Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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For most of my life I’ve been a competitive distance runner. In my prime I would look at older runners and wonder why they didn’t have enough sense to quit. At the start they would wheeze along for a few hundred yards before dropping back in the pack, leaving the lead positions to fleet young studs like me.
Now I’m one of those older guys. I’m fifty-four and have watched my times lengthen for years, though I train just as hard as I did decades ago. It’s depressing. As the leaders stream effortlessly toward the first mile marker, my heart revs like an undersized engine, and I struggle to catch my breath and hold my ground. Though I tell myself I’m fortunate even to be competitive at my age, I’d give anything to win a big race again, to grab that check at the awards ceremony knowing my best times are ahead of me. What brings me satisfaction these days is when I don’t run any slower than the last time I competed.
I tell myself that with more training I can stave off decline, but I’m sure in a year or two I’ll long for the pace that frustrates me now. Of late I’ve found contentment in the pack, where I notice the sidelong glances of younger runners before the finish, a sign they are preparing for a final surge. They could never live it down if they lost to an old man like me.
When I was a pastor, there always seemed to be more to do than I could ever get done. I ran around at a frenetic pace and seldom had enough quiet time to write sermons and pray.
Following my years as a pastor, I trained to become a hospital chaplain, and I brought the same fast pace with me to the hospital halls. When on call, I flitted from floor to floor to see if I could be of help. I received a list of people having surgery each day and methodically visited every single one, checking them off as rapidly as I could. I carried a fixed smile on my face, assuming that was what was expected of a chaplain. I continued to do this even after my supervisor had noted that I looked like someone delivering a singing telegram. One day a patient said to me, “You don’t even know what I just said, do you? If you did, you wouldn’t be grinning.”
Then my supervisor gave me an assignment: “While you’re on call tonight,” he said, “the only thing I want you to do is walk slow.”
That evening was an eye-opener. Whenever I caught my pace quickening, I would hold back. I felt as if I were moving in slow motion, but I actually had meaningful conversations with some of the surgery patients, in which I listened and smiled where appropriate but also felt and let them see my sadness. And I was still able to visit them all.
Lexington, South Carolina
It’s 3 A.M., and I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book in a straight-backed chair, a breast-feeding pillow strapped to my waist. My three-month-old nurses with his eyes closed, and I wait for his chin to begin to quiver: the sign that his sucking has gone on autopilot. In a few hours the alarm clock will go off — for my husband, not for me.
With the arrival of my son I traded in my forty-five-minute commute, office attire, and paperwork for the streamlined agenda of a new mom: feed and take care of the baby; then, if there’s any time left, tend to everything else. Outwardly my new life appears a tad slothful. Some days I don’t get out of my pajamas until 4 P.M., and the dishes pile up in the sink. Without the mileposts of deadlines and appointments, the days run together. Phone calls and e-mails go unanswered. I eat at odd hours and have upped my intake of chocolate and crackers. It’s like being on vacation but without the relaxation.
Back when my in-box was piled a foot high and the office phone wouldn’t quit ringing, I’d have given anything for a day at home in my pajamas. Now I sometimes miss my old office job. Everyone says the infant months go by fast and I should savor them, but for someone used to measuring progress in terms of concrete tasks completed, the countless hours spent feeding, diapering, and trying to put my baby to sleep show comparatively few results. I’m sure one day, though, I’ll marvel at how my son has grown, and I’ll look back on this slower time and give a wistful sigh.
Marvin, North Carolina
I’d been in West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years when rebels invaded the country of Liberia, and I had to evacuate. On the drive to the airport we passed through checkpoints where drunken soldiers asked for bribes, and I saw dead bodies lying on roadsides and in bushes. As rebels advanced on the capital city of Monrovia, food riots broke out, and Liberians fled in all directions.
Back in the United States, still reeling from the experience, I discovered that I now moved too slow for Americans. At a gas station in San Francisco, college kids behind me yelled and honked their horn, telling me to get going. I drew angry stares at a Safeway as I slowly counted out change to pay for my groceries. I got into a fight at an ATM with someone who thought I was taking too long.
