The Case for Slowing Down

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Today I’ve been thinking about a “Good Samaritan” experiment. In this study, seminary students were rated for their helpfulness to a man in apparent distress, though they had no idea that he was even part of the experiment.

They were each given an assignment and sent to another building to complete it. On the way each encountered a man slumped in a doorway, moaning in distress.

Some stopped, some didn’t.

Some had been told to prepare a talk about the Good Samaritan, while others had a more generic task. The content of the task did not appear to affect their choice of whether to help the man or not.

What did make the difference was the seminarians’ sense of urgency. The experimenters told some of them that they were already late and should rush to get to the next building. These were far more likely to ignore (even step over!) the man in need.

Those who weren’t in a hurry helped in greater numbers.

Were the nonhelpful seminarians (especially those focused on the topic of the Good Samaritan!) crass hypocrites with zippo compassion? No, they felt pressured to get their central task done, to keep moving. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely been there.)

In fact, according to the article I read, many who did not stop appeared anxious when they entered the second building. Their inner conflict showed up in agitation.

To my mind, this study clearly shows one “unselfish” reason why it’s crucial to S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N the pace of our lives. (Of course, as our sense of separation between ourselves and the larger world breaks down, there’s really no such thing as selfish vs. unselfish. What happens to you happens to me. Witness the subjects’ bodies’ own distress signal.)

In the Western world we are supposed to be hyperefficient and “productive” all the time. We overschedule ourselves in an effort to get more done. Even when I am “off duty” at the end of the day, I’m tempted to keep checking my phone or laptop, to look up one more thing, to multitask when I am theoretically at leisure.

What is the cost of all our rushing around? Distractedness, high blood pressure, anxiety, and more. Meanwhile we live whole days, months, years, barely present to our lives.

Here’s my friend Melody Groothius, mom to two and lover of the world:

I hope I never think that what I’m doing is so important that I can’t stop and acknowledge – my kids, a chance to laugh at a joke (especially a terrible dad joke), a beautiful flower, the sound of a singing bird, the feel of a gentle spring breeze against my face as I step out the door. We’ve all got deadlines and “very important” interviews and articles and things to say but, honestly, those aren’t more important than any of those other things…actually, not really very important at all when I stop to think about it…

We tend to think we will slow down later on…when we get something big done, or go on vacation, or retire. Generally the habit of rushing is so ingrained that it is hard to overturn, even if we make a point of it. It can take a health scare or other personal tragedy to bring us out of our trance of busyness.

But creating some space in our schedule right now—though it will never be rewarded by the dominant cultural story!–is crucial to creating a world worth living in.

I leave you with a “Run Report” by my poet friend Alyssa Chase, who conceives lovely haikus as she takes her daily run, later to post on Facebook.

What’s the good of all I’ve learned? How to schedule peccadilloes, negotiate obsolescence, parse darts? Blue sky answers: Do something else.

Wild Geese Wisdom

From Wendell Berry’s poem “The Wild Geese” comes this steadying stanza:

…And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

I found his poem in a new essay collection called Sustainable Happiness, edited by the staff of Yes! Magazine. It reminded me of my introduction to the poet Mary Oliver, whose poem “Wild Geese” begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…

This was my first Mary Oliver experience years ago: having this poem recited just for me by my Rolfer while he worked the fascia of my feet to smithereens. (Rolfing is a super-intense type of bodywork that pairs well with poetry.)

I give you the lovely Mary Oliver, reading her poem.

Peas and the Possible

“The Possible’s slow fuse is lit

By the Imagination.”

—Emily Dickinson

Austrian winter peas planted in my garden

Austrian winter peas planted in my garden

We have already had snow and single digit wind chills here. Yet these Austrian winter peas, planted very late, still grow.

My friend Dawn gave me a couple generous handfuls of seed to play with. I’d never heard of this hardy cover crop that doubles as a tasty wintertime salad green. But Mother Earth News had the full scoop on  planting Austrian winter peas. So somewhere between transplanting herbs and cooking up harvest stews, I threw those seeds in the ground.

I’m so glad I did!

This is the time of year when nighttime slams down on us pretty hard. A time for diving deep and dreaming. Those tender sprouts remind me that sweet tendrils of possibility can thrive in this liminal space.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in a space of unknowing. Allowing guidance to emerge organically, and playing with a deeper trust than I’ve ever had before.

And I love walking out my back door and seeing my little crop. If I never get to eat the shoots, I’ll be perfectly happy just with the view.

Thanks to Yes Magazine‘s Winter 2015 issue for the stunning Dickinson quote.

Stories and Sustenance

I’ve been wanting to tell you about some of my creative cohorts at Playa, but first I think I need to speak about ART.

A chair made of pebbles, created by a prior resident on the dry lakebed.

A chair made of pebbles, created by an earlier Playa resident on the dry lakebed.

Art plays a critical role in the world’s remaking. I don’t mean just literary nonfiction depicting stories of people pulling together to build resilience (though that happens to be my particular project).

