By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
In a world cluttered with deadlines, numbers and figures, I have decided to stop counting.
I’m still balancing the checkbook. And I pay attention to the clock when it’s time to pick up my children or arrive at the newspaper office to proofread pages. When it comes to the quality of life, however, I’ve had it with measurement.
The realization arrived as I set out on my morning walk last Wednesday. My daily routine had faltered a bit because of traffic and the inconveniently bright sunlight glaring into my eyes as I navigated eastward from the high school. When I arrived home, I debated whether or not to hurry out the door to walk at exactly the time I’d planned the night before. Then I debated whether or not to follow the route for which I’d calculated mileage with the car several months back. Because I’d fallen behind schedule, the walking path at the nearby park was sure to be clogged with pedestrians, the traffic on the adjacent street busy. In the interest of peace and quiet, maybe I could walk in a less conspicuous area.
I thought about the reason I decided to walk before 8 a.m. in the first place: so I could get outdoors while the night cool remained, breathe and think and move in relative solitude before the day’s rigors. I decided to chuck it all — the gauging, the figuring, the stress.
I went out the front door, meandered down the street in the still-chill air. I decided I’d walk where I pleased, that I would plot my course in regard to the beauty of the trees I saw and the shade they cast. Once I’d settled on the idea that a straight-line route didn’t matter, I faltered. Should I check my departure and return times? How else would I know I’d walked far enough, long enough?
I decided to chuck that, too. I would walk until my body felt exercised. Then I would go home.
It was a small choice, made by one person when much of the rest of the world hurried by, busy, or never noticed, still sleeping. Yet it felt daring to me, and the emotion shocked me. How could something as minor as altering my morning walk path seem momentous?
In this strange and modern era we call “now,” many of us have lost the knack of spontaneity. We’ve succumbed to the idea that, for something to be valuable, it must be measurable. It must be backed up with statistics and evidence and structure. It must be controlled. I don’t view routine or organization as tools of the enemy: Just imagine four-way stops, no holds barred, winner takes all, and you’ll regain a healthy sense of appreciation for an orderly society.
Even so, there’s something a little creepy about how little margin my formerly oh-so-casual life contains. I remember leaving on travel adventures across state lines with no clear sense of when I might arrive, or when I planned to return home. When did things shift, so that an ordinary daily walk must be nailed down, detail by detail, in order to justify even setting out to take it? Scarier yet is the realization that I’m not alone: everyone’s scrambling to stay on task.
Exercise, rather than a glorious exploration of what our bodies can do, becomes a duty. We’ve fallen short if we skip it, nor do we dare permit it to overflow the boundaries of the time allotted. There are, after all, only so many hours in a day.
Eating, instead of a way to taste what’s good and care for our bodies, becomes a mindless moment of consumption. We gobble; there’s no time to savor. And what we gobble is usually predictable, because who has time to sample a star fruit or stir fry the vegetables instead of popping the steam pack in the microwave?
It’s easy to blame technology for our mindless obedience to the tick marks. But I’m not sure you can point a finger at your cell phone — which is able to measure your steps as you walk briskly around the neighborhood — or the computer monitor, which will ping to keep you on the lookout for the important email you’ve been waiting to receive.
Modern life isn’t the problem. Nor are gadgets. After all, we are the willing customers who cough up the cash for upgrades. We do it because we want more.
Measuring isn’t important to those who are content. If a lovely walk on a still, clear morning enables me to start my day well, do I need to know how many miles I clocked, whether I surpassed the 20-minute mark? When the cell phone I own enables me to stay in touch with my loved ones, my coworkers, my business contacts, is it important to tally how much I spent, or whether it’s two seconds slower than the newest version? Is it really so bad if I spend extra time chopping vegetables from my garden in order to make late-morning breakfast omelette?
The devil, the driven people say, is in the details; if we are to master and control the circumstances of our lives, we’d better look sharp and stay on schedule.
But the divine, I’m beginning to believe, resides in those very same details, if only we take the time to notice and relish their beauty. We’re supposed to inhabit our lives fully, not just perform capably, on time and on target.
When I slow down enough to remember that,