Posts Tagged ‘slowing down’

Surfing channels the other night we got stuck on a home improvement show and before leaving TV behind for sleep we witnessed the woes of a family whose kitchen layout was so awful, their stove was crammed into an alcove by the back door. Lying in the dark coming out of dreams the next morning I was picturing my grandmother’s kitchen, trying to remember: where was the stove? I got it in place against the wall shared with the living room; next to it, the fridge. Then the doorway through to the front of the house; and I went around the room like that, filling it in, nailing it down. Like staking out a tent before you go inside.

As I worked my way around the walls things came back to me. I couldn’t actually see the stove, or its color—probably white, definitely electric—but I remembered that Grandma used to store crackers in the oven. Club crackers, my grandparents liked. I guess they stayed fresher behind the oven door and its seal.

Atop the fridge were two ceramic roosters—well, actually a rooster and a hen I think, one being large, the other small. I have them now; they have red-painted combs, gray and white feathers, ochre-colored feet standing in matching clumps of green. You should always have a rooster for your kitchen, I think I remember my grandmother explaining. Certainly no farm would be without one, and she did start life on a farm.

Passing the fridge and the doorway in my mind I turned to the north wall; up against it, the kitchen table. Very 1950s, it was chrome and cornflower blue formica and suddenly I was seeing the blue light in the kitchen, on a winter morning. From my highchair pulled up to the end of the table I could see out, see the snow drifted and heaped everywhere, piled on the sills of the screen porch beyond the back door. The light is sudden and fierce, almost scathing, bouncing off the snow and into the room.

Behind me in the corner there is some kind of electric roaster, a behemoth that sat on its own cabinet, the kind of kitchen fossil that I imagine a lot of women of my grandmother’s age had standing around. Above it, the black telephone, mounted on the wall. I remember my grandmother talking on the phone. My grandfather almost never did—his hearing was bad, and he was telephone-averse. But I can hear my grandmother’s voice, clear, echoing just slightly in the open room with all its hard surfaces, and I remember the lilt in her voice in just the single word, hello. When she answered the phone she did not ask a question: “Hello?” Who are you? Instead she sang, gently: “Hello!” I am here.

She was there, they were both there, as was I. As I work my way around the kitchen I take on this feeling of my grandparents and their lives, a slowness and a kind of solitude but also presence, intention. Without the distraction of electronics, email, smartphones, cable, so unlike my life today. I remember how my grandparents turned on the television to watch a particular “program,” as my grandmother called them, Lawrence Welk or the evening news. Grandma liked to watch a John Wayne western if one was on.

My circuit around the room takes me along the eastern wall, passing the door to the porch with that winter light streaming in like an ice-bright river and next to the door the sink, framed on both sides by cupboards, above and below. I can’t picture the curtains in the window over the faucet, but suddenly I see a pale green, the cupboard doors or the walls must have been painted that hue. Then I’m seeing wallpaper, a pattern comes almost into focus: neutral tones, flourishes and a spice grinder. I think it was on the wall over the table.

On the fourth and last wall, more cupboards and then the washing machine. This is a small house, my grandparents’ place, even though the kitchen feels large and open in my childhood memories. But there is no basement or utility room, so the washer is here and the dryer is in the attached garage, beyond the dining room. When it’s really cold outside Grandma will open the small closet next to the washer (I can see the door, it’s louvered), take out a Pendleton shirt hanging on a hook there, and put it on before she carries the clothes out to the dryer.

I feel how big the day was, opening up before us on a bright winter morning. I see my grandfather take up his coffee cup (and it was a cup, sitting on a saucer), I hear the sound of my grandmother’s chair scraping softly on the floor as she gets up to take dishes to the sink. They did not rush, or hurry. I realize that they were retired; but I believe their calm ways and measured pace had as much to do with who they were and the world they came up in as with circumstance.

Breakfast in the kitchen. I turn the memory over and over in my mind and study it like a small but endlessly faceted diamond, and in that expanse of time there is something vivid and real that I have trouble finding in my life today: that slow, deliberate act of living even in the smallest things, especially in the smallest things.


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The Lost World

We drive by it all the time, the place where the river flows past the cider mill, on our way to somewhere else. When we drive past I usually catch a glimpse of fishermen casting into the swift waters where the river rushes under the road, and during apple cider season, the crowds roaming around the mill. Even now, as we walk along this path across the river and hidden from the road, I smell the deep-fried aroma of cooking donuts.

But despite the donut fragrance and the endless whoosh of traffic, this hidden path feels removed. Right away we stumble (almost literally) on crumbling old concrete walls beside the water – cracked, graffiti-covered, overgrown with trees and shrubs. They have the effect of all ruins encountered in the wild: a jolting reminder of how fragile and tentative human history appears beside the patient, inexorable progress of nature. The concrete footings are the remains of an aqueduct that was intended to carry the Clinton/Kalamazoo Canal over the river; a project that was abandoned in 1843.

