For a year now, I’ve been writing about busyness–our culture’s obsession with speed and my own never-ending to-do list that keeps me hopping. (See “Too Busy,” “You Are Enough,” and “First Bite.”) Over and over again I have concluded that trying to cram too much into each day is bad for our health, our brains, and our relationships, not to mention ratcheting our stress levels to an all time high. Yet, I still haven’t been getting it. Other than a few nominal lifestyle changes (sitting down to eat, eliminating cell phone use while driving), I haven’t slowed down at all.
But this past spring, all my busyness started to catch up with me until it got to the point where I was sick of being busy. In fact, being busy was literally making me sick and wearing me down to nothing. Around that time a friend showed up on my doorstep. “I’m worried about you,” she said.
“I’m fine,” I reassured her with a laugh.
She ignored me. “You’ve got to stop.” Tears gathered in her eyes. “I’m not leaving until you tell me you’re going to slow down and take care of yourself.”
This was coming from my most non-confrontational friend who never gives advice, yet I could hear the steel in her voice. I have to say, it scared me a little. And it made me realize that yes, in fact, things were spinning a bit out of control.
I promised her I would make some changes, some real changes, and when she left I went and stood in front of my bulletin board where I’d just tacked up a new quote. It was from an interview with blues singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt who’d been given the advice to “Only go as fast as the slowest part of you can go.”
I had no idea what this meant. How fast was my slowest self? What would it feel like to operate at my slowest speed? Me, who does everything quickly from the moment I wake until the moment I fall asleep at night.
The last time I remember moving at a reasonable pace was when my daughters were little. Even though my young children occupied all my time, it felt like each hour moved at glacial speed. All morning could be spent walking up and down the driveway, examining every stone and leaf along the way. The process of maneuvering a baby and a toddler in and out of car seats made even the quickest errand take forever. My brisk efficiency was bogged down by nap schedules, frequent diaper changes, and long nursing sessions.
Those were the slowest years of my life, and I was often frustrated by how much I couldn’t get done, but in hindsight, I realize that it was also a time of great joy. Several times a day I would be infused with unexpected joy–a pure, inexplicable sense of happiness with no strings or conditions attached. This joy was triggered easily and often: a small sticky hand slipped into mine, watching my husband hold our newborn, or a long solitary bath at the end of the day.
I realized this past winter that I no longer feel those frequent joy moments. I figured it was the absence of those mommy-bonding hormones that flooded my brain after childbirth. But as my friend drove off in her car and I began to consider what wasn’t working in my life, it occurred to me that maybe my daily joy when my children weighed down my time wasn’t about hormones at all. Perhaps it was simply that the slowness of my days allowed the joy to keep pace with me.
The truth is that since my children started grade school, I, like every other mother I know, have added more and more to my schedule, packing it full. Yes, I’ve gotten a lot done, but I’ve also lost a lot of joy along the way. In fact, during most of last spring, I wasn’t only lacking joy, I wasn’t even happy. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.”
So how do I rediscover my slowest self so as to allow my joy to catch up with me again?
As before, my children helped me find the answer. At the end of May, they wanted to participate in the National Ride Your Bike to School Day. We live a fair distance from their school and the main route is along a busy thoroughfare, but they were determined and I was willing to ride with them. So we dusted off our bikes and left especially early to give ourselves plenty of time.
It was great. As we pedaled along in the morning sun, I recalled riding my bike as a kid. It was my main mode of transportation, and I loved the freedom it gave me. My girls were so excited about biking that they wanted to bike to school the rest of that week and the next. So we did. Even on the days when it was so hot that on the way home we had to stop and stand in a sprinkler to cool off.
Biking back and forth to school took some extra time, but I loved the easy happiness it brought me. I began riding to the local market around the corner, filling my side panniers with groceries. I bought streamers for my handlebars and a bell that says “I like my bike.” As I pedaled along, I could feel the joy begin to catch up with me. As Debrena Jackson Gandy suggests, “Having more joy does not necessarily require a life overhaul–you may just need to create more space in your life for moments of joy.”
Through trial and error I found this to be very true. The last week of the school year, we were just too busy make the time to ride our bikes. Without the slowness of our morning bicycle commute, my days quickly gained speed. Soon I was outpacing joy and keeping stride with stress again. I longed for my bike. I missed the slow joy.
Since school let out, I’ve made an effort to make space for joy even when I can’t ride my bike. And again and again, I’ve discovered that joy is only found when my speed is significantly reduced. I’ll admit, there’s a charge that comes from being efficient, capable, and organized–from getting more done than anyone else–but there is also a price. Busyness leaves joy in the dust. After a while, you have to wonder: What is the point if there isn’t any joy?
My mother has a sign in her kitchen that says: “Joy is who we answer to.”
I want to answer to joy, even if it means letting go of busyness and adjusting my pace. I want to create enough space in each day for the slow joy to happen.
Like the other morning, when my youngest daughter wandered into my office to say hello. Instead of giving her a quick hug and returning to my work, I took an extra moment and held her face in my hands. As I did, she grinned at me, the sweet, gangly toothed smile of a freckly nosed nine-year-old. And in an instant, I felt it catch me. I felt the unexpected flush of pure joy. And it answered everything.