Commas from the Universe (aka: Forced Pauses)

Commas exist for a reason. They give us a way to separate ideas, or to list multiple items without miscommunication. They also tend to spark wild debates over the use of the Oxford Comma (the “gif” vs. “jif” argument of the literary world). But love commas or hate them, we can all agree that written language simply could not get along with them.

The thing about commas is, they allow us to pause. Take a beat. Which can be a real lifesaver, apparently.

I tend to be the opposite of lazy most of the time. Go go go, from before the sun rises to long after it sets. I have a full-time career. I’m a full-time mom to teens. I cook most of our family meals, and write novels and short stories in my spare time. I also workout nearly every day, and run at least 15-20 miles per week. A routine like this takes a lot of organization and a lot of energy. Which thankfully, I have. Most of the time.

But once in a while, the universe decides it’s tired of watching me run around in a blur, juggling my very active lifestyle. So what does it do? It inserts a comma in my life.

Pause.

Next thing you know, I’m stuck in bed with a cold. Any active person can tell you — we can’t stand getting sick. It keeps us from our runs and workouts and Very Important Business Meetings. Who has time for commas, when we are driven to GoGoGo?

Eventually, the pause ends, and I can get back to the business of busyness.

A couple of weeks ago, the universe inserted another pause into my life. I was out for one of my usual Saturday long runs. Since I’m not in training for anything right now, I was only planning to run for 8 miles along one of my favorite trails. I ran four miles out, and was on the run back when my knee began to complain. At first, it was just a twinge, so I continued pounding the pavement. But by five miles, the pain was excruciating. Youch! By six miles, I was walking. No, limping. So much for a good long run.

But as I limped along the trail, no longer in a hurry, I began to notice my surroundings. It was such a lovely, cold autumn day. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue, and a huge flock of hawks circled overhead, stalking their prey. The sun was just beginning to set, casting a deep golden glow on the river. Someone had stopped by this way, I saw, and stacked river stones into a tower. The leaves had finished their fiery show and had mostly taken their bows, drifting to the earth.

Rock tower

I met a stranger along the path, who was also walking, and helped her identify a weird fungus-looking plant (using iNaturalist — a great app for nature-lovers). By the time I returned to my car, I was no longer frustrated by being temporarily handicapped by a bum knee.

I slowed down for a few days, then tried to ease back into running. But this past weekend, the awful pain appeared again after running 6 miles. So it was back to walking, and observing, and listening to audiobooks instead of high-energy running music. Today, I feel great, and every inch of me is screaming to get out on the trail and run again soon, but I figure I’d better, well, pause, and go get that knee examined, before I aggravate the injury. Sometimes, it sucks to slow down. But just like you have to know when to throw in a comma to keep everything flowing well, you also have to know when to take a pause in some part of your life. Everything looks different when you slow down for a moment and look around. You may not be moving forward as quickly as you’d planned. But the views can be breathtaking.

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Hurry Up and Slow Down (aka: The Fast-Paced Life)

Speed is my superpower.

Speed is my superpower

I run fast. I read fast. Learn fast. Drive fast. Sometimes, it seems that I have lived all my life at a faster-than-normal pace. I rushed through school — graduated at sixteen, then had a bachelor’s degree by age twenty. Then zoom! I got married a year later. And zoom! Bought a home by age 23 and had a baby before the year the over. Swish!

Sometimes, fast can be good. I get my work done quickly, then have plenty of time to fill with things from my ginormous list of hobbies and things to do. I get taxes done the day I receive my W2 in the mail each January. I’m often among the first in line to snag the best camping spot reservations months in advance. When one of my kids tells me at the last second (as usual) that he needs to costume for his big speech tomorrow at school, or she needs a few dozen baked goodies for a bake sale the next morning, I can often whip something together in no time, right in between arriving home from the work and heading out to the gym for my daily workout. Zip! Zoom! Swish!

Fast train

But as useful as speed can be, it is not always a good thing. Sometimes, slower is better.

I run quickly, but also quickly run out of steam. So I’m learning to set a slower pace, and run for greater distances.

I read fast. But when I slow down, I find that I can truly savor a book, and suck the marrow out of every paragraph. The best stories stick with you longer that way.

I learn fast. But I’m more likely to retain that which I’ve studied slower, more in depth.

