Thursday, May 5, 2011

S...L...O...W... Short Story #4

I've been feeling stressed lately, an unusual thing for me. As someone who deliberately keeps a slower pace of life, making sure there are enough quiet spaces, I'm finding myself in a busier than usual time that hasn't allowed for a lot of thought or attention to detail. I don't like it when life moves too fast because it's hard to appreciate the little things. Today I'm going to slow down and enjoy them.

Julia is home with a fever, so I have a serendipitous quiet morning with her. Rather than engaging in moodling as I often do in quiet times, I'm going to share another short story here, from eight years ago. When I wrote it, I was wishing to be more like my grandma, and in the years since, I think my wish has come true in a lot of the little homemaking ways mentioned. I'm off to bake some cookies and spend some time with my little girl who has grown so much, and who is not going to be little for very much longer.

We walk down the street, at a snail’s pace, almost, my three-year-old and I.  It is a sunny March afternoon with a cool breeze coming from the north, and snow banks gradually disappearing around us.  There are periodic puddles submerging the sidewalks and we stop at each one as Julia determines whether she wants to push her dolly stroller through it, or whether she wants me to carry it.  With the north wind behind us, and hours ahead of us before the older girls get home from school, I am determined to take this ramble around the neighbourhood at a leisurely saunter.

But how difficult it is to move at Julia’s speed.  The temptation is to lift her into my arms, grab the half-pint-sized stroller, and hustle along more quickly.  Why is that?  Why rush through life when the sky is this blue and the puddles this perfect?  So often I am aware of little boots clomping along beside me at a gallop, as I hold Julia’s hand and stride through the mall to mail a letter or return library books.  I swing her up on my shoulder and lug a heavy bag of books or groceries with my other arm, feeling the tendons in my shoulders strain with the weight of the child on one side balanced by the heaviness of the load dangling from my other forearm.  And lately, I think I may have overdone it, as I can’t sleep on one sore shoulder.

We amble along, turning east, and then north as we circumnavigate the block.  Julia stops and hands me the stroller.  “Here,” she says.  I take it, and watch her wade rather gingerly into a deep pool on the sidewalk.  She stands there a moment, moving her foot and watching the ripples, testing how deep the water is. Then she becomes still as she sees her own reflection looking up at her from its surface.  But the wind is cold, ruffling the water and blowing in her face, and tears are running down her cheeks.  “I’m crying,” she says, matter-of-factly, and in spite of my determination to take this walk in low gear, I lift her out of the puddle and carry her and the doll stroller to the corner so that we can walk and play without the wind in our faces. 

It seems warmer now that we are walking west.  The sun is shining and there are houses across the street to break the wind a bit.  I let Julia take the lead, and watch her cracking the ice on the edges of the puddles the sun hasn’t touched, ready to catch her should she slip.  I’m thinking, isn’t this a glorious waste of time.  The vehicles whiz past on the busy street behind me, racing to their destinations, and my concern is only the journey of the moment.  What a luxury, to meander around the block at the pace of a three-year-old.  How many of the people in those cars would trade places with me in an instant?

And yet, I suspect many of them wouldn’t.  I have to admit that even I find the pace of a three-year-old too slow a lot of the time.  I am a product of our space age culture as much as anyone else.  I love to get things done quickly, to go places in a hurry.  I love the instantaneous world of the internet, and email, and long distance.  I would fly to Europe on the Corcorde if I could.  I drink instant coffee and I eat fast food now and then.  My kitchen has a microwave, and a dishwasher.  The news comes immediately via radio and television (though I don’t have CNN).

But I am also a child of my ancestors.  Their world wasn’t so rushed, and I find myself longing for that world, even though it was much more labour-intensive than mine.  Were letters more valuable when they took several months to reach their destination?  Were journeys to visit distant friends more of an occasion when they lasted several days in horse-drawn wagon?  Was music more appreciated when new songs appeared on the radio less frequently?  Was food tastier when it wasn’t fast?  Was clothing more special when it was made by hand?  Of course, of course, of course, of course, of course.

My pioneer grand mother wasn’t able to drive to the store for frozen peas.  She grew her own, and knew a satisfaction that I don’t know when I pull a bag from my freezer.  When she made supper, she was working with earthy things that she had helped to bring into existence.  She shelled peas, cultivated potatoes and pickled cucumbers and carrots, and preserved myriad other things.  Her husband grew grain that was eventually transformed, by hand, mind you, into noodles and strudel and bread and pastries.  He raised feed for the chickens, pigs and cattle that became the meat on the table.  And I, I am so far from it all, except for the few weeks of the year when my puny garden patch yields its carrots and tomatoes and beans.

Slowness is not a virtue in the culture within which I exist.  All the time-saving devices that speed up processes that the pioneers in my past would spend an entire day, or week, or summer doing, mean that I should have enough time on my hands to do twice as much as they ever did.  Yet somehow, I don’t see that happening in my life.  How often have I said, “I’ll write that letter tomorrow,”  “I’ll call my friend this week,” “I’ll scrub the tops of my cupboards soon,” and these small things are undone until this moment in time.  I spend less time washing the dishes, yes, but do I spend more time on other, important, time-consuming things?

How often have I wished that I could stop everything so that I could savour a moment?  At the same time, I suspect that, if I could suspend the laws of the universe and prevent time from moving so quickly, it would last but a few minutes before I became impatient and said, “That’s enough; let’s get on with it.”  And how often am I impatient with things that move slower than molasses running uphill in January?  The driver ahead of me.  My nine-year-old as she peels a carrot.  The institutions that seem to carry on forever without changing for the better.  And yet, these forms of slowness are, sometimes, a good thing.  The driver ahead of me saves me from a photo-radar ticket.  My nine-year-old has yet to peel her finger.  The church I belong to has continued to work for justice and peace at its own pace for 2000 years. 

Some of these things roll around in my mind as Julia and I stroll along.  We come to a piece of sidewalk where, when the cement was wet, another little girl pushed her doll carriage and left footprints and wheel marks behind.  Julia is fascinated, trying to fit her stroller’s wheels into the tracks of 35 years ago when the sidewalk was poured in 1968, as the concrete stamp announces.  That other little girl could have been me, I realize, had I lived in this neighbourhood in 1968.  Time moves more rapidly than I think, but moments like this, caught in concrete, give me pause.  If it has taken so little time for me to grow 35 years, it won’t be long and Julia will find herself at a moment like this.

We stop near a drain on the curb, and watch bits of street flotsam move through the water and slide through the bars and down into the sewer.  I find a stem with several mountain ash leaves on it, and pull them off one by one to put them into the racing current so that Julia can watch the boats float away.  Soon she has found her own mountain ash leaves, and is dropping them, one by one, into the water along the curb.  Some of them get stuck, and I reach in a finger to set them free.  I take Julia’s hand and walk a little further down the sidewalk, where the water flows more gently, and I tell her to float her boats here.  She drops two leaves in, watches a moment as they gradually start to move toward the drain, but loses interest and goes back to where the water rushes the leaves away.  She drops in the rest of her little boats, several at a time now.  Even Julia is a child for velocity.

When we arrive at our front stoop, we sit a moment on the steps and watch a car splash through a puddle.  We have been out for over an hour, and I find I am not anxious to end the magic of the slow-motion walk.  I go into the house and get two glasses of water and some crackers, and we sit on the steps, munching and getting up to go look at the tulips peeking through the soil, examining a spider that has awakened from its hibernation early.  For the ten minutes that we spend there, I watch my daughter eating her crackers and poking around, and I am grateful that I have a three-year-old to remind me that life shouldn’t be lived in such a hurry all the time.

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