Looking for a job, I went to see a headhunter on the fortieth floor of the Transamerica pyramid and was astounded at the speed of the workers buzzing in and out of offices, clutching files and cups of coffee. A friend of a friend hired me to help move furniture, but I couldn’t keep up the pace. Finally I saw a therapist, who diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder and helped me process what I had seen in Africa and ease back into American culture.
It’s been twenty years since I was in the Peace Corps. Today I’m a vice-president at a public-relations agency and have a wife and two children. We navigate the busy schedules of schools, sports, business trips, and family vacations. Getting thirty minutes alone to read the paper or go for a run is a gift. Recently I read a quote: “The secret to life is doing everything slowly.” I can’t decide whether this is wise or ridiculous.
The beep of the alarm jolts me awake, and I stare in bleary-eyed disbelief at the time: 4:32 A.M. I should have gone to bed earlier. I bundle up and rouse Clipper, my son Chase’s canine assistant, then snap on his leash and head out the door for our three-mile walk before Chase and Clipper leave for school. On the corner I pause to appreciate this beautiful morning: cold and crisp, with stars twinkling overhead and a low crescent moon in the sky. But then I worry we will fall behind schedule, and I hurry back.
The next two hours are a blur as, with my husband’s help, I administer medication, change my eighteen-year-old’s diaper, shave him, brush his hair, wash his face, unhook his feeding pump, lift him out of bed and into his wheelchair, and put on his leg braces. Chase laughs at me as I rush about.
Just when I think I’m finished, I find his diaper is soaked again. We wheel back to the bedroom for another quick change — well, as quickly as I can change a hundred-pound boy.
As I place Chase back in his wheelchair and put his shoes on again, my heart races. The bus will arrive any minute. Chase’s legs won’t bend. My back is killing me, and I want to scream at him, “Would you just relax!” but I don’t. At last he leaves for school, and I stop to breathe.
My son doesn’t mind if we’re late or care how long it takes to accomplish a task. He wakes up almost every morning with a smile on his face despite the illness that took his vision and his ability to walk and talk at age nine. When I look at Chase and see his joy for life, I feel lucky despite the challenges of caring for him. But I wonder if I will ever get to slow down and live in the present moment.
Woody Springfield has his opponent against the ropes the entire first round. The crowd cheers and calls, “Bugsy!” — the name he fights under, his late father’s nickname. Woody is one of Bugsy’s eleven kids, all of whom I love as my own grandchildren, but Woody and I are extra tight because I am his cornerman. His life is in my hands.
The bouts are all far from the Crow reservation where Woody lives, so we have time on car trips to discuss philosophy, religion, and strategy. Woody is in the best shape of any fighter in Montana or Wyoming. He can run ten miles without water and has never smoked a cigarette or drunk a beer: quite a feat in Montana. He looks at me, his eyes full of trust and as guileless as a child’s. When he fights, I try not to let my heart get mixed up in it, for I must wipe his blood from his face and send him back out there, yelling, “Do you like getting hit? Then don’t get hit!”
Tonight he is smothering his punches by going too fast, stepping in too close. It feels good to him, and it looks good to the crowd, but I know better and tell him to slow down. He listens to me, starts throwing his punches from eight inches farther out, and the fight is over by a knockout — the only way for a kid from the reservation to win in Billings, Montana, where the racist judges drink at ringside.
On the way home we talk about how slowing down in the ring, and in life, brings us victory over not only the opponents in front of us, but also those we don’t see. Woody is tired and sleeps the contented sleep of the victorious. There is no traffic between Montana’s largest town and our little place, but I drive slow anyway. My grandson is safe with me.
I was in the middle of the grueling five-hour drive to my lake cabin and already running late when I saw the signalman’s sign: One Lane Ahead. I cursed and took my place in the long line of cars waiting to move forward.
It was hot, so I lowered the windows and turned off the engine. As the minutes passed, I noticed a light breeze that wafted across the grassy meadows outside and tickled my nose. The screen door of a farmhouse slammed, and a shirtless boy and his tongue-lolling dog tumbled into the yard. On the power line above me a meadowlark was trilling. My breathing slowed and deepened. Without this road work to bring me to a halt, I would never have become aware of the breeze or the boy or the bird. In my eagerness to get somewhere, I had become oblivious to all the wonderful somewheres I was speeding through.