I drive fast. But driving slowly means enjoying the journey more, taking in the scenery, singing along with the radio. Also, driving fast once earned me a very expensive traffic ticket. Oopsie.

fast driving audi

Marrying fast led to a divorce 17 years later. Working fast sometimes leads to careless mistakes. Zipping though list after list of Way Too Many Things to Do leads to stress, fatigue, burnout. Like a bright meteor, shining bright as it flashes across the sky, but disintegrating in the atmosphere.

Living fast isn’t all bad. It can help us to stay on top of things, to keep our responsibilities from piling up, and to fill our short lives with as much life as possible. But we must also remember that, to live our best lives, we require balance. And balance means to learn when it’s better to ease up on the reins, sit back in our seats, and enjoy the moment. We only get this moment once. Why rush it?

Tortoise vs Hare

 

 

Slow Can Be Mmm Good (aka: Slow Food)

I like a lot of fast things. Running fast. Speeding fast down a deserted stretch of highway. Fast roller coasters (with fast-moving lines). Fast rock songs that leave you breathless after a fast impromptu dance session. The charge of adrenaline, the fast blood pumping through your veins – speed can be quite a rush.

But not always.

slow sunrise heart Sometimes, slow is much, much better than fast. Slow sunrises on a warm summer morning. Slow hikes through a mountain wilderness. And especially, slow food. No, I don’t mean crippled prey that hobbles away as you aim your hunting rifle. I mean sloooow food, as in the opposite of fast food. As in, the slow food movement, which, in case you don’t know, is an entire thing.

There’s some political stuff, too, but to keep it simple, the slow food movement is about three things:

  • Avoiding fast food and processed foods with long lists of ingredients
  • Buying whole foods, then cooking and eating them
  • Making efforts to buy organic, sustainably grown foods from local growers, and even growing your own

There are so many good reasons to avoid fast food, that I could write an entire blog about it. Or, I can point you toward eye-opening books, such as Fast Food Nation or Food, Inc. I try to very rarely eat fast food. Yes, it can be very challenging in today’s fast-paced culture to make meals a slow-paced affair. Believe me – as a single mom of three kids who just happens to be a college student with a job, I get the whole time-crunch defense. Still, I try to find ways to cook healthy meals from scratch for my family on a regular basis. With a little effort, advanced planning, and some help from the kids, I manage to produce homemade soups and stews, veggie-loaded quiches, and pots of thick, spicy chili. We plant a small, organic garden plot each spring, and by summer, enjoy a harvest of juicy cucumbers, crisp green beans, and plump, colorful tomatoes.

more good slow food

Do we ever take shortcuts? Sure! Schedules can get pretty hectic some days, and there is just no time to wait for a casserole to bake. During times like these, we try to turn toward not-so-fast foods – foods that cook quickly, but are still minimally processed, like grilled cheese sandwiches, veggie omelettes, or homemade bean burritos. Foods like these are nutritious and packed with flavor, and can often be prepared faster than a trip to a drive-thru window.

veggies are the best

There’s one more component of the slow food movement which really appeals to me. It is about slowing down and savoring food. Sitting with family and engaging in conversation while eating meals (something I need to work on). Taking a moment out of our busy lives to enjoy the flavors of good, well-prepared foods, and taking comfort in knowing exactly where they came from and how they were produced. There are plenty of moments in our lives when faster is better. Food, however, is much better in the slow lane.

Wine, food and great friends

 

 

Viva la Vida Virtual (aka: Be There)

Our Wi-Fi stopped working yesterday for like, five whole minutes. In our house, that constitutes an emergency. “Fix it, Mo-oooom!” groaned my kids, who are convinced that I can now fix anything computer and network-related. “I was in the middle of a video game/homework research/Skyping with friends!”

tech addict kidsI’m pretty sure my household isn’t the only one like this. It’s a fact of life; we now live in a society that is oversaturated with tech. Wearable tech, smartphone tech, computer tech — it’s everywhere. And thanks to the IoT (Internet of Things), all of our millions and billions of tech devices can even connect to the internet and communicate with each other.

Ten years ago, when the internet had made the leap from a cool new trend to an everybody-has-to-have-it necessity, we all marveled and said, “We are more connected than we ever have been before.” Which was true. Only now, we are more connected than ever to the 100th power.

