Fast is easy. Slow is hard. Especially if you’ve been told, your whole life, to speed up, get somewhere.
I’m really on the move now.
After a full month in Michigan, the state is now in my past, part of my story. To commemorate the experience, Sputnik got his first sticker, two capital letters - “UP” - in a white oval. Up is one of my favorite words. Up up and away. Plus, the UP, the Upper Peninsula, is one of my new favorite parts of the country. I’ll return. Eventually.
I’m moving quickly, to get to Milwaukee by tomorrow, to pick E up from the airport. Last night, I pulled over west of Green Bay, I think, when I was getting so tired my eyes were dropping and loud music wasn’t working.
Slow is like patience, gratitude, maybe even love. Slow is the mindset behind so much of what makes life better: intentionality, mindfulness, focus, calm. Anything that can be done can be done just a little bit slower, and that makes it better. Slow means more time. If you can drink a coffee in eight minutes instead of three, that’s five bonus coffee-drinking minutes. When time extends, awareness extends.
What if the answer to everything is attention? Someone recently told me, “patience isn’t my strong suit.” In the time since I heard that, I have played out an entire conversation in my head, because I think I know how to help this person.
Person: Patience isn’t my strong suit.
Me: Do you wish to be a more patient person?
Me: Are you willing to work for it? Is it a priority?
Me: So what are you doing to achieve it?
Person: What do you mean?
Me: I mean, how are you develping your patience?
Person: I can’t. When I’m supposed to be patient, like when I’m waiting for something important, I go ballistic. It’s hard. It makes me uncomfortable and unhappy because I know I should just relax, but I can’t help it - I want things to go faster.
Me: But do you ever focus on patience when the need for patience isn’t urgent? How often do you practice patience, develop the skill? So that when you need it, you’re ready.
Person: What does that even mean?
Me: Well, for one thing, you could go sit on a park bench and think about patience. As forcefully as possible, putting all of your brain power into the meaning and purpose of patience. Roll it over, knead it, work it, and consider strategies to embody it.
Person: Just sit there? Thinking about patience? Like, for no reason?
Me: Of course there’s a reason! Didn’t you just say that you want to be more patient and that it’s a priority for you and that you’re willing to work for it?
Person: And sitting there thinking about it will make a difference?
Me: You tell me. Don’t you think it would?
Me: Imagine if you dedicated your life to patience. Imagine if you woke up every morning and did a patience writing exercise, for fifteen minutes. Imagine if you wrote the word patience on a piece of paper, again and again and again, to try to bring that concept to the forefront of your awareness, your conciousness. Imagine that you put patience reminders all over the place - little triggers to remind yourself to calm down, slow down, and be patient. Imagine if you set aside big chunks of time for patience meditations, saying “I am,” on every inhale and “patient,” on every exhale. Imagine you went for patience walks, to just think about patience, why it matters and how you can achieve greater levels of it. Imagine patience-themed free-writing, deep explorations on the topic. Imagine calling a random person you know, every day, and asking, “Hey, do you have a few minutes to chat about patience?”
Person: I’d become more patient.
Me: Of course you would. So what’s stopping you?
I have lots of time to have imaginary conversations with myself. But it doesn’t mean that all the lessons sink in, because I can only focus on so many things at a time. And when I’m on the go, like right now, it’s hard to concentrate on anything except getting to whatever’s next. Like, in this case, the airport, and the person I’m picking up.
On my calendar, every day up ahead is blank. I fill in the day as it happens, for example with stickers (when I exercise) and other little squiggles to symbolize various accomplishments and experiences. If I read a lot, I’ll draw a book. If I meditate, I draw a little yin yang. Behind me, the days are packed. This seems like the right way to calendar, a very “in the moment” approach. The past is full of stuff I can’t change. The future is wide open. My life, my work, my job, is just to fill in today. It’s been working. I guess.
What I’m learning is that attention is the mack-daddy of all skills because it’s the path to all other skills. And the best part is that it only has two ingredients: time and focus.
Universally, I think that people are careless with their attention. They give it away without thinking - to other people and increasingly, tragically, to corporations and tech gadgets. To reclaim your attention for yourself is to reclaim yourself for yourself. Think about that.
I spent most of the last few days with a man who doesn’t seem to have any problems with distraction, attention or focus. J is 72 years young and lives on three hundred acres of wooded land with a two mile trout stream running through it. He doesn’t have a cell phone. In the winter, he spends several hours a day shoveling a small section of driveway and then hikes a quarter mile in shoeshoes to get to and from his house. This guy is awesomely slow.
Fireworks brought us together. Dangerous, crazy, lunatic fireworks. A kind of show that could only happen way off the beaten track in a state where fireworks are legal, unlike where I grew up. Shrapnel rained down from the sky and someone told someone else to use their hand to cover their beer. Of course I was in awe looking up, but I also enjoyed scanning the horizon, observing the small-army of fire-starters, running with torches through clouds of smoke and red light. It looked like war.