St. Paul, Minnesota
I was waiting with my bags at the curb, stretching to get the kinks out of my back after the long airplane ride, when my parents’ black Lincoln Continental pulled up and my elderly father popped the trunk open. Mother got out and limped over to give me a hug, her hip obviously worse than it had been my last visit. As I picked up my bag to put it in the trunk, my father said, “I can do it. I can do it.” He looked frail, with his stooped shoulders and thin frame.
“Would you like me to drive, Daddy?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“No, no, I’m fine,” he said.
During our weekly talks on the phone, my mother had shared her concern over my father’s slow decline: how he’d paid a bill twice, tipped the yard man a hundred dollars, stopped at a green light. I still hoped she was exaggerating.
My father pulled away from the curb, creeped to the interstate onramp, and merged onto the highway at a whopping forty-five miles an hour. He leaned forward, clutching the steering wheel and concentrating as he maneuvered the Lincoln four lanes over to the left. Mother sat in the passenger seat, talking about her bridge club and latest recipe, unaware of the drivers showing us clenched fists and middle fingers as they passed.
At a tollbooth my father’s hand shook as he tried to find the button to roll down the window. Once he’d paid the toll, he resumed his slow speed in the left lane, cursing at a teenager who sped by, honking. “Did you see that damn kid? He could’ve killed us!”
Mother suddenly sat forward, her voice frantic. “Fred, the exit is coming up. You need to start getting over.”
“Where?” my father said, and he hit the brakes, coming to a complete stop in the left lane. Tires screeched and horns blared.
“Daddy, go, go!” I shouted.
He hit the accelerator, jerked the wheel to the right, and moved over four lanes as cars swerved to avoid hitting us. By the grace of all the gods, we exited the freeway with our bodies intact, but I could no longer deny my father’s decline.
More than a decade ago I heard about a medieval pilgrimage route in Spain called the “Camino de Santiago.” It sounded fascinating, but life was full of work, play, boyfriends, and family obligations. Taking a couple of months off to walk across northern Spain seemed a faraway fantasy.
In 2007 I completed a season working for a government contractor in Antarctica and impulsively spent most of my earnings on an around-the-world ticket with several stops in Europe. One of those stops was Spain, where I would make my fantasy a reality. Outfitted with two sets of clothing; a guidebook; some laundry powder; several liters of water; and my trusty, broken-in hiking shoes, I started walking: destination, Santiago de Compostela, 513 miles away, where a cathedral housed the holy relics of the apostle James.
The first few days were a shock. Having grown up in car-centric America, I was unprepared for the physical and psychological slowing down of a walking pilgrimage. When I traveled by car or train or plane, the scenery, if I noticed it at all, would whip past in a blur, but walking for six to seven hours a day across the high plains of central Spain forced me actually to see my surroundings. If I had viewed this landscape from a car, I would have thought it dreary; on foot it was surprisingly beautiful and complex. Mice and voles darted across my path. Crushed snail shells, swarmed by ants, baked in the Spanish sun. Cloud formations sailed across the sky; wheat ripened; the smell of wildflowers wafted on the breeze. I recalled long-forgotten songs and hummed them in the vast silence. Each day my twenty-pound pack seemed lighter and lighter. I concentrated on how good it felt to be young, healthy, and free enough to walk, just walk, for days on end.
Cindy Y. Ogasawara
I awoke to the smell of corn bread and the sound of my father praying. I knew he was kneeling, as he did each morning, beside the bed in the small bedroom that he and my mother shared. When he had finished, he gave a deep sigh and, with the faint grunt of a hard man growing older but no softer, hauled himself up from his knees.
“Get up, boy,” he called to me. “We got to butcher that steer today.”
By the time I had gobbled down my breakfast, the sun had risen, and my father had sharpened the knives and laid out the rope and pulleys. His twelve-gauge J.C. Higgins shotgun was leaning against the huge rear tire of the old tractor that idled in the yard. He slipped two rifled slugs into his shirt pocket and told me to open the pasture gate.
At the barn we found the steer and shooed him into an end stall. I fed the other cattle while my father set up the block and tackle on a high oak limb. The steer complained that there was no grain in his manger and pushed against the wooden rails between the stalls. By the time the cattle walked out of the barn and headed toward water, the steer was growing fretful.
