ast weekend, I left the island where I live for the first time in a many weeks, to visit the city. The need had befallen me, following two wintery months of knowing nearly everybody I passed or ran into, to put myself in a situation where I would be surrounded by faces I didn't recognize and never would. I was in just such a crowded place, sitting at the bar with a city friend and a glass of water that the bartender would not hand over until I also bought my friend a beer. Adrian, my friend, asked me what I was up to, as I had outlasted his prediction of how long I would stay in seclusion in a small wooden cabin on a woodsy island.
"You know, rural stuff," I told him. "I'm learning how to slow down. It takes time."
"Yeah, but watch it. Once you slow down, you may never speed up again." He raised his glass and gulped hard, gazing knowingly at the rows of bottles behind the bar.
Adrian designs web pages for a living and seldom can be found without a computerized something-or-other in his lap. He insists he doesn't have a lot of money. This is mostly because he keeps losing it through bad electronic investments in the stock market. He looked thinner and paler than the last time I saw him. He told me: "I've finally come to the conclusion that I would rather have a dog than a girlfriend." So far, he has committed to neither.
Before I landed on my little island, I lived pretty much like him. I'm the kind of woman who dyes her hair and keeps it short, who isn't often able to answer her phone but prides herself on returning all calls within 24 hours. I've been known to run a half marathon or two, but my track record for commitment is less than impressive.
It may seem trite that I trace my own action-schizophrenia back to the way my parents raised me. Early on, they started shoving me out into the world, to do new things, with new people, never to draw on the skills of my own family and never to favour anything according to its proximity to our town in Ontario. This was how they thought best to prepare me for life in a competitive world. Further was better. Local was likely inferior, over borders probably preferable. I knew I was doing well when I got to go away to Camp Tawingo, three and a half hours from home, and then Purdue University, ten or fifteen hours away, and then France, several thousand hours away, and then the University of Victoria, nearly the same distance in the opposite direction. It goes deeper than my studies, too, and into my affections. While in France, I fell in love with a Swede; while on the west coast, I fell in love with a New Yorker; and from New York, I fell in love with a Vancouverite. Everything and everyone worth loving seems to have to be away.
Still, for reasons that have yet to become perfectly clear to me, I did land on a little island and I have begun the experiment of relinquishing my go-getterness in favour of get-away-from-it-all. It's been numbly frustrating, gnawingly lonely, franticly isolating, and I could not be more proud to say I think I am finally getting the knack of it.
My parents don't like this twist in my attitude one bit. Interestingly, it isn't because they think I should be seeking new places, constantly. There's a whole other side to their pushing me out into the world. Now, they're asking me to come 'home.' They ask maskedly, most of the time, and only on a temporary stay basis, but the thing is they ask as if I still know where home ought to be, as if it would be wherever they are, obviously. They ask as if, contrary to all the years of my conditioning to favour the afar, I'm supposed to somehow still know, innately, that together as a unit with family is where I should go for healing. They may know this deeply from their own childhoods, but how could I? Maybe it's just me who has taken their pushing too seriously, but I'll be damned if I can help feeling that away equates with success and away is also a better place than any other to hide when unsuccessful. The fear of home, and the ultimate failure that staying home must mean, is an idea embedded down deep in my soul.
So I moved to this island with the idea of defeat in the middle of my forehead, and for over four months now I've been mostly keeping to myself to avoid facing that feeling. People who I chance to meet - at the mailbox, on the trails, at the market - continue to greet me with surprise. As in: "So, you're still here, hey?" I take such comments as challenges, although I'm sure that's mostly my residual need to take challenges and not anything anyone intends when they ask me such things. They're surely only curious and a little bit suspicious of what exactly my intentions are around here, since nearly all of them were either born here, or moved here more or less by force, or are otherwise somehow related to this place. Because I've begun to see transiency as some kind of disease I'm recovering from, I reply: "Where else would I be?"
It's a difficult thing to balance the task of slowing down with the busy work of coming to belong on an island. I want to bring my life down closer to the land, but if I'm too avid about it I scare everything away. I have to meter my observation, because it's true, what my neighbour told me - it is seriously rude to stare straight at an eagle.
Bringing my life closer to my fellow human islanders is even tougher, because it really can't be rushed. And it's been a constant struggle for me to relax my grip on relationships so that folks around here can trust me enough to make a connection. It takes trust, which takes commitment, which takes time.
Encounters with other human beings become so few that those I do have take on all new importance and meaning. A trip to the market for a couple lemons can give me a day of analyzing and cross-analyzing the way the women behind the counter looked at me, the way the other shoppers handled their fruit. 'Hello' can now mean any number of things, and most people look me clearly in the eye and consider just what they're going to reply to questions like: 'How you doing?' This practice has become an enviable skill to me. I want to know the nuances in my neighbours' 'hello,' in the way they tell me they have to go. At the same time, I eagerly anticipate the thrill of the day some of them will be able to be read me, accurately and completely, according to the twist of my own smile.
