Discovering a personal version of slow practice

Issue 2021, vol. 75

*Invited submission to a special issue of Mennonite Life, “Scribing Slowness: An Ode to Slow Living During Fast Times”

The smoke curls up from the tip of my pyrography pen as it meets the small piece of pine. The smell reminds me of a campfire — strong and comforting.

Wood burning is an art form I was introduced to by my grandfather, and it’s been an on-again, off-again hobby over the last three years. Motivation is tough to come by, and I used to struggle to find time to sit down and work on a piece. But when the world shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic, I tried to pick up the pen again and get back into the hobby, somewhat unsuccessfully. Part of the problem, I think, was that I had too much free time on my hands (a problem I would have loved to have had in college). It was overwhelming to be stuck at home, with loads of free time and few commitments, and with plenty of time to start a new hobby or restart an old one. Other people seemed to have no trouble finding ways to fill their time; my mother started knitting, friends posted pictures of their baking successes and social media was full of people sharing their artistic talents. So why was I struggling?

“Slow living” is a concept I was unfamiliar with prior to COVID. I have always liked to have something to do or someone to be with, and downtime was essentially a boring time. And then the world shut down. I discovered things about myself that I had never known. For example: Working from home is nice; I have way too many unread books on my shelves; Living in the same three rooms gets really, really mundane. There were things I enjoyed about the sudden increase in free time, but what took me by surprise was how bored I was. I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted, but nothing seemed to pique my interest. I felt guilty towards the beginning of the shutdown that I wasn’t doing anything “productive,” like getting in shape or picking up a new skill like sourdough-making. And now, as vaccines are rolling out and business is returning to normal (for better or worse), I’m still feeling guilty that I “wasted” my pandemic-induced free time by not doing something creative or productive.

I’m conflicted about the idea of slow living. Part of me believes that taking time to stop and smell the roses is a great thing. Too often, I think, people fail to appreciate the little things in life and are always rushing from one thing to another. And who wouldn’t like to be a little more intentional about their mental, physical and spiritual health? Yet I really, really struggle to put down my phone or walk away from a project to focus on slowing down. Perhaps I’m bad at slow living. Perhaps I haven’t actually given it a fair shake. Slow life does not come naturally to me, but does that mean it is not for me at all?

Reflecting on where I would want to incorporate slow practice into my life, I’m drawn to my time at church camp. Our church’s high school camp was held up in the Rocky Mountains, and as part of our daily schedule, we would have time to ourselves to reflect on the morning session, the Bible verse for the day or other things that may have come to mind as inspired by the cool mountain air. This may have actually been my first exposure to slow practice, though I would not have called it that at the time. It is the first time I can think of that I sat down with the intention of clearing my mind of busy thoughts and focusing on slowing down. Whether it was the beautiful scenery, the spirituality of the camp experience, or something else entirely, those few minutes of each camp day were special.

Now, hundreds of miles away from the Rockies, I think I want to get back to that feeling. If I were to become more intentional about incorporating slow living or slow practice into my daily routine, I would start with sitting or simply existing for five minutes out in nature. Though I grew up Mennonite Brethren, it wasn’t until I attended Bethel College that I really understood the Anabaptist concept of being a steward of nature. Since then, I have learned that, even as we take care of nature, nature can give something back to us.

Now, as an employee at Bethel, I sometimes have the opportunity to walk across campus and see the trees flowering. This has been especially true during the past few months. I can hike the trail after work and hear Sand Creek burbling alongside the mulch path. I can wander across the street and appreciate the prairie restoration at Kauffman Museum and watch the squirrels run from tree to tree on campus. I’m not entirely sure if these breaks from regular life count as slow living, because I am not intentionally focused on the slowness of mind and body. I am not scheduling time to go outside and think. I do not seek out these opportunities. Instead, I just enjoy them as they come. If that’s slow living, I’ll take it when and where I am able. And maybe, after enough practice of living slowly, I can pick up the wood burning pen again and give free time another try.