Monday, October 20, 2008

"Slowing Up"

(Just to let you know, no, this is not Part 2 of my "slow life" post, but there is a connection!)

The Shape of a Year is a book chronicling one year-- 1967 (or rather it was published in 1967)-- in a Connecticut woman's country life. I'm just finishing this book now (second time I've read it) and am struck by some things.

I turned nine in 1967, and it was the year we spent the summer with relatives in Alaska. For some reason, my memory of that year-- end of 3rd grade, beginning of 4th, and the summer in between-- are vivid. I remember my hairstyle; the clothes I wore; books teachers read aloud to our class; conversations I had with people; the things we played, our long, slow summer trip to, and in, Alaska; and even how far I long jumped that spring in the "midget" division of an all-comers track meet! :-) It's kind of fun to know exactly what was happening in my life the year the book was published.

I've enjoyed the positive outlook in the book and the joy and gratitude with which the author chooses to describe her daily life. Somewhere along the line, it struck me that there were intense things happening in our country, politically and culturally, in the late 1960's, but there's no sign of that in the book. Not a word. Not a hint. The author is intelligent, and she's clearly not the type to bury her head in the sand, but she chose not to comment on those things. And I'm glad she didn't.

I think it's good to be aware of what is happening in the world and then to do whatever we need to do (or can do) to care, to help those who need help, and to bring about change. But I also think it's wise and good to continue to find joy and beauty in the daily blessings, as long as we have them. To refuse to be all-consumed with circumstances, to overworry about them, and to focus on them so intensely that it keeps us preoccupied or brings us low.

In fact, I think there is something beautiful about a person who can carry on well, with a lovely spirit, in spite of difficulties, big or small, both in the bigger world, and in their personal lives. Those who continue with traditions, rituals, and routines, making the most of what is available at a given time. Those who choose gratitude and trust in the Lord rather than fearfulness and complaining, either about what might happen or about what is happening.

I think of the movie, Mrs. Miniver, where the heroine reads to her children (obviously a bit fearfully) in the bomb shelter while bombs are landing in her neighborhood. Mrs. Miniver carried on and cared for her family. I think of Oswald Chambers and his wife and young daughter, serving with the YMCA (I think?) in Egypt during WWI. Biddy Chambers insisted on giving the soldiers a nice tea on Sunday afternoons, complete with white cloths and flowers on the tables, a lovely meal, and no preaching. What a beautiful gift! The men thronged to these teas, and many of them, because of the loveliness that was extended to them in the form of a very human, very British ritual, had hearts that were receptive to any preaching they did hear.

But this post is not supposed to be about what I just typed! I was supposed to be saying that I read something last night that goes right along with the idea of slowing down (or slowing up, as Jean Hersey phrased it). Of taking in the beauty and joy of each individual thing. I like what she says here, and I think it's an important reason to make sure we take at least some things slowly. It reminds me of what Anne Morrow Lindbergh said about things being more beautiful when they are framed in space. Or her "beauty of the few."

Here's that passage by Jean Hersey:

I usually get into too many different kinds of activities at this time of year. One day I realize I am skimming the surface of everything. There is but hollow pleasure in too crowded weeks. Real rewards come from engaging in fewer activities and experiencing each one more deeply. Loss of alertness and freshness of approach tell me to slow up. Life is best when it is a balance between activities and intervals of aloneness. In the intervals we are able to deepen the meaning of the activities.

The days I like least are those when I pass through my environment superficially almost as if it were a stage backdrop. I scarcely see anything except what needs doing at the moment. Meals become just something to get and nothing has depth. This is living "two-dimensionally."

In contrast, when I am not pressed by a rush of events I move more slowly and savor each moment. Every activity becomes a feature in itself and the simplest routine has its own joy. I feel the texture of the blanket when making a bed, and it is good. I feel the soil when I am repotting a houseplant and it is good. I listen beyond words to what people mean. I look at the sales person in the store and really see her. I have time to write the author whose book I have liked, and I telephone my dinner hostess to tell her how much we enjoyed the evening. This is living "three-dimensionally"-- going that extra mile, doing all the things you are not required to do, but which give added meaning.

Living this way you see not only your goal but the path that leads you there and all the little flowers and ferns that grow along its edges.