path between fast and inert–the two extremes I’ve gravitated toward in my never ending duel with time. When I surrender to the apparent “impossibility” of my task, I stop looking beyond it. When I stop looking beyond it, I get the feeling that I have time. That may be a lie–a fiction; but it’s a wonderful, enabling fiction like I weigh almost the same now as I did in college.
This morning, managing editor Craig Cox asked, “How’s the slowness piece coming along?” Translation: It’s due today.
“It’s about half done,” I lied.
My preslowness self would have panicked, but I simply delegated all my other tasks, let my phone calls bounce to my beloved voice mail, and wrote as if I would be writing forever.
Now, three hours later, the piece is finished!
But it’s way past lunchtime, and I’m starved. Somewhere within a frantic three-block walk of the Utne Reader office there’s a bowl of soup that doesn’t stand a chance.