June 08, 2002

Slow Living: It's About Time

My wife and I have settled happily and permanently in Floyd County. When we move from here, Lord willing, it will be in a pine box. We love it here; it feels right for us. But apparently, this slow lifestyle is not for everyone.

I recently found myself defending our decision to live in rural Floyd County. An acquaintance, newly transplanted to Blacksburg from a large Mid-Atlantic city, was lamenting her new "life in the sticks", as she called it. But she didn't live in real country in the middle of a university town. I felt obliged to educate her regarding "real" rural living as we know in Floyd County. You could see the horror on her face as I described our very rural environment where there is only one traffic light in the entire county. "Where do you go to get STUFF?", she asked.

I described the twisting gravel road that we live on, at the far corner of this quiet county. "I bet it takes you forever even to get to the pavement. How do you stand it? Give me a traffic jam any day!" I swear she actually said this.

"Yes", I replied, "you can only go SLOW on our road, and that is why we like it. And traffic is never jammed in Floyd County."

I had the realization then that my new acquaintance was writing me off as "cull" from the fast, urban society of her experience and preference. I couldn't stand the heat of modern life, so I got out of the kitchen and "went rural". Gads! What if she was right? For days I was oppressed by a mood of self-doubt. Why had we abandoned the swift main current of society and opted for a life in the slow lane? What did this say about the time-values that we had built our family lifestyle upon? Over the next week these questions ruminated some deep place just under the surface of conscious thought.

In our country life, we are as active as anyone anywhere. We can't be faulted for running away from things to do. But there is a difference between being busy and being hurried. It is hurriedness that our gravel road helps us to avoid when leaving home, an enforced kind of meditation that prepares us to enter the faster world in a slower state of mind. We approach each blind curve with care, and on slowing down, notice the beautiful way that light streams through the hemlocks and the creek eddies under the rhododendrons. We would never have seen that on a fast road. As we return home on our slow road, one bend at a time, this becomes a welcomed part of the detoxification process to bring down our blood pressure, calm our racing minds, and bring us to center again on the simple act of living here in the present moment. I imagine I am as busy as my city friend, but I know I am not as hurried.

The 90's was a decade afflicted with "hurry sickness" or "time urgency". The problem shows no sign of diminishing here in the new decade of palm-piloted instant gratification and mock-convenience at any cost. Society has one rate of life-flow; fortunately, we, as individuals and communities can have another. Where and how I live is and intentional step in my quest to "simplify, simplify, simplify" my life. I think of poor Mr. Thoreau, who exhorted us to "suck the marrow out of life". In his exhortation to live life fully he did not envision modern families cramming the maximum activity and consumption into every mile and minute, each effort and motion.

While my new friend claim success when she has filled in her Day Planner with no lines left empty for months ahead, I think I have successfully managed my time when I open up spaces in my calendar and they don't get filled in. Guess it depends on what one wants out of life. I think St. Augustine said that God wants us to have everything we want, provided we want the right things. Is a disposition that desires a slower pace of life, that seeks to avoid haste and tinsel a right thing, or a character flaw?

And so my thoughts ebbed and flowed, and I wondered if I this point of view was just one of my personal idiosyncrasies. It was good timing that I should happen to hear Sylvia Poggioli's piece on Public Radio that very week, and to know that I was not alone. There has been a movement in Italy during the past year to say NO to the American invasion of Fast Food into their venerable towns and cities. The Slow Food movement is organized into enclaves or "convivia" that approach the meal and food sharing as a metaphor for a city's or a region's soul. They hope to protect the meal as a convivial, shared experience, not merely the utilitarian digestive process it has become in much of our country. The issue is larger than a return to hedonistic enjoyment of local foods and wines, however.

What encourages me in this development is the next logical step of "slowness" that is also spreading from Italy, embodied in the "Slow Cities" movement. (Their objectives can be found online via your favorite browser search engine.) Many of the Slow Cities principles express a pace and value that seems to fit my time-values, and is shared by many, but not all, of my southwest Virginia neighbors. This point of view probably not held by my new friend who is more comfortable in a traffic jam, munching on a Biggie Fries.

The solution to hurry sickness is not in where one lives. One could live "fast" in the country, or "slow" in a city environment. It seems to be more a matter of individual and collective discipline and temperament than population density. Slowing down requires purposeful and difficult choices in our stewardship of time, and we must become less passive in this unspoken struggle between competing philosophies. The more we succeed at guarding ourselves from speed addiction, the louder the purveyors of faade and tempo will shout for our attention: bigger signs, louder ads, flashier graphics, gaudier plastic and neon, Happier Meals. Where does it stop, and when?

Can we and should we seek to protect our lives and our towns from the onslaught of haste and mock-convenience? For many communities, it is obviously too late. The pseudopodia of homogeneous bigness, hurry and urgency--the Chicken McNuggets counterfeits for sustenance of body and spirit--are already engulfing some of the more "developed" parts of our region. There is lots of STUFF in those places, but they are no longer "convivial". I pass through these places, but I do not tarry, and I sure don't want to live there.

If the Slow Cities philosophy or something like it should find support in our region, then I can hope that a healing correction might take place in the coming decade. Then, at least some communities may protect and maintain a more human rhythm, where solitude, quietness, genuineness, honesty and slowness might supplant the hype, noise, pressure, artifice and speed that have driven us in the past. We must make some hard choices. And some of you will understand: It's about time.

Posted by fred1st at June 8, 2002 10:29 AM


I am currently preparing a talk about life in the slow lane and I find your comments refreshing.

Posted by: Doug Matthews at February 27, 2004 06:17 PM

Im doing a project on the slow movement and I'm looking for something close to home. I live in Montreal, Canada and would like to get in contact with someone who is active in this area in Montreal.... Is there anyone that can help me?
Thank you, Krista Bowen

Posted by: Krista at October 12, 2004 01:26 PM

Krista, re your Comment, Elizabeth Miller, film
studies prof over at Concordia, is working on some-
thing along these lines

Posted by: carla at October 15, 2004 11:11 AM

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