I mean novels that show us how to be authentic people, teach us to feel deeper into ourselves, open a side of humanity we don’t normally see, or introduce a culture we’ve never encountered.

I mean visual art that cracks the heart wide open for its beauty. I mean performance art that rearranges something inside us. I mean music that connects with something buried deep within.

Art moves us, and movement is much needed—now more than ever.

I once read a book about the state of the world that laid out the problems in great detail, and then listed the titanic changes needed. The author recommended eschewing novels and other “distractions” in favor of educational books addressing the many issues we face.

But I return again and again to the Barbara Kingsolver character who asked, “What is the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it?”

Clothesline poetry in the high desert.

Clothesline poetry in the high desert.

Art is the soul, and artists its keepers. Without this vital work, we are diminished.

As author Barry Lopez has written, “Sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive.”

During my two weeks at Playa, visual artists, performance artists, poets, and writers of fiction and nonfiction all fed each other stories and sustenance. We gathered around the table to talk about topics great and small. We took in each others’ work, and drew inspiration from it. Just a few who inspired me:

Belle’s poetry brought the world into sharp focus—like her poem “Sacred Cows,” exploring questions of ethics and culture around beef consumption. Hailing from Hong Kong, Belle taught a few of us chi gong one night in the Commons.

Belle after leading us in chi gong.

Belle after leading us in chi gong.

Portland-based poet Jen created innovative sound recordings and poetry whose shape mirrored landscape. She works for an environmental nonprofit, and her writing possesses a keen eye and ear for the natural world.

That same reverence for life is captured in the visual artists’ work. Susan’s small drawings depict The Ten Thousand Things. In the Tao te Ching, The Ten Thousand Things refers to all of creation. She remembered me snapping a photo of this bird drawing, and kindly gave it to me before we parted. I treasure it.

Susan's exquisite drawing on rice paper. She makes one a day after walking and observing.

Susan’s exquisite drawing on rice paper. She makes one a day after walking and observing.

Emily’s watercolors evoke wild desert beauty in both postcard-sized landscapes and largescale topographical representations. She gave me one of her postcard pieces, the view of Playa from her balcony. I can look up from my desk and see that blue sky anytime I want.

Emily and a few of her gorgeous topographical representations, based on Oregon's Summer Lake and environs.

Emily and a few of her gorgeous topographical representations, based on Oregon’s Summer Lake and environs.

All of these and more blessed my stay and affirmed for me yet again that art is not a luxury.

All I Cannot Save

Monarch sipping on liatris, by Gene Wilburn, via Flickr Commons.

Monarch sipping on liatris, by Gene Wilburn, via Flickr Commons.

My heart is moved by all I cannot save

So much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age,

Perversely, with no extraordinary

Power, reconstitute the world.

—Feminist poet Adrienne Rich

We Are the Same

Not long ago I had conversations with two different poet friends, both about the connective power of the written word.

Shari Wagner said she sees her poems as vehicles for connecting human to nature, living to dead, young to old. Here’s a lovely example of this, her poem about young Orville and Will Wright, and their dream of flight.

Later that same day, Shannon Siegel spoke of writing as a way of “feeling with” someone, as in a Buddhist meditation. She had read a book called The Golden Theme by Brian McDonald. McDonald asserts that the writer’s essential task is to show our commonalities.
By Mike DelGaudio, via Wikimedia Commons

By Mike DelGaudio, via Wikimedia Commons

Shannon sent me this passage from the book:

“Stories are the collective wisdom of everyone who has ever lived. Your job as a storyteller is not simply to entertain…Your job is to let people know that everyone shares their feelings—and that these feelings bind us. Your job is a healing art, and like all healers, you have a responsibility.

Let people know that they are not alone. You must make people understand that we are all the same.”

In a time when our focus is constantly nudged toward what divides us, it is a tonic to understand that yes, everyone on earth has experienced every single emotion that has ever swept through us.

By Kahuroa at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

By Kahuroa at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Here’s Shannon’s poem, stretched out to you. Do you feel it?
oceans within

Sounds of water…sounds of water…sounds of water…
The Long Way, Moitessier

Memories lock selves
in place, deep within
the cells, those
inner chambers.
Recall rises up
like magic, aroused,
liberated in an instant,
a rush, an echo,
a ripple through time,
a feeling, just a feeling,
something I felt once,
something I felt before,
I feel again, I now feel again.
A swell crashes the shore,
then recedes. Waves
ebb, then flow, an ocean
of promise and possibility
rushing through my veins, life
unfolds with a touch,
a whisper perhaps, a word
spoken, a gaze, a persistent
recurrence of what was,
is now is, again, somehow.
Deflecting logic, defying reason,
this heart sings a joyous
song, thrums love’s lyric,
hums a tender entreaty:
Come with me. This
way. Look for me.
Find me.

—Shannon Siegel, (c) 2013