Slow and steady: realising there is no race

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/3a9/1665537/files/2014/12/img_0513.jpgI’ve always been a fast walker. I think it began when I was very small, and had to walk-run-walk to keep pace with adults. And it continued that way, always trying to keep up with someone or something, present or not. 

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time that I love to walk. I’ve never owned a car, and for one reason or another, I’ve never quite settled into riding a bike. My feet and legs have carried me all over the place. I walk a lot. And, until recently, everywhere I went, I walked quickly. 

Sometimes I needed to move quickly; sometimes not. Walking quickly was my habit, and I was, I guess, quietly proud of how quickly I could make my way between places on my own two feet. 

This year, for one reason or another, I’ve finally stopped hurrying everywhere. Bit by bit. A cumulative slowing. 

I’ve slowed enough to notice how I’m walking, and to begin to make changes to my locomotion that mean I’ve less discomfort and pain in my hips—discomfort I didn’t realise was so bad until it wasn’t there anymore—and less compression and rigidity in my back—something I hadn’t actually noticed at all, until it too began to disappear. 

But what’s amazed me the most is the ripple this slowing of my walking has sent into the rest of my life. As my walking has slowed, so has my thinking and feeling. Just as there has been space open up for me to notice my physical body and the physical surroundings it’s moving through, there has been space open up in my mind. Space between the thoughts and the feelings and the worrying about everyday or not-so-everyday things. Without a doubt, slowing my walking has calmed me. There’s something about unhurried motion that works so well for me in this way.

Sometime earlier this year, I made a little pact with myself to stop hurrying. To stop rushing. Even if I was late. Perhaps especially when I was late. 

Because I realised at some point that for me, hurrying and anxiety were really one and the same. Hurrying was the embodiment of my anxiety, and hurrying had become so habitual for me that I was no longer sure whether the hurrying or the anxiety came first. 

It’s been an interesting exercise. Not one I’ve always succeeded in, of course. But those little ‘failures’ are probably the most interesting. Once I’d made the connection for myself between hurrying and anxiety, the times I failed to slow down became a sign that there was something it might be useful for me to look at. An anxiety that was perhaps stronger than my general desire to slow down. Noticing that I’d failed to stop hurrying became an opportunity I could take advantage of when I did manage to slow myself. 

And the funny thing was that most of the time, those ‘stronger’ anxieties were not really worth worrying about, once I gave myself the opportunity to tease them out a little. More often than not, they were like a shadow I’d vaguely seen in the corner of my vision as I hurried past—a shadow that looks like a monster until you look at it properly and realise it’s just the shadow of a tree branch moving around in the wind.

This year has been a very full year. Full of wonderful things, but also things that were challenging (those things were often one and the same). It’s not surprising that there were some anxieties lurking. (There always are, aren’t there?) But what I keep thinking about is how I’ve managed to get more done this year by moving slowly than I could ever have even hoped to have done by hurrying. 

The past year feels for me like it was an extended lesson in wandering, in noticing things along the way. Perhaps in appreciating things along the way, rather than missing them as I rushed towards some fairly arbitrary destination or goal. Stopping to smell the roses, sometimes quite literally, since many of my neighbours are skilled gardeners.

I keep thinking about how my year has been full, but not busy, and that the difference between those two things is all in how they feel. I know which one I prefer.

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The social function of literature?

On Thursday I rushed (quite unnecessarily, as it turns out) from a lunchtime yoga class I teach at UNSW to get on a bus to Canberra to visit my family. I’ve written here before about how I like catching a bus or a train somewhere by myself. It means I get Thinking Time.

I’ve got a lot to think about at the moment. Exciting plans, not-yet-plans, writing, reading, family stuff, money (sigh). When I slumped back in the seat on the bus yesterday, I realised that it’s actually been quite some time since I’ve given myself a break to think. I mean, I think a whole lot as I travel all over the place to teach yoga and various forms of writing. But it’s really been ages since I’ve let myself just think. When you’re travelling to teach, there’s only so far you can let your thoughts wander, in case you end up missing the bus stop or distracting yourself so much that you end up referring to your students’ feet as their hands and inadvertently instructing them to tie themselves up in strange knots. (I frequently say things like, “Inhale, walk your feet forwards between your feet… I mean…”)

Anyway. That’s a (very) round about way of saying that I got some thinking time yesterday. I put my headphones in, found some thinking music and stared out the window.

One of the things that’s been on my mind lately is the social function of literature. In my ramblings on writing as activism I touched on the idea that my writing is often an attempt to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. I’m starting to try and unpack that idea bit by bit.

Allow me to be embarrassingly earnest here for a moment.

Essentially, for me, trying to put myself in other people’s shoes in writing is about compassion. Most of the things that anger me most about the world come down to other people’s lack of compassion. Human beings seem to have this innate ability to lose all compassion for other people. And then they’re jerks to one another. It drives me nuts. (Happily, I’m also often pleasantly surprised by people’s capacity — sometimes those very same people — for compassion.) I’m guilty of it too, of course, and I reserve my harshest judgement for myself.

