I’ve had some kind of post like this in my head since before the holidays. I’ve been wanting to write about the next stage in my thought process around time and a slow life, as well as to highlight some of the fantastic books I read last year that helped bring me to where I am now. But to tell the truth, I’ve been struggling. My thoughts and plans don’t feel like they’re in any kind of order, and I feel a little lost, like I’m stumbling around in a trackless forest. I’m sure I’ll find my path again, but on the way there, I’ve decided to go ahead and write this post, so I can revisit some of the ideas that spoke to me in 2015, and also move on to other things I have planned for this space.
These photos are from a walk during our trip to Albuquerque just before the new year. I always find the light in NM beautiful, as well as the cranes and geese that come through in the winter.
2015 was a good year for deep thoughts in my world, and it was also a great year for books. I can’t remember another time when a stream of reading material came to me one after another—as gifts, recommendations, and by chance—as if the universe was giving me the reading list for the next stage of my life.
The first of the startlingly appropriate books was Women’s Work: the First 20,000 years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. I read it as part of my research for that article on wool I wrote for Seamwork (that was the best research project ever in my personal history of research). There were some useful tidbits for the article in there, but what I liked most about this book was how it put “women’s work” throughout the millennia of human history in context, and made me feel connected to all those women who came before me.
At the beginning of the book Barber points out that women didn’t get assigned tasks in societies because they were weaker or inferior to men. Women got tasks like spinning and weaving because those were compatible with also being the primary caretakers of small children—the role of women in every human culture to date, for obvious biological reasons. Even though I don’t have kids, and it’s kind of obvious once you think about it, this was a bit of a revelation. Women’s work isn’t “less than”, it’s part of the set of skills needed to make a society work.
I also love how she talks about hand work and how it relates to society. Quotes like this one really spoke to how I think about my making:
“Working within a quota system of production is not like weaving for oneself. It is no longer fun, nor does the weaver get the benefit of extra effort put in. Mass production is not at all like making single pieces at will; there isn’t time to do a careful job. This economic principle is illustrated many times in history.”
I’ve always thought that feminism should mean we women can pursue what we want to with dignity. Choosing to knit or make jam should be just as valid a choice as welding or practicing science. Ultimately, this book let me feel more comfortable and grounded in my own skin and my own choices. When I spin or sew, I can feel proud of the connection those activities give me to all the women going back in time before me. It’s a great place to start from.
Another book that made my rethink my ideas about our society, specifically class and being connected to the land, is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. For the first half of this book I was incredibly jealous of the author, of the way he always had a place in the world and knew exactly what and where he wanted to be. The freedom we get in many modern societies is truly amazing, but does anyone else lament the amount of angst and flailing around looking for what we’re “meant to do” that comes with it? There are definitely days when I’d trade all this for a place to belong and a clear contribution to make. As his story goes on (I’ll try not to spoil anything) I realized that he too had to coexist with the realities of the modern world, but he finds a way to do so that gives me a lot of hope. The book is full of deep insights from a perspective I don’t often hear, that of someone intimately connected to both the land and the practices of the past. Its deepest impact on me was in how I think about what I really want out of life. I need to be connected and feel like I’m making a difference, and I’m not so sure I need “success” in any sort of modern sense of it. I do want a life that makes me “want for no other” as Rebanks says at the end of the book, and I should seek that kind of satisfaction.
“Slow” became a definite theme to my thoughts last year, fueled by another couple of great books. The first one was World Enough and Time: on Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen. It’s jam-packed with ideas, so much so that I had to go back and sift through the passages I bookmarked in order to figure out what I was really getting from it. It’s difficult to choose which of the many promising insights McEwen includes to share here. One of her biggest themes is that we humans need slowness, rest, and time for contemplation, in order to feel whole and happy. And that we can get those things, we just have to choose to do so.
This is something that’s been at the core of my beliefs for as long as I can remember having some, and it’s wonderful to have it validated by someone who’s clearly done her research: that we can choose to live in the way that seems best to us, that we still have available many of the options of people in previous eras, even if our society at large is moving a different way. After all, if you take a step back, we have just as much time as anyone in the supposedly “slower” past—actually more, since our lifespan continues to increase, and we arguably have more leisure time than ever before (depending on how you define that). Just because a choice is there doesn’t mean it’s easy though, going slower and with more meaning is something we have to do consciously, and follow through on every day. I’m trying. McEwen quotes Howard Zinn:
“To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all the bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
The book is full of quotes, insights, and strategies for anyone who’s thinking about moving slower and more fully in life, and is especially helpful if you also have a creative practice you’d like to nurture.
