It’s Life That Matters, Not the Discovery at All

Charlie and I took a walk the other day, and I made an astounding discovery. I was actually pulling him along because I was walking faster than he, something highly unusual given the shortness of my stride (and the length of his). He pulled me back. Let’s not walk fast, he said.

Fast? Me? Before long I was again ahead, rather like leading a puppy more interested in gamboling about. I was truly puzzled. Did he not feel well? Was something wrong? I became more unsettled by my seeming inability to slow myself down; it didn’t feel right to go slowly. It was an unusual feeling, this push-pull, fast-slow tug-of-war.

I didn’t think much more about it until I was talking with my friend Mary. She had begun this year resolving to write letters, about one a week. Old-fashioned, hand-written letters – on stationery and with real ink. She would mail them in a system that could take up to a week for delivery, depending on the destination.

Curious, I asked what she’d discovered that was satisfying about writing letters. What was coming to the surface?
Two things, she told me. One, her handwriting has improved. And two, she’s realized that the best letters aren’t about huge, momentous events, but simply about the everyday moments that make up her life. Her dad’s advice.

That sent my thoughts tripping back. Like Mary, I had a plan (I refuse to call it a resolution) to write creatively each day, for fun. It all came from The Write Brain Workbook; 366 Exercises To Liberate Your Writing, by Bonnie Neubauer. I was going to write one simple prompt per day. I managed six before I let life hit the accelerator and move into the fast lane.

Walking, letter writing, creative writing. Wake up calls, all of them – the universe is good at sending such things. Perhaps I just have to be willing to stop long enough to acknowledge and recognize them.

In this case – in each of these cases – it’s mindfulness of the moments that make up life that matter. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I really appreciate slowness these days. Yet despite that, I still let the speed of life get the better of me. Maybe that’s why, when I scanned my bookshelf for inspiration last night, one jumped off the shelf into my hands: Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed.

The premise is this: Honore, a Canadian journalist, was waiting impatiently in line (multitasking and reading the paper), when he ran across an article about one-minute bedtime stories for children, designed to save parents’ time. Perfect! He was wondering just how quickly Amazon could ship the whole set when it struck him: how absurd. He had become a speedaholic and, rather than enhancing his life, it was eroding his pleasure in it. His book is a wonderful plea for balance.

Driving home the other evening, Charlie asked, “Why is everyone always in such a hurry?”

His question came on the heels of his driving at his usual pace, which is to say, slow. (I like to think I drive assertively. He, on the other hand, drives like a grandpa.) The 300 horses under the hood of the shiny red Mustang behind us had been chomping at the bit for the past mile or so. At the four-way stop, we eased through (using all electric juice and no gasoline), and the Mustang zoomed off to the left with a jaunty parting salute (using at least a gallon of increasingly expensive fossil fuel).

I started to answer Charlie with a wisecrack, but stopped. Because, you see, he’s right. Life is almost uncontrollably fast. Technology advances overnight, social change is so rapid we hardly have time to adopt the newest fad before it’s passé, and grocery stores are increasingly filled with convenience foods. Our children tackle so many different activities that run us here and there, and we hardly ever enjoy an evening at home. Our kids are missing out on what it means to be carefree, and their litany of activities sounds more like a job than fun. We wear our obligations and activities proudly, like an honor badge, and soak up the news in blips and headlines. We hurry our children toward adulthood and chastise ourselves when we “do nothing” and aren’t productive. We’re a mess.

So here’s to Mary, who is discovering exquisite gifts of slowness by writing old-fashioned letters. It’s teaching her the importance of being mindful of the moments, the everyday moments that are the heartbeat of life. And here’s to Charlie, for forcing me to walk slower and savor the moments we spend together. And here’s to Carl Honore, whose insight into slowness sparks my own desire to move out of the fast lane, something I sometimes forget when life overtakes me.

I’m old enough now to understand that real life isn’t in the constant doing, achieving, reaching, having. It’s in the journey. Author Fyodor Dostoevsky understood that. “It’s life that matters, nothing but life — the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all,” he wrote in The Idiot.

The journey, I’ve learned, must be savored, like fine wine or gourmet foods, and appreciated like the fine piece of artwork it truly is.

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