Or are we?

looking at cell phone

What does it mean to be “connected?” Is it really about the invisible streams of data — the googols of imperceptible bits flowing through the air, linking one computer to the next? Is connection the ability to trade emoji smiles and offer virtual {{{hugs}}} when someone is struggling? Are we more connected because of the speed with which we can post a pretty photo or meaningful quote, then click like on that of another fellow human being? It is amazing, isn’t it? We are now so connected, that we can share every bit of our lives without ever being in the same room. We can be there without being there.

And we forget.

staring at computer screen

We become so absorbed in our virtual worlds, that we lose sight of what it means to live a full and rich life. We’ve created a new kind of normal, in which we stare at silent photos of nature scenes and drool over plates of well-presented exotic foods. We huddle in groups, hunched over our phones, each chuckling at some private joke which doesn’t exist beyond the screen. We forget how he throws back his head as he laughs, eyes catching the light. We stop noticing the light and airy way she walks, as though dancing on tiptoe. The tiny details of the real world are faded, like an Instagram photo with a vintage filter.

We forget what it means to be there.

There, in the moment. When the dark clouds peel away, revealing a fiery red sunset. And the air smells so damp and rich with fresh rain that you breathe it in. And not for a moment do you think, “I must take a photo of this gorgeous sunset to post on Facebook!” Because you are too busy being there. Tasting that spicy shrimp, drizzled with garlic butter. Holding her hand as you stroll through the city, paying attention to the lines and curves that form each building. Listening to your daughter as she tells a funny story about what happened at school that day. Leaning forward, drinking in the details about the people who surround you. The fragrant smell of soap, mingled with minty toothpaste. The scuffed shoes, worn hands.

real connection puzzle piecesThe good parts of life that stoke your senses and settle in your memories don’t translate well across a fiber optic underground cable. They don’t always appear on screen. Ten years from now, you won’t remember the goofy cat video your brother-in-law’s cousin shared on your Facebook wall. Your text conversations and virtual adventures will be forgotten as quickly as PDAs. The things that will matter then are all around you now — live, and in 3D. Imagine! You can travel to countless new locations anywhere in the world. You can get up close and have face-to-face conversations with real, live people. You can be there. You can connect with the world at real-time speed, with no lags. What’s more, you won’t even need Wi-Fi.

real people talking over coffee

Have a Wonderful Day (aka: Paying Forward Happiness)

wonderful day“You have a wonderful day today.”

Startled, I glanced up from my Kindle book and into the face of a fellow train passenger. “Thank you,” I said, smiling. “You too.”

The stranger flashed a friendly grin and exited the train. I felt dazed, too distracted to read my book, the unexpected and kind words echoing in my mind. You have a wonderful day today. He could have aimed those words toward any other stranger on the train, but he’d singled out me, handing me the verbal equivalent of a hand-picked daisy.

Funny how such a small gesture can change your morning. Instead of drifting to work in my usual fog of random thoughts, noticing little of the world around me, I snapped to attention. The same old scenery came to life — skyscraper windows dazzled with sunlight while strange and lovely shadows played on nearby walls. And all around me were people — ordinary people, like me, clutching their coffees and cell phones and satchels while shuffling down the sidewalks. People who may have been stuck in the same fog of thoughts that normally accompanied me on a typical morning.

What if I paid it forward?

What if I took the burst of joy that had come from a stranger’s simple words and offered the same to the next person I saw? Could I do it? Could I dare to break out of my eggshell of timidity and brighten the morning routine for another person?

Fighting back the butterflies, I studied the people who passed me on the sidewalk. One looked away. One was chatting on her phone. One marched forward, eyes trained ahead like the eye of a bullet train. My courage faltered. Maybe the timing was wrong. Maybe this wasn’t my thing. Maybe I had to find my own way to brighten another person’s day. Perhaps I could just try smiling at other people as they stepped onto the elevator. I could bring in fresh produce from my flourishing garden to share with other employees. I could be the first person to say, “Good morning,” instead of passively mumbling in response. kindness daisy giving

The point, I think, is to be mindful. The point is to keep from drifting into my fantasyland reverie and stay in the moment a little more often. Only then will I see people as they drift through the fog, and be able to offer them rays of sunshine at just the right time. Just as a kind stranger did for me on an otherwise ordinary morning.

For anyone out there who happens to be reading these words, I hope that you will have a wonderful day today.