Reflections on Simplicity . . . Slowing Down to the Speed of Life by Carolyn Berry
“There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living." Henry David Thoreau
One of the gifts to my life experience this past year has been the opportunity to walk to work. In May 1996, I accepted an offer for a temporary contract as a member of a community partnership team situated in one of the government office buildings only 6 blocks from our home. My choice to accept was most certainly based on a blend of elements — timing, the content of the work, my desire to work with folks that I respected and admired, and the job’s proximity to my home. As this window of my life comes to a close, I realize that it has been my daily walks to that office building over these past months that have taught me the most tangible lessons about the experience of living in community and adjusting to a pace of life that allows us to actually synthesize and relish that experience of community. I have learned an important lesson about slowing down to the speed of life.
My daily walks to and from work have invigorated my senses and heightened my awareness of subtle changes in my urban world. I realized how much I have missed during all the years that I exclusively committed my transit experiences to being encapsulated in the metal and glass encasement of a car. On foot, no barrier stood between me and the unique environment of my community. I could smell the approaching summer rain. I realized the somber anticipation of winter as I saw squirrels working feverishly, digging in the barkdust of lawns and businesses to bury the walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts and acorns they harvested from neighborhood trees that stand on this section of earth that once was farmland and orchards. I experienced at a cellular level the shortening of days and the correlating mammalian trigger to conserve energy by lengthening sleep patterns during the December days, when I rose early, heavy-lidded, to walk to the office in darkness lit only by streetlights—and sometimes stars, when the Oregon clouds allowed. I felt awe and the deep stirrings of rejuvenation as that morning blackness gave way to earlier dawns in the weeks following the winter solstice. I could smell the awakening of rich soil as crocus, narcissus and daffodils burst through and, with roots on tiptoes, strained for sunlight. The morning when I once again heard birdsong after their months of absence during winter, I felt a surprising sense of wonder and hope.
The elegant sensory experiences afforded me by the more-than-human elements of my community have been a sheer delight. I have witnessed—as few of us truly do in these American rat race days—the powerful, ancient force of living systems and their cycles. I have also experienced the rich diversity of the people with whom I share these city blocks defined as “inner city Salem.” It is all a living system of which I am a part. I realize that I cannot feel a part of this living system unless I exercise my partici-pation. This cannot be experienced at light speed. “Community” is magically transformed from a noun to an action word when we take whatever steps are neces-sary to slow down to the speed of life.
From time to time during these past months, I’ve walked home over my lunch hour. On one particularly remarkable blue-sky Oregon December day, I was returning from lunch at a near race-walk, eager to reach the warmth of my office. The air was crisp cold and stung my ears, and my breath exposed itself in visible white puffs. As I crossed over 12th Street, I saw a sight so strange that it stopped my heart. An elderly person was crossing Chemeketa Street, bundled to the point of androgyny, heavily dependent upon a cane that diverged at the bottom to four sturdy feet capped in heavy rubber, each about an inch in diameter. I stopped hard and gazed as this aging soul tenaciously pressed ahead in the direction of a building that houses self-sufficient, low-income seniors. This being’s right leg was bent at an odd angle, such that the foot was twisted strangely into a noticeably clean, white, slip-on deck shoe. The misshapen leg and foot resulted in a painfully slow, halting, unstable gait . . . first a 6-inch step with the good left foot, then a dragging of the crippled right foot to catch up with the left, then a pause to gain balance and move the cane forward before repeating the process.
It wasn’t the strangeness and slowness of the gait that froze me in my steps. It was the fact that—at this speed and with this seeming lack of stability—this senior citizen was jay-walking in the middle of the block, while folks encapsulated in their cars were rushing to get back to work on time, whizzing within inches on both sides, some honking, some scowling, some shaking their heads, some seeming not to even see this delicate form in the middle of the narrow city street. I found myself in a dreadful dilemma. I wanted to help, but if I took the time to do anything I would most certainly be late from lunch. In addition, with all the media stories about folks who prey on the elderly, what if my approach to offer assistance terrified this stranger rather than bringing them comfort? What to do? I trusted my intuition, checked for traffic, and stepped into the street.
“Hello. Say, could I walk with you until you get to the other side?” I asked, seeing for the first time the face of this stranger. Gray-blue eyes examined me through glasses that told me cataract surgery had been performed on both. Through lenses that wildly magnified size, I was met with a gaze that held a mix of surprise, caution, awareness, openness, and determination. The androgyny evaporated as I discovered the wrinkled, chiseled features of a man I would guess to be in his mid-80s.
“Yes, yes. You look all right. Yes. Thank you.” He linked his left arm through my right arm at the elbow and took his other hand off his cane, asking, “Could you please give me your other hand?” Unclear what he wanted, I complied. Gingerly, he rested my left hand on his own that he now draped through my forearm in fashion akin to the poses in prom pictures. I suddenly felt stinging wet tears appear behind my eyes, and emotion briefly overwhelmed my awareness of the cars that still whizzed frightfully close to us front and back. His hand trembled slightly with a motion more like palsy than chill. His skin was warm, back of the hand lined with wrinkles and veins, palm soft—a testimony to the accumulation of years he’d lived. A testimony to the unmistakable comfort in the touch of another human hand. A honk from an irritated motorist startled me back to reality. My companion was patiently gripping his cane.