The dam too is a secret, invisible on our drives by. I can smell the tumbling water as we draw near: a cool, green, mossy smell that accompanies the soft roar of the water over the brink. It was built to divert some of the river’s flow into the mill race. An entire tree is caught on the dam – upended, its now-gray roots point at the sky, twisting into thin air. Behind it, the river fills a small pool, screened from the road by a tree-covered slope. As we’re standing riverside Sally spots an animal, slender and dark, slipping into the water from the steep bank opposite. Is it an otter? Maybe a muskrat? We’re not sure.

The sound of traffic fades as we head into the woods. The trail runs alongside what’s left of the canal – 170 years later it’s just a shallow trough, but still pooling in places with water, thick with old leaves. The path is wide, here at the bottom of the valley, with a steep hillside on one side, and the trench for the canal on the other. We see signs that beaver have been here: trees gnawed ’round their trunks, some felled, some still standing although whittled to a point like a giant pencil. Soon afterward square, weathered posts appear here and there, still supporting a wilting lattice of wire – remnants of an old fence. In one place I see iron poking up from the ground like a tree root, just visible in the dirt of the path. We don’t know what it is, exactly – other than another relic of people and endeavors long past. We approach someone walking a dog, and I hold up a palm in greeting as we pass – but I still have the feeling of having walked out of one world – that of rushing cars, traffic lights, deep-fried donuts – and into another. The lost world.

When we arrive at a major trail junction, a looping backwater from the river comes right up to the path. No one is around and despite the tangle of trails coming together, I feel more than ever like a traveler in a secret land. We take a narrow footpath along the slow eddy, heavily screened with grasses and brush. We surprise six mallard ducks, floating quietly, and come out to the main branch of the river where we halt momentarily on a gravel beach, looking around. There is a well-traveled bike path on the bank just ahead, and above it in the distance Sally points out the offices of a local architectural firm, giving us some clue of where we are. The glass and steel of the modern building are well screened by tree branches and high grasses, and I feel as though the office building is unreal – something like a painted backdrop for a play. Certainly not as real as the tree roots I’m stepping around as we make our way back the way we came. As we walk back along the eddy we see a slick, smooth head dip quietly below the still, turbid water as we pass. This time we are close enough that we can see the brown tint of the animal’s fur – undoubtedly a muskrat.

At the junction we choose a trail that climbs for a few minutes, taking us up into the woods. It takes us along the bottom of a local sledding hill – we peek out from the trees for a moment, and see the grassy slope – then back into the woods. I look up to see a deer watching us from a distance through the bare trees, its ears standing at attention when I speak. I begin to feel how it must have been here a century or more ago – before the traffic, and the condos on the hill, and the crowds hungry for donuts. In this little pocket, this slender valley, the ruins keep crumbling and collapsing, pulled by gravity and the strength of growing things; and a random brick or a plastic water bottle washed up on a gravel bar are signs left by mere visitors – not inhabitants.

When we get back to our starting point, we come out of the foliage and have to walk a few yards along the road to where we parked. A school bus is idling at the light; as I walk past it I breathe in a heavy dose of its exhaust. I feel even more wistful for the time I’ve never seen or known, when the quiet world of the river valley spread far and wide, with only the farmers’ fields and an occasional house on a dirt road to hem it in.

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I don’t look forward to going to the grocery store. In fact, most any day when I have that chore ahead of me, if you asked me would I like to have the groceries magically appear in bags on my kitchen counter, I would say yes – by all means.

But maybe that’s all wrong. (more…)

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My coffee’s weak this morning – I guess I measured wrong. It’s weird, making coffee for one. That sounds like the title of a self-help book. I can see it now: “Coffee for One: How to Survive (and Thrive) On Your Own.”

No survival story here – this is just a brief solitary visit. Sally and I are tag-teaming this trip, trying to take good care of our very elderly cat who can’t travel. Still, even a few days alone shifts my perspective. I do some things differently. For example, I took my cell phone with me yesterday when I went up on the roof to sweep. Just in case. Another difference: I don’t talk much and when I do speak out loud, it feels strange, since no one’s there. I took a walk, after unpacking – I needed the fresh air after the drive, and the sound of the wind chasing the waves over the shoals. When I spread my arms wide in the cool north wind and said “Thank you Canada!” it felt bizarre. By myself, I’m not sure there’s a need to vocalize my thoughts. It’s like playing to an empty house.