My father opened up the shotgun and put the slugs into the twin chambers, each of which could propel a ball of lead the size of a marble for a mile. He took off his gloves and gave me a long butcher knife.
“Hand that to me when I get in there with him,” he said. “Now give him a handful of grain.”
I sprinkled some feed into the steer’s trough, and he used his long pink tongue to sweep it into his mouth. When he’d licked the corners of the trough clean, he raised his head inquiringly, and my father quickly and smoothly shot him just above the center of his white-blazed forehead. The steer gave a sigh and collapsed onto the stall floor. Somewhere in his brain a primeval impulse told him to run, and so, lying on his side on the straw-covered floor, he kicked his legs.
My father had already leapt into the stall. “Knife,” he said.
I handed it to him handle first. He avoided the flailing front hooves and grasped the steer’s ear, and I heard the knife hiss through his neck just below the jaw. I’ve never felt closer to God than on that cold November morning when I watched that steer’s life fade from a powerful fountain to a trickle as his heart slowed to a stop.
Plainfield, New Jersey
When I was eight years old, I knew how to make time stand still. Every day at recess I dashed out to the swings, pumped my way up to the sky, closed my eyes, and hummed “You Are My Sunshine.”
Later the secret to forgetting about the clock became buried under a pile of adult responsibilities. As I approached retirement age, I searched for it in all the wrong places: murder mysteries and reality TV and long naps and crosswords and vacations. None of these could stop time. Even my first retirement, which ended after only a year, couldn’t prevent me from filling my schedule with urgent priorities — mostly other people’s.
I was more cautious when retiring again at the age of seventy-two. I had discovered many things not to do. This retirement has stuck, and these days I do not feel too busy. I listen to jazz or write for hours or follow politics or play with my grandkids.
Not long ago I waited two hours while Delta Air Lines searched for my bag, which had been lost on a flight from Atlanta. The baggage manager finally reported that my suitcase was on a tropical island and could take four or five days to arrive. He was hesitant about telling me this, but I just smiled.
“Are you a nun or something?” he asked with relief.
I laughed. “Not hardly, why?”
“You didn’t get upset at all.”
That’s when I knew I had remembered how to stop time.
They say the worst thing about having a baby is not knowing why it cries, but much worse is knowing why your daughter cries and not being able to do anything about it. I can say this because I watched my little girl under the hospital lights, crying because she couldn’t be held, crying because she didn’t want foam goggles covering her eyes, crying because there was a needle in her arm. I was aware of every minute that passed, watching the clock until it was time for the nurses to run the diagnostics again. Though it couldn’t happen soon enough, I was also afraid of what they might find.
Finally we took her home. They say that having children makes life more hectic, and it does. Though I had the first two weeks of my daughter’s life off from work, I slept less and did more than I ever had on any job. I would sit down just before standing up again, fall asleep just before waking again, change one diaper just before another was needed. But amid all this chaos, whenever I paused to look at my daughter, time slowed almost to a stop, and the world was suspended in that moment when she looked back.
I spent my childhood in a home where alcoholism, violence, and sexual abuse were the norm. The unpredictability was frightening at first but then became exciting. I craved it, despite the fact that it was destroying my family.
In my teenage years I did anything and everything to avoid the pain I felt. I imbibed any substance that might alter my mood and engaged in self-harming rituals, such as cutting and compulsive eating. When I was referred to school psychologists, I denied everything. I had learned well the cost of speaking the truth.
In my late teens I began selling myself for money through dancing and sex. I saw it as the next logical step on my path. I had tumultuous relationships with both men and women and eventually ran out of friends and ended up living in my car.
Trying to repair my life, I joined Narcotics Anonymous, where I met people who’d led lives similar to mine and were clean and sober. I stopped using drugs and alcohol, found a place to live, and believed that I was on my way to wellness, but I soon realized that addicts are addicts, and it takes a lot more than going to meetings to change them. Promiscuous, self-destructive behavior went on within the group, and I took part in it. For several years I vacillated between using and remaining in this dysfunctional community. Eventually I decided I could remain sober alone.
