*This is the second in a series on Slowing Down.
“People are born and married, and live and die, in the midst of an uproar so frantic that you would think they would go mad of it.” ~William Dean Howells, 1907, quoted in In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré
And many of us do: go mad of it, that is, at least if “going mad” includes clinical levels of stress and constant undercurrents of rage. I remember the first time I picked up Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness (2004), now retitled In Praise of Slow. For a long while I had been inwardly raging at the frenzied pace of modern life, sensing that there was a sickness to it, that the hectic pace most of us keep is not the pace we’re intended to keep, that it positions us far from optimal functioning as human beings who desire and need connectedness and space for exercise and rest, room to create and to express. I still feel this way, though acceptance has helped me go a long way in experiencing gratitude and contentment and joy despite the time scarcity in my life. I have been able to transcend a lot of that rage and angst by accepting my life as it is. Nevertheless Carl Honoré’s book put into words what had been pulsing at the back of mind as all the time pressure of life had been building, and if you too feel disenchanted with our time sickness, I encourage you to check out his book or to catch one of his talks online.
I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts on a nondescript in-town street with sidewalks and close neighbors. Our neighbors were kind, and I always felt safe. We were fortunate. The neighbors directly across the street from us, however, had what we all considered to be a rather amusing and frankly unnerving warm weather past-time. As soon as days lengthened and temperatures rose, the old lady across the street would pull out her lawn chair, sit in her driveway, facing our house directly, and watch the world go by for hours on end each afternoon and evening. Often, three more lawn chairs would be set out in a straight row, with two or three more neighbors joining her. In this solid line, they would face our house, waving at kids going by, and waving at us as we came and went. Often they would call out to me, “Hi, Missy!” (my childhood nickname) as I arrived back home. Sometimes, my family and I would joke about how we were constantly under surveillance, and we weren’t wrong. One day my brother and sister decided to determine once and for all how closely we were being watched by the lawn chair neighbors, and they stood at our small back door window (the door we always used) and waved at the neighbors who supposedly were too engaged in conversation and watching the goings-on on the street to see them. They waved back.
In retrospect, I consider these lawn chair neighbors differently. Firstly, how safe and potentially comforting to have well-meaning, jovial neighbors forever looking out for you and for your house. How sweet to be greeted directly upon every departure and arrival back home during those afternoon and evening hours of spring and summer. I realize they watched me return through the years from afternoons having fun at friends’ houses, from summer jobs. They observed me pulling into the driveway when home for the weekend from college and visiting nearly every Sunday as my mother wasted away in that house she loved from early onset Alzheimer’s. My world changed, my family’s life shifted, but these neighbors holding their post were a constant.
It also strikes me how our family must have appeared all bustle and hubbub: so much coming and going. So many changes: enough so that we were in part providing the entertainment for these peaceful neighbors whiling away the hours. I used to consider their lawn chair routine fruitless, agonizingly dull, and kind of silly. Why sit in one’s lawn chair on an uneventful suburban street for hours on end, just watching people come and go? But I find, these days, that I am attracted to the concept of occupying the hours with simple conversation and observances of day-to-day life and activity. When I hear about grandparents with a nightly routine of sitting on front porch for the evening, observing fireflies and chatting merrily away, I think, “Yes. What a pared down, space-giving life. I wouldn’t mind that!” When I encounter people who have a gentle schedule, filled with serene routines and a slow pace, something within me yearns for more of that.
So when I consider the lawn chair neighbors of my youth, I feel something different. I find myself wishing I had, every now and then, pulled up a chair beside them and joined in the fun: seen our family’s commotion through their eyes and enjoyed the act of being. This is really what they were doing. They were out there each afternoon and evening permitting themselves to “be.” They enjoyed each other’s company and had no agenda. (If you read last week’s post, you could say, they “loitered” happily out there). From time to time, they’d convince my mother to join them, often to my embarrassment as I’d see her out there, the fourth lawn chair filled, looking across at her own house: a perspective switch. But I can only remember once or twice when I joined them under some kind of compulsion; the reasons long lost to my memory. I was certainly there under duress.
I wish I had viewed their habit as an opportunity to learn how to be still and content with the common, everyday. My youthful busyness and self-importance did not allow me to see the pleasure and value in simply enjoying the evening air and the uncomplicated patterns of a quiet life. I don’t think I’ll ever become a daily lawn chair driveway sitter myself, but maybe I should take advantage of our farmer’s porch a little more often on mild evenings. In this cold season, perhaps I can arrange a few more evenings round the fire pit. Maybe I can slow down enough to create a ritual that both encourages unhurried connection with friends and family and that asks very little of a day, of life, in order to find some contentment and joy. That asks very little to arrive at a sense of “enoughness.” I imagine my neighbors were nothing if not fully present on those bygone summer nights. I wouldn’t mind a little more of that. Would you?
This week, what’s something you can do that is easy and uncomplicated that encourages connection and slowing down? Don’t make it more complex than it needs to be. Try not to put a lot of conditions or expectations on it in order to perceive it as “just right.” Over the year ahead, as seasons change, what are some slowed down routines you might incorporate? My neighbors showed me that all you need is a patch of pavement and a couple of fold-up metal lawn chairs. What will be your new, slowed down ritual this year?