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A letter about pace (for all of us weary travellers)
This week I find myself thinking about pace.
One year ago, last March, my little family and I started packing for a cross-country move – from a small town in northern Ontario to an island in the Pacific Ocean off Canada’s west coast.
We arrived here at summer’s end.
Last week, we finally bought a home in our new location (!!!).
In between, we’ve been living out of boxes, staying in a long-term Airbnb.
For a homebody such as myself, the liminal months have not been ideal. I’ve longed for the comfort of my own bed. My own dresser. My own coffee mugs. The knickknacks I keep in my work space. My books. My books. My books.
At times this process has been exhilarating, but I’ll be frank with you:
Mostly, it’s been tiring.
I’ve never felt less resilient in my life.
In the last couple months especially, I’ve felt my body demand a profound slowing down. A recent blood test revealed that I’ve blown out my adrenal glands; the area of the body that’s quite literally responsible for stress resilience.
This comes not just as the result of a long year of moving, or even as the result of the two stressful years before that. Really it’s the cherry on top of decades spent racing ahead.
For most of my life I’ve been very goal-oriented, pushing myself from one thing to the next to the next. As I near a finish line, I create another off in the distance and keep running.
You’d think that this rapid pace of forward momentum would result from a love of speed. But nope! It’s terribly uncomfortable for me.
In my natural habitat, left to my own devices, I am a slow mover. I’m more of a snail than a goddamn cheetah.
As it happens, recently (and I don’t think coincidentally), I’ve started to feel a tender-hearted affinity for snails. I’ve never really paid them much attention, but about 6 months ago, I started seeing them pop up in unexpected places. Not just real living snails (though those too) but also cute little illustrations and stickers and figurines at the thrift store.
At first, I assumed that my snail sightings were simply a straight-forward sign to “take it slow” for a while. But this weekend I realized that the meaning ran deeper.
As I combed through Katherine May’s “Stray Attention”, I was drawn to an article about snail species in Hawaii. As it turns out, although snails are slow movers, they are also brave little travellers, capable of weeks-long sea journeys and even mischievous romps stowed away on the wings of migratory birds. (one study found that 11.4% of birds had an average of 3 snails in their feathers!!)
To understand how snails wound up on, and then proliferated within the Hawaiian islands scientists have to look at the issue from a “deep time” perspective. Deep time takes a BIG step back to look at change across billions of years; the ways in which small moves made slowly and consistently can create a massive impact.
Deep time operates at a pace so slow that our feeble human brains have trouble computing it. And yet, deep time is the pace that has invisibly governed our destiny since the beginning of our planet.
When it comes to the Hawaiian snails specifically, the roughly 750 species that have inhabited the islands are the result of one single snail successfully arriving every hundred thousand years or so (!!!).
The best part is, these snails accomplished their lengthy journeys completely passively.
At no point did the snails have to increase their natural pace to change the course of history. They simply (and almost imperceptibly slowly) slimed ahead, either onto a log that floated for weeks in the Pacific Ocean, or onto the feathers of a nearby bird who decided to spontaneously take flight to a far off and unknown destination.
In the article, it was this sentence in particular that brought tears to my eyes:
“Rather than being any kind of deficiency, the highly successful passivity of snails might be seen as a remarkable evolutionary achievement.”
In the months since I first felt my body long for the comfort of my natural slow pace, my brain has been in full resistance mode. Internally, I’ve called myself lazy. I’ve wondered if it’s self-sabotage (stopping myself short of success by “giving up” on pushing ahead). I’ve worried that slowing down might allow the faceless others with whom I’ve been subconsciously competing to “win” in my absence. I’ve grieved the possibility of “missing out” on the spoils of my hard work.
But what I now wonder is this:
If I’ve accomplished this much while pushing myself to operate at a pace much faster than my factory settings allow, what might be able to come through – to be born – if I let go for a minute, stopped pushing, and just existed for a while?
Might I slowly and surreptitiously slime my way onto the wings of a new, unplanned, and yet decidedly historic adventure?
We are all programmed with a natural pace when we arrive here, I think. There are slight alterations at different sprints of the journey, but to maintain our ideal health we must always return to our baseline. For some it’s full speed ahead. For others it’s more of a meandering lilt.
If you’re like me – a snail amidst racing cheetahs – perhaps railing against what you perceive to be a temporary and problematic lack of ambition or motivation, remember this:
Goals come in all shapes and sizes.
Peace can be a goal. Rest can be a goal. Comfort can be a goal. Presence can be a goal.
As the snails have shown us: Moving slowly doesn’t mean you’re not going places.
What is your natural pace? Have you been pushing ahead of it? Falling behind it? Or – rebelliously – allowing yourself the freedom to walk this journey exactly as your heart tells you?
Sending so, so much love to you.
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