Twenty years ago, I was teaching writing at an adult education institute in London. Some of my students were young mothers, relieved to find themselves in adult company again after the unremitting demands of small children; some were middle-aged, with modest private incomes; the rest were older people, recently retired.
There was a man in this last group whom I'll call George. He was a creaky, lanky, doubtful sort of fellow. I don't remember his real name. But I do remember his response to one of my assignments: It was the sort of lesson - at least for me as a teacher - that I hope I will never forget.
I had asked the class to take some ordinary task - washing the dishes, dusting the bedroom, tidying up the children's toys - and tackle it at less than half the usual speed. "Look at the bubbles on the knife-blade as you rinse it," I told them. "Feel the hot water on your hands. Notice how the china gleams once you have dusted it. Enjoy that moment when the room is clean, and every single toy is put away."
The point behind all this, of course, was slowing down; slowing down enough to be there in the present moment, enough so we could notice and describe.
A couple of mornings later, everyone gathered around the long oval table to report on their experiments with slowness.
George was one of the first to speak. He had a part-time job, he said, even though he had officially retired. It was a job he'd been doing for a great many years. He always walked home along the same few streets, taking the shortest possible route. But the previous afternoon, fulfilling the assignment, he had walked home a different way. His face creased with pleasure as he described what he had seen: the pink geraniums in someone's window box, the unfamiliar houses. It had taken him maybe half an hour longer than usual, but he had enjoyed every minute. For the first time in 30 or 40 years, his journey had seemed fresh to him, and new.
It sounds so simple - almost too simple to be worth saying. But taking the time to slow down in this way can be a tremendous source of joy. It gives you time to listen, to pay attention. And that in turn allows you to take in whatever surrounds you in the outer world: to be engaged and nourished by it.
Just as important, slowing down frees you to listen inwards: to muse, to remember, to imagine, to dream. It gives you time to mull over a book you've been reading, or to sort out your jangled reactions to a difficult conversation.
"We take for granted the appeal of velocity," wrote Simon Schama in The New Yorker recently, "that there is money to be made and pleasure to be had from the gratification of the instantaneous: the three-gulp Happy Meal, the lightning download, the vital cellphone message that I am here and you are there? And where has this culture of haste got us?" Where indeed?
We live in a culture that is obsessed with speed. Here in the United States, where people work longer hours than any other population on the planet, the average person now does the equivalent of a month more work in a year than in the 1970s. The strain on working mothers is acute: Their workload has risen 165 percent in the past 25 years. But not even children are immune. A recent study by the University of Michigan determined that kids' free time in the US had decreased by 16 percent in a single generation. Between 1981 and 1997, children's free time went down from 63 hours a week to a mere 51. That's 11 hours a week, almost two hours a day, not spent messing about in the garden or the local park, not spent dreaming or staring out the window.
In 1932, British philosopher Bertrand Russell called for a four-hour workday. "I want to say," he wrote, "in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and the road to happiness and prosperity lies in [its] organized diminution."
But despite growing rumbles of dissatisfaction, the calls for flexible schedules, four-day workweeks, maternity and paternity leaves, longer vacations, and more frequent sabbaticals, the strain and pressure continue to grow. New technologies, which seemed at first to offer some promise of relief, seem to have exacerbated the problem. A recent article in Utne Reader made this painfully clear. "Cellphones, e-mail, and laptop computers instill expectation of instantaneous action ... It's almost impossible to put duties behind you now, when the boss or committee chair can call you at a rap show or sushi restaurant, and documents can be mailed to you in Banff or Thailand. If you are never out of the loop, then are you never not working?"
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" - and Jill a dull girl, for that matter. Aristotle himself said, "Nature requires us not only to be able to work well but also to idle well." Whatever the satisfactions of ambition and efficiency, the hunger for idleness remains. Slowing down for poetry, slowing down to notice and observe, may be one of the most valuable things we can do.