Since then I have changed the way I view life. There have been times of sadness and distress, but I have learned to look at them differently. There have also been times of great ecstasy, and I look at these differently too. All extremes eventually return to the center, which is where I choose to focus. I am one of the happiest people I know.
But occasionally, when it’s quiet and I am alone, I feel a twinge, a yearning. I hear a voice telling me my life is boring and that I have become one of those people I used to hate. I begin to miss having three hundred “friends” I can hang out with anytime, day or night. I miss the excitement. I miss the unpredictability. I even miss the pain.
When I told my father I was moving to China for a year after college to teach English, he called the idea “stupid.” Most of my peers were applying for jobs or graduate school.
I spent the first month traveling on my own, seeing whatever I wanted. It was 1988, the year before the Tiananmen Square massacre. In Yichang, a small town on the Yangtze River, I bought a train ticket to an even smaller town in the middle of Hunan Province. The train was scheduled to leave at ten that night. It was now only 9 A.M. I had an entire day with nothing to do.
The dirt street outside the train station was filled with people. A man walked up to me and asked if I needed help. He introduced himself as Hu Ping and offered to carry my bag, but I’d been robbed a few days before, so I said it was all right; I’d carry it myself. He seemed pleasant enough, though. Maybe he just wanted to practice his English.
The town was dusty yellow and baked dry from a month of hundred-degree days. It was a Sunday morning, and the streets were crowded as I followed Hu Ping downhill toward the river. He led me to a docked freighter chained to a high cement wall, and I trailed him up the gangplank. He was the boat’s radio operator, he explained, and he showed me the equipment in his small radio room, his stamp collection, and a laminated map of the river. At lunchtime he brought me to the galley, where we loaded chipped enamel bowls with rice and vegetables, then retired to deck chairs. We’d just begun to eat when he rose, said something I didn’t catch, and left. Perhaps he’d gone to the restroom. I watched the brown water. I closed my eyes.
Hu Ping had been gone a long time. I started to worry something was wrong. Then he returned with a watermelon and two perspiring bottles of beer. We sliced the melon, drank a toast, and leaned back in our chairs.
I had no job to be fired from, no graduate school to reject me, no books to study, no possibility of getting my heart broken. I was where I wanted to be, thinking only of my new friend and the cold beer. I had all afternoon.
I teach children with severe disabilities in grades four through six. I have students with autism, with Down syndrome, with oppositional defiant disorder, and some who are unlabeled mysteries. Today my two assistants are out with a stomach virus, and I’m feeling tired, achy, and crabby when I realize that Luisa has wet herself. I ask Barbara, who teaches disabled students in first through third grades, if one of her assistants can change Luisa, but she says no.
To get Luisa to the bathroom, I have to pass through Barbara’s classroom. I back through the door, pulling Luisa’s wheelchair over the raised threshold. The first-through-third-graders are at lunch, and Barbara sits alone, eating out of a Tupperware bowl.
“Who’s watching your class?” Barbara asks.
“Sally,” I say curtly, barely looking in her direction. Sally is the reading specialist’s assistant. It’s not in her job description to change diapers, or I would have asked her to do it.
In the bathroom I grab latex gloves and close the door. “C’mon, sweetie,” I say to Luisa, locking the wheels of her chair and pulling her to a standing position. She is ambulatory but has no stamina due to cerebral palsy and a heart-valve defect. I guide her toward the toilet and tell her to lean on me as I pull down her jeans.
Changing Luisa is usually a quick process, but when I start to tug off her disposable diaper, I discover she’s soiled herself too.
I pull the diaper slowly from between her legs so that her jeans don’t get dirty, then roll it up and push it into a corner by the toilet. There’s a changing table in the room, but Barbara has piled it high with games and books. I feel my throat tighten with annoyance.
I have to sit Luisa on the toilet while I fetch the plastic bags and wipes. Then I spread on the floor one of the old T-shirts Barbara’s students wear when they do art projects, and I ease Luisa out of her shoes and pants and guide her over to the paint-stained shirt. She resists me with a stiff-kneed stance.