One of things that interests me most about yogic philosophy is its teachings on compassion. Yoga teaches compassion for all living things, human or otherwise, because all those living things are really part of the same thing. Atman, Brahma, the Self, the Buddha Self, the Universe. A whole lot of names for the same idea. Whatever you want to call it, and whether or not you’re interested in identifying yourself as belonging to one of the traditions that teaches this stuff, the idea that we’re all connected to one another — all dependent on one another — is intriguing.

When I write, I certainly don’t sit down and think, “I know, I’m going to write a piece that teaches everybody that they’re equal to the homeless man they wouldn’t normally look at.” I’m not out to write didactically. But I don’t think it’s possible to write or read stories about human beings — particularly fiction — without being pushed in some small way to think about the world from another person’s perspective. Even if just for a moment. And hey, we might not always feel compassion for the people or characters that we’re reading about (especially if you’re not a bleeding heart, like I apparently am), but even just a glimpse into that perspective, I think, has the potential to shift something in the writer and the reader.

For me, this is what literature is all about: exploring and presenting different perspectives, suggestion and question. The word that I use to explain that process is compassion, because it makes sense to me. Compassion doesn’t mean agreeing with the person or character’s perspective, but it does mean attempting to understand it. Which of course means, for me, also attempting to understand the perspective of the people in the world who are jerks to each other.

Let me get down from my soapbox now. Pack away my pompous wanker pants.

Talking about compassion and linking it to the social function of literature is problematic, I think. I’m an eldest child, and was often accused of lecturing my younger brothers (most of the time the accusation was probably spot on). As a result, as an adult I’m really conscious of not lecturing people. Saying that literature teaches people compassion makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m advocating the kind of writing that’s overtly didactic, even patronising. Writing that lectures, in other words. That kind of writing, I think, actually creates obstacles in people’s thinking, rather than chipping away at the obstacles that are already there. I certainly observe that reaction in myself.

I’m not sure how to resolve this discomfort. I don’t know where the balance is. I don’t know if I even need to resolve it.

This is really the beginning of my thinking on this topic — it’s by no means an exhaustive exploration of what’s in my brain (although I do feel slightly exhausted after typing it all up). I feel like my thinking has a lot of room for development. Any thoughts on the matter (the social function of literature or the need for brain development on my part) would be most welcome.

Summation of Academy – from notes in my phone

My original plan with this was to write up some thought-provoking, rambling discussion that somehow approximated what went on at the Academy of Words. That plan was a little ambitious.

Instead, I’m going to put up some of my notes from the day (still in note form). Unfortunately it looks like I only took notes for three of the sessions. And didn’t take anything down at all for the one that I took part in as a panelist. For anyone watching me thumbing away on my phone on the day, I promise I was taking notes, not distractedly sending text messages. Because, would you believe, I actually didn’t think to pack a notebook to take with me to a festival about words. The bits in italics are thoughts I’ve added after the fact.

I write therefore I am… A writer.

  • Realised that writing is how I deal with the world. It’s how I find out how I feel about things.
  • Fiction writing is how I explore certain ideas; non-fiction is an exploration of other kinds of ideas — I seem to have an innate knowledge of whether I can deal with an idea better in fiction or a non-fiction
  • Realised one day that I’m actually good at putting sentences together (am I?), and that it’s not something that everyone is good at.
  • Connection between writing to get to know yourself and yoga practices. (There have been times in my life when I’ve felt it necessary to write pages and pages of personal journals — hopefully something that will never, ever be read by another individual. What comes out in those journals often surprises me. Sometimes it’s like I don’t know how I feel about something or what I think unless I write it down. My yoga practice is the same. Getting on a yoga mat, for me, is a way of getting myself to look at what’s actually there, rather than whatever it is I imagine might be there.)

Honk if you’re the publishing industry

  • “A book itself is a really good piece of technology.”

Literary activism

  • Advocating for a better industry, using literature as a form of activism.
  • People who are lobbying for more accessible cultural artefacts
  • Developing communities — feeling passionate about developing a writing community
  • “Activism is about knowledge, about finding out” director of SA Writers’ Centre
  • “Doing something is activism. You can’t ever be apolitical.” (This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine recently about how we’d grown prematurely disillusioned with ‘activism’ and felt useless, but then realised that only a small amount of effort was needed to feel active. She now schedules a little time each week in her diary that’s devoted to acting on social and political things she feels are important.)
  • Need to change the social attitude so that cultural artefacts are valued as highly as, say, season tickets to the local footy team’s games.
  • Chloe Langford (Format Festival): recontexturalusing art so it’s just a part of life.

Tiny snippets of things. Tiny snippets that have started to spring off in all sorts of weird and wonderful directions in my brain. More on that shortly…

~

If you’re in a generous mood (or even if you’re not), you might like to donate some spare change to Format, so they can pay their rent and continue contributing to Adelaide’s cultural community. You can donate here.