Slow Winter Reading

world enough

This is my second reading of Christian McEwen’s World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. I read it straight through a year or two ago, and knew that I would dip into it again. My own slowing down for winter makes this seem like the perfect time to give this book another read.

Chapter One is titled “Hurry Sickness”, a term originally coined by a physician to explain a culture of speed and decreasing health. We live our lives by the clock and try to keep up with computers, which is not humanly possible. The author says that most Americans spend eight and a half hours in front of some kind of glowing screen, and always feel harried and busy. And it’s by choice.

The following chapters explore slow activities and how an altered sense of time and space is necessary for creativity. McEwen is a poet and teacher, so the writing is precise and beautiful. She reaches deep into literature to illustrate her points; interviews artists both well-known and little-known to investigate their processes and insights.

The prose is nourishing, like a hearty soup full of wholesome tasty ingredients. A leisurely reading allows time for digestion and rumination. Joy comes over me when I realize here is a vindication of the way I have chosen to live. McEwen celebrates activities like long conversations, walking, listening, reading, drawing, letter writing, music. I recognize my own experiences in her descriptions. She advocates for living with senses engaged, with daily and seasonal rhythms.

Slowness has always appealed to me, perhaps because of an innate introversion. I remember lying in bed as a child before anyone else was awake, content to look at the patterns, shapes, and colors of the fabrics in the crazy quilt that covered me. The quilt was sewn by my grandmother from flannel scraps she’d saved from making pajamas: stripes and dots and red fire trucks for boy pajamas and gray kitten pussywillows on blue for girl pajamas. My fingers rubbed the softness of the material and I felt content. Reading was deeply satisfying–the words brought images into my mind and I traveled far that way. I could lose myself in drawing (still can). My generation experienced an unstructured childhood, when the world was still safe enough for kids to run around unsupervised outside. Many hours were spent playing with siblings and friends, but I also learned to value my own company. Solitude was not a scary thing. When there was no one to talk to or listen to, I paid attention to my own noticings and curiosity. I could follow these wherever I liked, and trust my instincts to turn me toward home when it was time.

As an adult, I have chosen slow pursuits. My work in the woods requires a lot of walking and when I don’t get to spend much of my day on foot, I miss it. Something seems out of whack. Edward Abbey wrote: “Walking takes longer than any other form of locomotion except crawling. Thus, it stretches time and prolongs life. Walking makes the world much bigger, and therefore more interesting. You have time to observe the details.” Well-said. All the walking has given me time to do a lot of looking which has fed me as a visual artist. Left to my own devices, I would stop more often to draw in a pocket sketchbook. But most of the time I’m on a trail on a mission, so images are committed to memory, photographed, or scribbled in a notebook as I hike. Sometimes they come back to me in dreams, changed but containing the essence of the original experience. When it comes time to settle into the studio for artmaking, I always leave my watch somewhere else. Clocks are rarely allowed in that space. I want to lose track of time. Sometimes I am asked how long it takes to complete a painting and I answer that I don’t know. Neither do I care. What matters is the freedom to create.

Given my preference for crawling down out of my head to live in my whole body, it’s no surprise that I delight in things like digging in the garden, chopping a log with an axe, peeling apples for pies, writing three pages with a fountain pen every morning. Life is be savored, and I resent external forces that insist that I hurry up. The longer I live, the more crotchety I get about this. I don’t want the latest techno-gadget. I don’t want to race down the information superhighway. I want to move along at a reasonable human speed and play with time. I want to read thick books on cold dark winter nights and revel in slowness, even if it means I no longer swim in the mainstream with the rest of the “normal” fishes.

What have you discovered from slowness, from doing things by hand or on foot? From holding still, from allowing enough time?

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