Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Delights and Ethics of Going Slow


 Last week as I turned up my back lane, I spotted a father with a herd of children and a large dog about half a block away.  Three kids were on tiny bikes, and there was a baby in a stroller.  Seeing me driving toward them, the father tried to get their attention--I should say there's a small hill on this part of my back lane and they were enjoying gravity--to get them to scurry into a small space behind a garage. I turned off my car, opened my window, and waved.  I was just going to stop here until they passed by, I told him.  Yay! one of the kids said, pushing off and going downhill with her feet off the pedals, her legs swung out like the wings of a bird. Another waved to me:  "We didn't know you were going to stop!" she said, going by.  Dad and I talked briefly about how people who think Regina is flat obviously don't get on their bikes enough.  It was just a lovely moment:  there were no masks and it was a beautiful day, giving us a chance to make one of those micro-connections that give us a sense that we belong to the human community.

Back when I was still teaching, when I had to get Nikka to school for "Theory of Knowledge" by 7:30 a.m., or had to get her from school to her ballet class, I probably groused about slow drivers, though I've always been good about pedestrians when the weather is cold or wet--because, after all, I was warm and dry.  And on Thirteenth Avenue, with its small shops, there's almost an ethic of stopping for pedestrians, even in the middle of the block.  Especially in the middle of the block. But I've seen enough impatient, erratic drivers in my day, and been one of them often enough, to know that when we rush impatiently it's because we're thinking only about ourselves.  When we're in a hurry, we're the centre of the universe.

And because I'm an old fart, of course I think there are more hurried, rude, impatient drivers than ever.  After all, our cell phone does things instantly.  Why can't traffic do the same?  And our expectations are driven not only by our technology, but by the emphasis on productivity we hear from our bosses and our governments.  If we're going to 'grow the economy,' we just have to be more productive, more available, work longer hours.  We've been given this wonderful technology that connects us to work 24/7, so we can be more productive.  Except that after about 7 hours of hard work NO ONE is productive, even the boss haughtily working 14-hour days.  Iceland has just finished the world's largest experiment on a shorter work week.  After a five year trial, they've discovered that shortening the work week by about four hours improves workers' productivity and their mental health.  Economist Thomas Piketty also notes that there are some professions that can't be more productive, usually because they deal with concrete human beings and not abstract things or, worse yet, people who have become abstract to the worker.  You can't hurry a doctor or a teacher.  You can't hurry your therapist. "Give me the answer to the meaning of my life!  Now!" Did you expect that to work?

The scene in the back lane was so delightful, hanging around in my consciousness for several hours, that I began to think about things that can only be done slowly.  Craftsmanship takes time.  You can't hurry the turning of a table leg or the piecing of a quilt or the revision of a poem or novel.  If you try to, your work too often ceases to be craft or art.  As I've written elsewhere, craftsmanship has its own kind of time:  the time it takes to do something as well as you can. We can certainly see this sense of time in the bead work of Vanessa Hyggen and Beth Cuthand because you can't ignore the fact that each bead is put on one at a time; each bead contributes to the overall effect of their beautiful and visionary work. (There are links to their current work below).  Ruth Chambers, whose beautiful and serene porcelain flowers were shown at the Art Gallery of Regina, and an example of which is above, talked to me about time and her work.  You can't have time breathing down your neck if you want to get into the state of flow that allows your mind to speak to your hands.  In turn, the sense of flow you feel when working timelessly on your craft is, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a source of deep happiness.

Both trust and friendship take time.  Trust builds slowly. Your early conversations with a new acquaintance stay light until you have a good idea of what you share, what your different perspectives are. You talk about the weather or about your boss or your kids or pets. Then there may be a moment when you share something tender and private about yourself, only to see a raised judgmental eyebrow or hear it has hit the gossip circuit.  Trust broken takes even more time to repair. 

To keep a friendship alive over time and space in our busy and peripatetic worlds, you must, at some point, have put in the work.  And what is friendship but an adventure, a discovery that is never finished?  Take it slow and explore deeply.  Still, you need to know your friend's history, his or her vulnerable places, what gives their lives joy and meaning.  You have to have developed a special kind of compassion for this person, a compassion that's quick to take note of her or his joys and sorrows, triumphs and losses. That's the only way you can be there when you are needed. 

