A quote from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance captured my attention today. He wrote, “I haven’t heard the steady slow-paced conversations like that since the thirties when my grandfather and great grandfather and uncles and great uncles use to talk like that: on and on and on with no purpose other than to fill time, like the rocking of a chair.” I’m pulled a slightly different direction than perhaps the original intent of Pirsig’s words. Rocking chairs have a comforting pace, unless you are a five year old exploring the boundaries of objects on your grandma’s porch. The pace is soothing. It’s a subtle reminder to slow down a bit. It repeats but it isn’t boring. It doesn’t go anywhere, but it can take you everywhere. It tells you that it’s okay not to be doing anything in particular but imparts a wildly odd sense of accomplishment. Rocking chairs provide a reason to sit with someone or by yourself for no reason at all. Satchel Paige was one of the most notable pitchers in baseball, and he seemed to understand the power of quiet reflection. He said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits”.
Why do we tie frantic, scattered motion together with productivity? Why is there a sense of guilt or anxiety when we turn down the noise and slow down our pace? Are we frightened of what we might see, hear or feel? Will we find ourselves off pace from the goal of an impossibly defined potential future state of happiness? Like a shadow on the sidewalk with the sun at your back, it always seems just a few steps ahead. Joy can be with us most of the time if we let it. Happiness is a projected feeling based on attaining something that you don’t currently have but think you need. All of the tasks, commutes, meetings and phone calls are the mechanical elements of our productivity machine. With our mental energy stores taxed by this activity, we lose the capability to be with ourselves, to listen to our friends, to be present with our family, and to rock in chairs. Can a repeatable motion that goes nowhere and everywhere bring back the balance between the whole you and the mechanical you?
Count Alexander Rostov appears as the main character in Amos Towles novel A Gentlemen in Moscow. A well-to-do, impeccably mannered man in every regard, the Count often reflected on the use of time. Even though he was granted a rather fortunate upbringing that allowed more leisure than most, I found the character’s perspective applicable to almost anyone in the present day. Only later in life do we realize what is truly important. Maybe it’s because we need to wade through a variety of experiences to understand anything at all. While we can’t always skirt responsibilities in favor of slow mornings and coffee with friends, maybe we could approach our time with a budget allocation for these moments. Towles writes, “When the Count was a young man, he prided himself on the fact that he was unmoved by the ticking of the clock. In the early years of the twentieth century, there were those of his acquaintance who brought a new sense of urgency to their slightest endeavor. They timed the consumption of their breakfast, the walk to their office, and the hanging of their hat on its hook with as much precision as if they were preparing for a military campaign. They answered their phone on the first ring, scanned the headlines, limited their conversations to whatever was most germane, and generally spent their days in pursuit of the second hand.” The Count is purposely unrushed creating slack in his system for the emergent properties of creativity, connecting and observation without expectation. Filmmaker David Lynch finds this kind of space conducive to the life of an artist, while I would add that any life could benefit from this approach. According to Lynch, “the art life requires a freedom to have time for the good things to happen”.
Creating space does not mean you are lazy or not driven. You can balance responsibility with freedom by taking an active approach to your allocation of time. In small windows, I walk, I write, I read and sometimes I just be. You may be reading this with a raised brow thinking that you couldn’t possibly make time for such trivial activities. The space I refer to is the nothing that actually is everything when you exit the hustle of the machine. Maybe we focus too much of our attention on the immediate rather than the important? Research from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi confirms that these still moments of escape proved essential to some of the most prolific creators in history. Mason Curry references similar findings in his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Maybe the space we make gives our minds and bodies a path to return to our essential nature as creators. These threads drove my curiosity in the early days of 52Musings and continues to feed it today. Without these small pockets of downtime, I wouldn’t have had some of the most meaningful conversations with myself through writing.
There is a wrap-around front porch on an oak-lined country road with two faded rocking chairs slightly angled toward each other. The faint light from the small window on the red front door floats through mixing its energy with the pastel-colored presence of dusk. The chairs are broadcasting a gentle signal reminding you that there is more to life than mechanical hustle. No need to plan, do, make, think or talk. You can just rock awhile.