Later, after I finished some chores, I plunked myself down in a beach chair as is my custom in the late afternoon or early evening. I think I saw a hummingbird while I was sitting there. It was so tiny – the size of a really large hornet, or a moth – that I wasn’t sure what it was. I couldn’t see its colors, either, because it was silhouetted against the evening sun, but the shape sure looked like a hummingbird. It was pointed north, into the wind, and I could see the blur of its wings lifted behind it. Suddenly it dropped low to the ground and I stood up to get a better view, but all I saw was a quick movement as it flew off.

Amazing sights I see from my beach chair. Sometimes as the sun sets shafts of light slip through the clouds, and the rays streaming outward make the sky seem visible and encircling – as if I’m being held. In a way, it’s true – I’m sitting on the round surface of this earth, gently held by gravity, wrapped in the sweet air of the atmosphere. I like to watch the dragonflies darting around. Last night a smallish one kept landing on a broken fern stem right near me. It stayed for minutes at a time – long enough that I could study it, watch how it swiveled its wedge-shaped head, note the dark spots on the perimeter of its translucent wings, and the color of its body: garnet red.

Yes, this is what I do on the beach. (Oh, and drink a beer, if I’m going to be totally transparent – like a dragonfly’s wing.) I felt like I earned it yesterday. I was tired by the time I sat down in my beach chair. I was in a perfect frame of mind to study a dragonfly.

And I often have those kinds of opportunities, at the cottage. As I’m sitting here writing a spider just dropped down and hung on its thread right in front of me, a few inches above the table. It feels like she’s saying: “Hey, whatcha doin’?” I often have that feeling here, with all the living things surrounding me – that they’re incredibly friendly, or at least inquisitive. I gently captured her in a paper towel and took her outside.

And I guess I have more cleaning to do – she must have been starting a web in the overhead light.

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Slow and Steady

I think I need to cultivate the art of living at a measured pace. I don’t know why, but I seem to be devouring even books lately – gobbling them the same way I would a pile of Fritos, without tasting the individual words and sentences.

What is it that causes me this headlong rush? Sometimes I wonder if it has to do with caffeine. I love my morning coffee, but occasionally it does rev me up out of all proportion to reality. Actually, I think stuffing a book into my brain the way you might cram breakfast down before rushing out the door has to do with something else. I think it happens because I’ve come to believe that reading for “pleasure” is a luxury. Who’s got time for it, these days? When in an hour, on cable you can get all of your current events, or your history (including commercials), and even a long movie is only going to run twice that? At the pace we live, it’s rare to take the time to savor a novel. I think I rush because reading seems a decadent, unaffordable luxury – something that’s hard for me to explain, or justify.

I’m beginning to resist, though. A more deliberate pace for living is beginning to seem sensible, even necessary, to me. I’ve noticed many times that when I’m on a good long walk, after a while I slow down and my stride becomes steady, unhurried. I move at a speed that accepts the fact that walking somewhere takes a while.

Yesterday I went out walking late in the afternoon. I took my camera – which meant I slowed down early on as I stopped to snap a shot or two: snow-white trillium growing up against a moss-tinged log; the shadows thrown across the hillside by towering tree trunks. When I got to the turnaround point in the trail, I was surprised to find I’d already been out for an hour and a half. I decided to take a shortcut on the way back, dropping down from the walking trail to the meadow below – a shorter route to where my car waited in the lot next to the soccer field. I see now that my decision was influenced again by the nagging feeling that by wandering through the woods for hours I was enjoying another terrible, decadent luxury that I am not entitled to.

As it happens, it didn’t work out. My determination to “save time” (whatever that means) was foiled. As I came walking up the strip of open field, I caught movement just at the edge of my vision, up ahead on the left. I looked up to see a deer behind a thin screen of brush. I froze, expecting to see its white tail flashing at me as it bounded deeper into the woods. Instead, it stood and looked back at me; and as I returned its gaze more deer magically materialized, coming into focus from behind the branches almost as if I was looking through the lens of my camera and turning the focus ring. I saw there were actually four or five of them. A good fifty feet away, they didn’t seem all that threatened by my presence; after all, it was I who was in the open, on display. They seemed to regard me with mild curiosity, even relaxing enough to nibble now and then on the fresh young leaves. The lattice of branches between us obscured them a little, but still I could see them well enough to think the smallest was almost like a sleek, long-legged dog, and to note how their ears lit up, pink and translucent, when the lowering sun shone through them.

It was odd and exciting to be studied like that by a small herd of deer, and so I stayed until they at last started moving on, farther down the border of the meadow. I see now that those minutes we stood facing each other could not be rushed through. Nor can the reading of a good book. Or the rest of my life, for that matter. In fact I’m now doubting that anything, really, can be rushed through. I may even start eating Fritos one slow, savory corn chip at a time.

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