Friday, June 15, 2007

The Hare's Dilemma

It is now more than twenty years since I gave up working in a full-time, nine-to-five job and twelve years since I left the workforce altogether. Yet all those years in the workplace – not to mention the twelve years of school, the five years of college and all those years of round-the-clock parenting – have programmed me in ways that make it really difficult for me to replace 'doing' with simply 'being'.

I have noticed that a busy day with many tasks accomplished leaves me highly satisfied whereas I tend to feel vaguely disappointed if I get to the end of a day and cannot point to anything significant that I have done since I got out of bed. (Who is assigning significance? Me of course!)

Sometimes I think I am getting the hang of this 'being' thing. Then a deadline approaches. Like, for example, the departure date for a journey. Soon, I find myself compiling the inevitable 'things-I-must-do-before-we-leave' list. Redirect the mail. Weed the garden. Buy a new suitcase. Get my e-mail up to date. Clean my shoes. Re-charge the camera batteries …

It's not the list that is the problem. Nor even the utter glee with which I cross things off it. The problem is the feeling of vague dissatisfaction I get when a day goes by with nothing crossed off and nothing to show for having lived another twenty-four hours.

As long as I can remember, I have had days of pottering interspersed with days of prodigious output. I am like the hare in the hare and tortoise story who alternated between napping and sprinting. I can totally relate to the hare.

But of course he lost the race. The plodding tortoise is the hero of the story. Our industrial culture rewards the person who works at a steady pace, just like a machine, and has a full 'out' basket at the end of each day. That is what many of us learn to expect of ourselves, regardless of how well that pattern actually suits who we are.

Such an expectation, fully internalised by the time we reach adulthood and reinforced in the workplace, makes it difficult ever to recapture the pure, joyful present-centredness of early childhood. Instead, we become addicted to Getting Things Done and for many of us the addiction persists into the years of so-called 'retirement'. (Even into really old age. I have a 91-year-old relative who frequently chides herself for being 'lazy' and 'not doing anything').

Not that retirement means we should forego the pleasure of doing what we enjoy or of doing a whole lot of things we never had time for before. Being busy is fine. But we should never feel driven. Never, ever, ever.

I often write about the importance – and the pleasure – of living in the Now and substituting 'being' for 'doing'. But do I practise what I preach?

Well yes I do, sometimes. On my daily walks in the countryside, or on vacation, or just strolling around my garden simply observing and breathing instead of weeding or planting, I am often able to do what Richard Carlson calls 'slowing down to the speed of life'. It feels really good.

But the rest of the time? Hmm … not so much.

And by the way, have you noticed that even this post is couched in terms of achievement? I am trying to achieve a state of not being preoccupied with achievement. Arrgghh!! That's enough to drive even a Zen master to drink.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Of this place ...

The foxgloves are everywhere in the hedgerows now and the sweet scent of honeysuckle is in the air. I love June in the English countryside. Well as a matter of fact I love the other eleven months of the year in the English countryside also. But it is in the Spring and early summer that the scenery here is at its most beautiful. Especially down here in Devon where we have, as most people would agree, some of the most beautiful areas of countryside in all of Britain.

I cannot claim to be 'of' this village, since we have lived here only a little over eight years. But I certainly can claim to be 'of' Devon, since it is where I come from and my ancestors have lived in one part of of this county or another for the last however-many hundreds of years.

As a child, I assumed that all countryside, everywhere, was like this – green and lush, with woods and fields, moors and streams, pretty villages with thatched houses and hedgerows thick with wildflowers.

It is not, of course. As I found out when I was older. There are lots of beautiful places, but to me the Westcountry is extra special. So every time I leave, coming back is a homecoming for my heart.

Like salmon, who swim back up the river at spawning time to find that one, particular patch of pebbles that is special to them, many people have a tendency to form a special bond with a place. Not just a place they like or admire, but whatever place it is that they feel 'of'. For many – perhaps most – that is the place of their birth or their childhood. For others, it is a place they have found which for some unknown reason feels more like home than home ever was.

It may not be anything as specific as a village or a town or even a county or state. It may not even be a country – though it often is. But it is a certain feeling. The smell of the air, a certain sort of vegetation, the shape of the terrrain. The atmosphere. My partner, though he has the adaptability to live contentedly anywhere – and nowadays lives a full and contented life in England – has a special affinity with the Southwest of the USA. It doesn't matter much whether he is in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah or wherever. The place where he feels the most alive is the place of deserts and mountains, red rocks, dry air, the scent of sagebrush and piƱon pine, the big sky, the feeling … the indefinable something that he cannot even name. He is not 'of' the Southwest (he was born and raised in Indiana) and yet, somehow, he is. Maybe in a past life he was a cliff-dweller. That certainly feels right.

I love that area too. I also love the redwood forests of California, the chaparral, the misty, rocky coast of Maine, the mountains and olive groves of Italy, the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean, the whitewashed villages of the Spanish Alpujarra and the unspoiled southern coast of Crete. All these places are special to me. I love to go there, to drink them in, to revel in their beauty and enjoy their sights and sounds and smells and the taste of the local food.

But here, where the foxgloves bloom in early summer and honeysuckle twines in the hedgrows, where little streams run through small, wooded valleys to the pebbly shore of the ocean and a day of full sunshine is like a special blessing … this little piece of the funny, patchwork island called England is not only where I am 'from', it is also where I am 'of'.

If I didn't live here (and for many, many years I didn't) I would have to come here from time to time to take a sip from it. Just as the Italians, wherever they are in the world, feel the need to return to Italy once in a while per rinfrescare lo spirito – 'to refresh the spirit' – so do we all need to do that if we possibly can. Some can't, of course. And even though they accept their lot, somewhere deep inside, they pine for the place they are 'of'.

I would, too, I know. So today I give thanks for being alive, here, now, with the foxgloves blooming and the scent of honeysuckle in the air.