I instantly hit it off with J. Born and raised on the Keweenaw Peninsula, he’s a 72-year-old with drifter vibes, but he never really drifted, geographically at least. He’s a bonafide free-thinker, who described himself, first and foremost, as a draft-dodger. He was a high school physics and English teacher (of course) who hated high school himself (also of course) but ended up finding his way to college (you get the point). I latch onto the fact that he doesn’t have a cell phone; to him, this fact is barely worth note. He looks like Jack Nicholson, but balder, with a printine dome of shiny nothingness on the top of his head and long, grey hair cascading down the sides. He wears a Hawaiian shirt and bucket hat.
He put me up in his second home, which sits on his massive property in Portage Township, about fifteen minutes south of Houghton, Michigan. We communicate flip phone to landline, and it’s never an issue. Not even once. It never ceases to amaze me just how easy it is for non-smartphone users to stay in touch. When I say, “I’ll call you at 4:00,” I really mean it. When he says, “I’ll be over to chop wood in an hour,” he means it. It’s all so easy. No over-planning. No broken commitments. No relentless checking in. Just places and times, markers in the future, that remain, naturally, top of mind, until they fall from conciousness, just as naturally, when they happen.
It’s five thousand times easier to connect with J at on off-the-grid location “around nightfall” than it is to set up a conference call with anyone in Silicon Valley. Why is that?
I stayed in a house that was messy as hell, filled with family heirlooms, books and tools. It was wrapped in white, yellow and purple wildflowers and exotic roses, a full spectrum of pinks, from pale to bright neon. The broader property is surrounded by land easements. When J dies, most of his property will be preserved as well. His affairs are sorted, and it clearly brings him peace. There is no better way to consider your own mortality than to spend quality time with an old stranger who doesn’t mind talking about death. In turn, this made me feel more alive.
Over the course of several days, we exchange many gifts - books, music (live and recorded), writings, meals, beers, advice. And above all else, time, the single most precious thing that one person can give to another person.
On the first night, Friday, he picked me up in his Subaru for “supper” (what a country word!) at a place called The Feed Mill in Tapiola. “Local” is an understatement. You’ll never find Tapiola unless you’re trying to get lost, in which case, you’ll find tons of Feed Mills. Yelp won’t get you there. The Feed Mill is across the street from the general store and that’s it - those are the only two businesses in town.
We’re served fish fry by a Grapes of Wrath waitress whose mouth seems to have twice the necessary number of teeth. Then a human Goofy busts through the screen door and J shouts his name. He’s also on the town council and “also well-read,” says J. They both had something to do with the legalization of green burials. He wears a shirt with an Erasmus quote on it: “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” This is all too perfect.
“I love your shirt,” I say.
“I think the library was giving them away,” he says with a smile.
Even more perfect.
At his house, J has a “music room” which, like the few others rooms, is completely covered in cobwebs, dust, half-dead vines, and hair from a dog that’s no longer alive. J sat in the listening chair and I sat cross-legged on the floor. We listened to music.
On Saturday night, J made chili and we ate it with crackers and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. I drank water from a mug. For dessert: Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookies and milk. Then more sitting and listening to music - folk, blues, jazz.
When the sun was out, we walked J’s property. He identified tree after tree and I forgot everything he said. He handed me a leaf to crush and smell. I closed my eyes. After three long, slow inhales through my nose, I had the answer, with 100% certainty: celery. J didn’t seem as proud as I expected him to be. I think I was trying to win a non-game.
His truck was covered in bumper stickers: ‘When I Grow Up I Want To Be Too Big To Fail.’ ‘More Trees, Less Bush.’ ‘What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears. - Alice Hoffman’
Three times I asked J why he doesn’t have a family. Three times he didn’t answer.
On the very last night, three beers deep, a conversation about draft-dodging got really real, really fast. The n-word was used in a very strange context, something I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
We talked about the mining industry. We talked about how most of J’s friends are 30 years old.
At night, I fell asleep to the sounds of animals in the wall. I loved every second of it.
A few times, I had to remind myself that it’s not considered “normal” to make fast friends with strangers, to immerse yourself in their lives, plunge into the depths. But now I can’t imagine not doing such a thing. How does any human manage to feel human if they aren’t doing this on a regular basis? Now that I’m on the drip, I’m not getting off any time soon. There’s a lot to figure out, I think, half asleep.
Last thing: The Overstory. Holy. Shit. This book is exploding my conciousness, sending me into orbit. Whatever I have previously said about how this book feels like a crazy coincidence, multiply all of that by a million. I have genuinely been wondering if Richard Powers wrote this book for me. Not for people like me, but for me, specifically, Bill Loundy. I can’t put it down, but not because I can’t stop reading it. In fact, half the time I spend holding it I’m just clutching it in my hands, or to my chest, staring at trees, roots, twigs, road, myself in a mirror, myself in the sky. This book is everything for me right now, so much so that I can’t keep writing about it, because dead words feel sinful. So, reader, stop reading me. Go read The Overstory instead. In fact, don’t ever read anything else until you read The Overstory. Prepare for a new way of seeing. Prepare to think and think and think.