True, it sometimes seems tedious to spend so much mental time preparing for and reacting to simple meetings.. Then again, I've read that Sufi stories, composed out of the lives of wandering dervishes and told to bring the faithful closer to the Way, often have dozens of meanings. Take this story, for example:
One of the boys at the Mulla's school asked:
'Which was the greatest achievement, that of the man who conquered an empire, the man who could have but did not, or the man who prevented another from doing so?'
'I don't know about any of that,' said the Mulla, 'but I do know a more difficult task than any of those.'
'What is that?'
'Trying to teach you to see things as they really are.'
The neurotic, chaotic, psychotic world we have created for ourselves holds no rest. In foregoing rest, we forego as well solemnity, solitude, sacredness; the opportunity as living things to worship the sunrise out of compulsion to bear witness, and to comprehend the unbearable weight of the sunset, the impossible work of life occurring in endless repetition, everywhere. Really recognizing these things tends to immobilize a person. In the Sufi story, the Mulla teaches the value of taking a broader view, the problem of seeking absolute measures, the equally difficult problem of seeking relative measures, and the paradox of being versus achieving. By seeking more from our interactions, we may find ourselves moving on the right path.
Where our globally-wired culture finds laziness, other cultures sometimes see essential enlightenment. I think I have met this on my island. It takes its form, for instance, in a young man I know - I'll keep him anonymous to protect his innocence. When I ask him questions, he always answers with a bright, wondrous, concise frankness.
Like: "Have you lived here all your life?"
"I was born here."
"What are you up to these days?"
"Oh, working - and slacking. A little more working than slacking."
"Have you been working long? Since highschool?"
"My family doesn't have a lot of money. I've been working since I was old enough to swing a shovel."
Working: helping his dad build a house, milling, cutting firewood, that kind of nongrandiose, unglamorous thing. No mental scurrying, no fearsome time fill-outs to impress or improve, no mumbling, no expectations of immortality in work or in being, no exceptions. So used to the frenetic recitation of 21 concurrent projects and things "on the go" in the minds of the upwardly mobile, I can only look at him and smile. Smile and salivate over this young man's confidence to stay peripheral to dissatisfaction, to inadequacy, to fruitless striving and to running faster into the data-based debauchery of today's professional vandals. People like this do not ruin the world. Only occasionally do they even lament their inability to take ruinous charge of their surroundings in the characteristic way of our times.
Ecologist David Orr makes this generalization about rural people:
Villagers everywhere live in an organic world permeated by life and mystery. They are superstitious, religious, poor, resilient, and humble. They work with their hands, often cooperatively, and they do not understand city peoples' preoccupation with wealth, privacy, and intellect.
What is the source of the fanatical prestige of speed and distance? Why is it that cosmopolitanism is so highly valued, and so few life decisions come down solidly on the side of constancy? Perhaps it is that nothing seems to be reliably long term. Perhaps it is that, when we don't know what we're doing or why we're doing it, it seems safest to do things very quickly, and to keep moving away from the long-term repercussions of our negligence and piecemeal attitudes.
Quantity can never repair for insufficient quality; not in activities, ideas, or emotions. The problem of confounding the virtue of quality for misdirected quantity of action, thought, and feeling, is epidemic. Thomas Merton , a Trappist monk, thought that many of the would-be good people are in need of an external intervention, as in "the day when they will turn on the radio and somebody will start telling them what they have really been wanting to hear and needing to know." To Merton, the lesson we all need to know is the grace of God. In Buddhism, too, there is a saying: "We are all like bees alone in this world, buzzing and searching with no place to rest." In this context, the place to rest would be somewhere we can wish and work for the best for all people, maybe even all beings, indiscriminately.
Terry Tempest Williams , an environmental activist, suggests another possibility, of the same spirit but without the aid of formal religion: "It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home." Overstimulated, bewildered, disempowered people don't face problems: we scatter and run away. It's an addictive practice. More than a matter of having lost the capacity to cooperate, we no longer even seem prepared to stick around in order to compete. Few of us intend for harm to befall others or our environments, but even fewer have a sense of any personal power to prevent harm from happening. The only available solution seems to be running fast enough that the worst will not befall oneself. Hence do we all put on the masks that separate us not to feel too deeply for our fellows as we leave them in the mire, and increase our own activity, any activity that prevents us from being the next thing thrown into the fire. The freedom to do this does not come without a price:
The price we pay . . . may well be paid in the coin of intelligence. The drift of high-energy civilization is to make the world steadily less amenable to the kind of thought that results from the friction of an alert mind's grappling with real materials toward the goal of work well done. To the modern mind, with its ghettos of costs and benefits, expertness, efficiency, built-in obsolescence, and celebration of technology that replaces manual skill, any alternative sounds hopelessly naive. However, we may find reason to reconsider, on the grounds of a larger efficiency and higher rationality, the reality that we are in fact homo faber whose identity is defined by the close interplay of thought and making.
When city friends, like Adrian, act as if they understand what I'm doing here on this island, and say: "Yes, you needed this break," they're getting more than one meaning right. A break it is; at the same time, I'm losing sight of any reason not to make it a clean break. I can still call myself an ambitious woman. I have a new goal. My goal is to work steadily at finding home, making home, and staying home, and never to speed up again.