Another person who’s gone to great lengths to re-imagine his relationship with time is William Powers, author of New Slow City. My dad, who worked in wildlife habitat conservation for decades, had an interesting take on this one: that Powers was ignoring the fact that a lot of the calm he seeks he can only find in nature, that maybe he is suffering more from a lack of contact with the natural world than from going too fast. I think Dad has a point, but I also think the two things are intertwined. Powers also has a lot of other good ideas about moving slower, and being less influenced by the craziness of modern life in New York. The thing I liked best about this book is that it’s a chronicle of Powers’ personal experience, so it feels approachable, even if not all of us can afford to cut back drastically on work the way he does at the beginning of the book.
One thing that comes up prominently in Powers’ book and in McEwen’s is the damaging influence of advertising. This also strikes at the heart of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time; that the job of this entire industry is to make us feel dissatisfied—the exact opposite of what I personally want out of life. This perpetual dissatisfaction harms us, as well as the environment, by encouraging more and more purchases of disposable stuff. For me, a trip to the thrift store is sometimes enough to start a mental spiral of “I want, I want,” and even “I could make this, I could fix that,” which pushes me out of my slow making mindset and back into the same old place of wishing for more time.
I think I’m looking at it all wrong when that happens, it’s a modern-society habit I just haven’t shaken off yet. What do I want more time for—so that I can make more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I don’t need more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I have the same amount of time as any human being that ever lived, or possibly more? And how did we all decide that keeping a score of things accomplished is the best, maybe even the only, way to judge the quality of a life?
So, I’d like to strive not for more time, but for better time. As McEwen says:
“What matters is not how much [time] they actually have, but how best to inhabit it and make it spacious: how to allow room in which attention can take root.”
I know that when I can drop into “natural time” as Powers calls it, paying attention to just the moment I’m in, I find so many layers of sensory and emotional complexity to be discovered in every single minute, sometimes I’m then amazed that I spend any time at all ignoring all these textures, completely distracted by everything in my own head. The best way I can describe how I get to that slow place (although it sounds a little negative) is to say it’s by not thinking about what’s coming next, not waiting for whatever I’m doing to be over, and not planning for later. What I’m left with is what’s right in front of me.
Which is not to say that I succeed in going slow all the time, far from it (um, especially lately). And even if I could I’m not sure it would work. After all, I need to make plans in order to accomplish things, and once I get into slow mode I have zero interest in planning. I have lots of other questions too. Is there a mode in between “experiencing the moment” and “planning for the future”? Is it possible to send a slow text, or do some activities inherently belong to one realm or the other?
There’s also a piece of all this that’s about experiencing what I’m really feeling at a given time. Powers says, “It’s what’s happening to me when I go off the drug of distraction. Sadness has the space to grow …” For me anyway, the part of myself that’s habitually distant developed as a survival mechanism while I was miserable in school as a kid. The real world is infinitely more wonderful to me now than it was then, but that doesn’t, and won’t, mean I never feel sad. And if I’m not distracting myself, then the sadness is right in front of me too. I’m trying to choose this richer experience, both when it’s light and when it’s dark.
I am very much still figuring all of this out. Some days it definitely feels like I haven’t figured anything out at all. But I have real hope that if I keep thinking and writing and trying to move towards what I want out of life, I’ll get there eventually. I’m convinced that I’ve been thinking about time the wrong way. It’s not a thing chasing me down, or a precious commodity to be hoarded, it’s the whole of our experience, an experience we can interact with as we choose.
I’d like to mention one more resource that ties into these thoughts, this interview with the artist Ann Hamilton from On Being. This, recommended to me by my friend Amanda, has got to be one of the five best interviews I’ve ever heard, at least in terms of relating directly to what I’m thinking about, especially time and our relationship to it. They discuss the fact that our sense of time is very malleable in the brain (which I find totally fascinating), as well as making, the creative process, knitting, and other things close to my heart.
I’ll leave you with two more quotes I found relevant.
Powers: “Everything out there on Fifth Avenue was dreamed up by somebody. None of it has to be … we can create something else.”
And McEwen: “For almost all of us, happiness depends enormously on letting go, dropping our own willed insistent management, and opening into a more flexible and spacious, and above all, playful relationship with time.”