About five years ago, I found my days flooded with memories, particularly when part of my mind was working on something else, something simple, like chopping vegetables to roast last night or going for a walk. So naturally, I'm working on a book of poems about memory--about how important memory is to our individual identity and to our understanding of our culture and our historic moment.  One of memory's gifts is that memories are always viewed through the prism of who you are now.  With more human experience, with more patience and curiosity--rather than anger and reactivity--I have more generous lenses through which I view past events, even when it comes to people who have hurt me. When I take time to remember, both my life and the world glow a little.

Sometimes it's just life's riches that show up. Just last week I was reading dee Hobabawn-Smith's wonderful Bread and Water, and her mention of the cold room she used to have reminded me of the cold room in the house I grew up in--which led to a whole cascade of memories of my mother making fruitcake and aging it in the cold room while it absorbed the brandy she poured on it every week.  And the huge jug of maple syrup that came from my grandfather's farm.  That brought up memories of seeing the sugar shack my grandfather had built in the woods and my mother telling me how when her dad and the kids set out to boil down the maple syrup their mother gave them eggs and potatoes.  The eggs were cooked in the pans of syrup, while the potatoes were nestled among the embers of the fire below.  And that, oddly enough, reminded me of one winter day when my mother decided to roast marshmallows over a stove burner, and I could experience again her playfulness and her capacity for joy. But here's the thing.  Making and reliving memories take time, so slow down!  

If I'm writing poems about memory, you can bet I'm reading books about memory.  The most recent was Veronica O'Keane's A Sense of Self:  Memory, the Brain, and Who We Are.  The science is pretty clear:  we are our stories, our experiences, plus a bit of DNA or a modicum of temperament which no one can quite explain but which parents recognize during the first days of a child's life.  O'Keane is a psychiatrist who is knowledgeable about neuroscience, and explains how we make memories.  First, everything we remember comes into our brains through our senses. But we don't remember everything.  If we did, the cacophony of a single moment might just trip our brains up like the centipede who is asked how he gets all his legs to work together.  So we already edit or filter what we remember and there's a lot we don't even pay any attention to.  

When we're making memories, experience gets shunted to the part of our brain that codes our senses and then it's sent to the hippocampus where neurons fire.  There's a saying among neuroscientists:  neurons that fire together wire together.  This is a magical moment when energy becomes matter. Those firing neurons create dendrites that allow you to remember something--the zeros and ones of your brain.  The hippocampus is very plastic, but it has little RAM, so it sends your memories back to the cortex, or even the prefrontal cortex if they're important.  "Going cortical" happens during sleep.  By day, the sensory areas of the brain zap the hippocampus; at night, the hippocampus sends things back out to the cortex for storage. 

While your brain does all this with lightning speed, you have to have noticed something to start the process.  And you need to leave enough space in your days to be prompted to retrieve it.  If you're busybusybusy, neither of these things will  happen. Or if you're spending large parts of your day fishing in the past, you won't notice what's going on around you.  Ditto if you're planning your future--which, in good Buddhist fashion I will tell you is uncertain.  And your mind certainly won't store memories if you're going around being the frustrated centre of the universe and honking at every driver who is slow.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you will know that one of my mantras is "Just be curious."  Rather than making judgments or assumptions, be curious.  Bored?  Be curious.  Stymied by your own powerful feelings?  Be curious.  Curiosity is deeply pleasurable, firing off dopamine hits. Arthur Brooks, Harvard professor and "happiness correspondent" for Atlantic Monthly, recently interviewed Ellen Langer, also a Harvard professor and the first woman in the Harvard Psychology Department, for one of his Atlantic podcasts on happiness.  Langer studies mindfulness, which she says she's detached from its roots in Buddhist meditation.  Like Pema Chodron, though, she observes that the world is profoundly uncertain, changing all the time.  Curiosity--or perpetual curiosity, as she calls it--makes sense. It's the appropriate, functional response to an ever-changing world. As well, it makes us happy.  That buzz you get when you're on vacation? You're being curious. You're taking the time, slowing down, to store the riches of  your curiosity. O'Keane tells us that we are our memories.  Who are you going to create by slowing down?

Beth Cuthand's COVID mask

Vanessa Hyggen's River Mask 

Arthur Brooks' Happiness podcasts

1 comment:

  1. What a refreshing read, on a cold prairie morning! Thank you! My mind is lightened, which I needed.