“I’m sorry, Luisa,” I say gently as I lay her down. The floor is cold, and she barks like a seal. I must pry apart her knees to wash her. “I’m sorry,” I say again. “I know this is uncomfortable and embarrassing. I’m sure it’s better when Mom can wash you off in the shower.”
Luisa relaxes her legs, and I gently wipe between her cheeks and labia. “So, kiddo, what did you watch on TV last night?” I ask. “Was SpongeBob on? Does your sister like SpongeBob, too, or is she more of a Hannah Montana fan?”
Luisa squawks. I’m not sure whether she’s responding to my patter or just exercising her lungs.
I wipe meticulously, tossing the dirty towelettes into a plastic bag. Suddenly I realize that this is the most relaxed I’ve felt all day. Crouched down on the hard linoleum, I’ve forgotten the ache in my hip; I’ve released the anxiety of disciplining hyperactive ten-year-olds; I’ve let go of my resentment toward my unhelpful co-worker. I breathe deep, not even bothered by the fecal stench.
“I’m almost done, Luisa,” I say. “Thank you for being so patient with me.”
© Suzi Q. Varin
When Ivan was murdered at the age of twenty-seven during a robbery, I was unprepared for the grief — as if anything could prepare one for such a gruesome and senseless death. We’d been best friends, working and living and sleeping together.
Months went by in a blur of crying jags, insomnia, and hours spent lying in a fetal position. Unable to walk through the apartment without seeing reminders of him, I vacillated between feeling the searing pain of loss and feeling nothing. “Time heals all wounds,” a well-meaning friend said. I stared down the clock, willing the minute hand to move.
My friend was right, up to a point. Enough time passed that I could function in public, though I’d still sometimes see a stranger who resembled Ivan from behind, and I’d catch my breath. But bills had to be paid and groceries had to be bought. In the process I began to notice things I hadn’t before: the extraordinary shade of green made by sunlight through leaves; an old man on a bench giving his equally old dog a loving scratch; the heady scent of a bundle of lilacs left on the front porch by a friend. I learned to slow down and not take beauty and people for granted.
When I was little, my father used to wake my siblings and me in the middle of the night with talk of meteor showers and falling stars. We’d follow him to the back porch, bedcovers around our shoulders, and tilt our heads back and stare into the dark sky.
“Where, Dad?” I would ask. “I don’t see anything.”
“Wait,” he would say. “Just wait.”
There may have been a night or two when the sight of a single meteor took my breath away, but more often I padded back upstairs to bed after a few minutes.
Several months ago I heard about an upcoming meteor shower and decided to try to view it. My boyfriend and I headed to the rural northern part of the county, where the suburban jungle gives way to one-lane roads and rolling hills. Pulling over next to a cornfield, I zipped up my jacket and got out. Jared stood next to me in the middle of the road, and we looked up.
“Do you see anything?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. Minutes passed in silence. Above us the power lines pulsed with electricity, making a sound I had never noticed before: woop-woop, woop-woop.
I eventually caught a glimpse of a few falling stars, but more important, standing in the middle of that country road and not rushing to get back to bed or anyplace else, I slowed down and took in everything: the dim lights of distant farmhouses, the smell of frozen earth, the sound of pulsing energy.
Had you asked me if I was “driven,” I would have said, “No.” Had you asked my wife or our three young children, they might have given a different answer. They might have mentioned my long hours away from home, the nights I slept on my office floor, the way I’d pack the kids off to the grandparents’ whenever a major deadline loomed at work.
Had you asked if I was running from something, I would have given you a blank stare. I kept busy to avoid seeing how unhappy I was and why.
My frantic pace ground almost to a halt when I came out to myself and to others as a gay man. Voicing this realization cost me my wife, my children, my friends, my employment, my church membership, and my religious beliefs. I went from a desk job at an evangelical Christian college to making biscuits at a fast-food restaurant just off the interstate.
Five days a week for more than a year I watched the sun rise with a co-worker. She’d motion for me to join her — “You got to see this!” — and we’d peer at the oranges, pinks, purples, and blues of the broad Indiana sky, often sticking our heads out the drive-through window to get a better view. These moments reminded me that the world presents itself anew every morning; just as night follows day, day also follows night. With this in mind I began to rebuild my life.