“Okay, let’s see if we can get ourselves safely to the sidewalk. Ready?” I asked. He nodded yes and stiffened as he attempted to increase the speed of his 6-inch step/shuffle/pause routine. I assumed he was trying to speed up for my sake, as I’d already observed that his pace was much slower than this. “No need to hurry,” I smiled down at him. “I’ve got plenty of time.” I had already strategized that I would work later than usual to recoup time for this unexpected delay.
It took over 20 minutes to walk the half-block from the dotted line in the middle of Chemeketa Street to the front door of his apartment building. (I usually walked my six blocks to work at a leisurely pace in about ten.) I chose not to strain my walking partner by demanding conversation of him. He was already clearly taxed by the aerobic demands of this level of exertion. As I willingly crept along in silence, I remembered dance classes where I earnestly tried, but was often unsuccessful, at letting the “guy” lead. Now here I was, successfully taking baby steps that matched my companion’s pace. I looked into the faces of some of the drivers who whizzed behind us and wondered where our compassion for each other has gone in this culture. I remembered my grandparents—who would have been about this man’s age were they still alive —and silently thanked them for loving me. My mind, however, kept returning to the question of why this precious man had put himself in such danger.
“So, are you taking a walk to enjoy the sunshine?” I’ll admit the question was a little weak, but you’ve got to agree that it was a huge improvement on, What in the hell are you doing in the middle of street? Don’t you know you could get hit by a car? You scared me to death!
“Well,” he started slowly. “My car’s parked down the block across the street. It was the closest spot I could find last time I parked it. In this cold weather, I have to go start it every day or you can bet the engine won’t turn over next time I really need to drive it someplace.”
I felt the wetness return behind my eyes and had to bite my lip hard to keep from crying.
He went on. “Fell and broke my hip earlier this year, so I don’t move as fast as I used to. Lots of folks, when they break a hip bad as I did, they give up walking all together. But I’m not going to give up. No sir. Tough as nails. That’s me. I’m no quitter. Though I think I should’ve used my walker today instead of just my cane. Better support, you know. This cold just seems to take a lot out of me.”
I searched for words, but found none.
“Just between you and me,” he added in a whispered tone, “if I had a race with a turtle, the turtle would win.” We both laughed, then continued our elegant shuffle in silence. A six-inch step, drag the foot, rest, move the cane, do it again.
As we neared the front door of his apartment building, I noticed a vacant parking spot directly in front of the entrance. “Say,” I had a great idea, “if you’re willing to give me the keys to your car for just a minute, I’ll move it to this spot right here in front of your door so that you don’t have to walk so far tomorrow when you come out to start it. I would sure feel better if you didn’t have to cross that street again, wouldn’t you?” I wondered if he might fear I would drive off with his symbol of independence, revealing myself to be a common car thief rather than a excellent dance partner. We stopped again as he gazed at my face.
“Yes. Yes, I think you’re a respectable girl.” A “girl” at 42-years-old, I thought to myself. I smiled. Age is so definitely an issue of perspective!
He dug his key ring out of his pocket. Hands trembling, he carefully explained to me that the round key opened the car door and the square key actually started the car. In that moment, I realized that I hadn’t driven a Ford since the days when I was constantly borrowing my mom’s LTD as a teenager. I smiled again. He pointed across the street and identified his car as the 4-door Ford sedan. Much to my dismay, while the round key did unlock the driver’s side door, the door itself wouldn’t budge. “Rusted shut,” I surmised, since today’s weather, while cold, wasn’t cold enough or wet enough to freeze the door closed. I opened the passenger door instead and slid across. I smiled at the scent of Old Spice in the car and the box of Kleenex, ice scraper, and small bottle of Armoral that waited patiently for the return of the man recovering from a broken hip . . . who was watching me intently from the sidewalk across the street.
The car started immediately, and I carefully repositioned it in the vacant parking spot. A second attempt from the inside to open the driver’s door with several solid thuds of my shoulder were painfully unsuccessful, so I once again slide past the Kleenex, ice scraper, and Armoral to exit using the passenger door, taking care to lock the car back up.
As I handed back his keys, he smiled broadly. “Thank you for walking with me and for taking the time to move my car. You are a decent human being. And I thank you. Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome,” I smiled back. “I’m afraid I do have to get back to work. Will you be okay?” It was a question that deeply mattered to me. He nodded affirmatively as he smiled and turned to inch toward the door, waving goodbye and waving me on simultaneously, with his free hand. I walked back to my office pensively, clouded in thought and emotion. As I sat at my desk that afternoon, I felt as though my spirit had grown to a point of exploding through my skin—filled with compassion, admiration, gratitude, sweet sadness, and a deeper connection to my human community.
The vital connection that we can achieve by regularly greeting, talking with, and looking into the faces of those who occupy our neighborhoods allows us to deepen personally. To see and be seen. To trust and be trusted. To acknowledge. To recognize and allow diversity. To value others. To respect. To reach out and find the unmistakable comfort of another human hand. To understand.
Living life more simply in these days involves reconnecting with the heart of who we are as individuals and with learning to look more deeply beyond ourselves and into the eyes of our larger community—both human and more-than-human. For me, this process of deepening has taken place only as I have consciously made choices that enable me to slow down to the speed of life.
Carolyn Berry lives with her husband and two teenagers in Salem, Oregon. A multi-faceted writer and speaker, she is a passionate teacher of workshops on life simplification and authenticity. Telephone: (503) 391-1922. Mail at P.O. Box 612, Salem, OR 97308-0612 or by email.