I was a bored fifteen-year-old in 1959 when my dad brought home a spinet piano as a surprise. None of us played, and the piano barely fit in our small living room; the treble end of the keyboard extended partly into the kitchen. For several months it sat there like a mute stranger while my brother, my sister, my mother, and I tried to figure out what to do with it. What had Dad been thinking?
Having played the saxophone (badly) since fourth grade, I knew how to read music. Once I’d found middle C on the keyboard, it was easy to locate the other notes. I began playing whole and half notes using just two fingers, then moved on to quarter notes and four fingers. Finally I was using all ten digits at once. My parents were pleased, and I loved the attention playing brought me.
I learned everyone’s favorite songs. Dad liked them loud and fast: “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and — his favorite to sing, loud and off-key — “When You Wore a Tulip.” He sometimes worked fourteen hours a day at the grocery he owned, which left little time for any of us to get to know him. His passions were football and baseball, and despite my complete inability to throw or catch, he and I tossed a football one summer afternoon in our backyard, ringed by the hundreds of petunias he planted each year. I still appreciate how he overlooked my ineptitude.
As an adult I bought a spinet piano, and I began practicing many hours a week, mostly classical music. After a couple of decades I could rip into Bach’s Solfeggietto in C minor, with its many sixteenth notes, at a hundred beats per minute. But my all-time favorite was, and is, Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, with its heart-wrenching romantic theme, exciting runs, and attention-getting double and triple fortes. I played it for my father on his eightieth birthday on my sister’s baby grand. At the last note I looked up and saw he had tears in his eyes. So did I.
When my father died at age ninety-one, we gathered in the snow around his grave and loudly sang “When You Wore a Tulip.”
Now I’m sixty-six and can no longer play for hours. On a good day I can muster fifteen minutes of something soothing, like Debussy’s Reverie played loose and easy. Though my tempos are slowing, the music is as satisfying and inspiring today as it was when I first discovered it a half century ago, my left hand in the living room and my right hand in the kitchen.
Standing at my front window, I noticed an elderly couple walking arm in arm down the hill across the street. When they reached the bottom, the man — short and slight with wispy gray hair — gently helped his heavier wife sit down on a low stone wall, apparently to catch her breath. He brushed her windblown white hair back from her face and patiently waited until she was ready to walk again.
After that, I looked for them almost every day just before 10 A.M. I also saw them at the library a few times and occasionally passed them on my morning run. I became aware that something was not right with the woman. One morning I said hi, and the man smiled, but his wife just stared at me with her mouth slightly open.
The couple wasn’t around for a while. Then one day I saw the man helping his wife out of a blue 1960s Oldsmobile in front of a beauty shop. She could hardly walk and stared vacantly ahead. About two months ago I saw the wife outside the beauty shop again, this time being helped from the car by an attendant while her husband sat in the driver’s seat. That was the last time I saw them. Did they move to assisted living? Did something happen to the wife? Part of me doesn’t want to know.
Getting old frightens me. Although I am not elderly, I mostly walk rather than run these days, due to my aging knees. No matter how much I exercise and eat right, at some point I will be old. Poet Jenny Joseph celebrated the freedom of old age when she wrote, “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple.” But I will not wear purple. I will not celebrate.
In 1965, when Robert and I were first married, we went to Paris to visit my French cousins and drove to Chartres in a funny little car called a “Deux Chevaux” (Two Horses). Last year we returned to Paris to celebrate Robert’s eightieth birthday — and to prove to ourselves we hadn’t gotten too old and creaky for transatlantic travel. No running through the streets for us on this trip, however. We took our time.
Robert is a sculptor, so of course we went to the Louvre. We wandered through the main galleries on the second floor, not hurrying, just looking and discussing. We saw a splendid Leonardo da Vinci painting of John the Baptist and a sphinxlike marble sculpture of Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s boyfriend.
As it grew late, the guards shooed people toward the exits, but we avoided leaving. “Let them get rid of us,” I said to Robert. By the time the guard asked us to go, we were the last visitors on the floor.
Robert’s bum foot was hurting and slowing him down, so the sympathetic guard took us on a shortcut through a closed gallery to get to the elevator. There in the empty gallery was da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with her enigmatic smile. I had seen her before, but only surrounded by crowds, and I’d never understood why people made such a fuss. Now, because of our slow progress and the kindness of the guard, we were alone with the Mona Lisa. She and I locked eyes, and for a moment, I experienced a bit of infinity.
Parksville, New York
In my backwoods northern-Minnesota home, slowing down isn’t a choice; it’s just life. The breakfast made on a wood cookstove is slow food at its finest: starting the fire with crumpled paper, cedar kindling, and birch bark; finding the hot spot on the faded cooktop to boil water for coffee and tea; heating up the cast-iron skillet — not fast but steady heat — for pancakes with hand-picked blueberries. It takes most of the morning.
I spend my days picking away at household chores while the younger of my two boys tags along. Due to how easily he’s distracted, we sometimes take an hour to make it a hundred feet to the creek for water. Hauling water for every dish washed or bath taken leaves plenty of time for contemplation — mostly about how to speed the process up and make it more convenient or at least a little easier. Feeling that dripping forty-pound jug digging into your neck is one sure way to cut your water use.
Winter tends to drag on here, but at least there are no bugs yet. I sit at the edge of our garden on an old maple stump and feel a little stickiness on my pants: the sap must be moving. The days are getting longer. Color is returning to the landscape. I sit on my stump and watch time slide by at the glacial speed of life in the natural world.
I like to sit on the couch in my living room at the beginning and end of each day. I began doing this after my body fell apart from stress and worry. I’d started my own business with the idea that I could work less and make my own schedule. Neither happened. I was too busy worrying about money. Then my bladder became inflamed, which led to even more worrying.
I planned my cash flow months in advance and took every canceled appointment as a sign that my business was doomed. At the end of nine months I was tense, sleepless, and unable to stop moving — until my body forced me to. (It’s difficult to go anywhere when you feel a constant urge to use the bathroom.)
The doctor told me I didn’t have a bacterial infection. I’d read about cystitis, and my concerns about that exacerbated my condition. For a month I got by on some sample packs of medication that relaxed my bladder but turned my urine green. I talked myself into believing I’d be OK in a week or so. I wasn’t.
At a friend’s recommendation I stopped drinking coffee, eating tomato sauce, and sprinkling my food with salt — bladder irritants all. I went to an acupuncturist twice a week. I took the recommended herbs and spent more time on the couch.
There’s something deeply mysterious about each sunrise and sunset, and my couch is the perfect place from which to view both. In the morning the sky lightens. A jay rests on a branch. The squirrels chatter. At day’s end I watch the sky turn black as the blessed silence returns. It’s a rhythm I’d forgotten: light and dark, life and death. What gives me life is this watching. What dies in these moments is my fear.
On the first day of my weekend retreat I woke early for an hour of yoga and a half-hour of guided meditation. I’d gotten in late the night before and gone to bed hungry, so by the time I reached the dining hall for breakfast, I was famished. I joined the line of people, none of whom said a word as they picked up trays and served themselves from the buffet. I chose a frittata and yogurt instead of brown rice and steamed broccoli, then made my way to one of the long cafeteria tables with a single-minded focus: alleviating my hunger.
I was just about to take the first bite when I saw an older woman sitting at the next table with her eyes closed. Though alone, she was leaning forward as if straining to hear someone. As I watched, she raised a spoonful of rice to her mouth, closed her lips around it, withdrew the spoon, and let the food just sit on her tongue. Then she began to chew slowly, almost reverently.
I suddenly remembered the point of this weekend: to be present in the moment and experience everything. I had just flown halfway across the country in a snowstorm to learn to slow down. I took a deep breath, ignored my grumbling stomach for a moment, and settled firmly into my chair. I took a look at the food on my fork. I inhaled the aroma. I appreciated its color. I thought about the chickens that had laid the eggs and the hands that had prepared the meal. I closed my eyes and placed that first forkful of frittata in my mouth. The intensity of flavor was almost painful. I felt a single tear roll down my cheek as I started to chew.
I was deeply moved by the anonymous Readers Write submission about a special-needs teacher’s day at work [“Slowing Down,” October 2010]. I long ago stopped being a Christian, but as I read about the peace she found cleaning her student’s soiled body, I thought of Jesus’s words: “That which you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.”