My son Dan used to look at me with a cute grin on his face and say “Mom, slow down, Turbo!” It became a little private joke, and all I had to do was give him the side eye and we would both laugh. But these days, in retrospect, I am realizing it wasn’t a joke at all.
I have always been too speedy. When I lived in California in the ’60s, I got stopped for speeding way too many times. Since I wasn’t enough of a feminist yet, instead of taking my medicine and changing my driving ways, I would bat my eyelashes at the officer, receive a warning, and think, Whew, I beat that one. (This would never happen now!)
I wasn’t just impatient in the car. I had a bad habit of not appropriately ending a phone conversation. When I was finished, which was often premature for the person calling, I would just say, I’m hanging, and simply hang up. My sister finally said, “You can’t abruptly say, ‘I’m hanging,’ and then hang up. It’s rude. And you do it to everyone. We need a heads-up. Like how about, “I have to go now,” or, “I loved talking to you but I’m in the middle of …” or just, “This has been great, but I need to get off the phone.”
I took clothes out of the dryer too soon, and I ate standing up at the stove because I couldn’t wait for the thing to finish cooking. I ate fast to the point of getting indigestion. Patience wasn’t a virtue in my consciousness. It was a thorn in my side (which, of course, I removed at mach velocity).
In the seventies I went to a 10-day silent meditation retreat, hoping that would slow me down. And it actually did, but it took five of the 10 days before I could sit on that pillow and surrender to the fact that I wasn’t going anywhere.
I continued to meditate when I got home, but I rushed through those daily sittings too. Not physically, but instead of breathing in and releasing slowly out, I would plan a dinner party menu, start choosing the guest list and make crucial decisions, like pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano.
But my worst trait, and the real reason I want to slow down, is that I have always finished people’s sentences. The result is that I end up not knowing what it was that they were actually going to say, ensuring that I reinforce my own opinions, my own thoughts. And it’s just beginning to occur to me that I don’t want to hang out with only versions of myself.
Dan died in 2010, and from the other side or wherever he is (maybe in my imagination), he seems to still be trying to get me to slow down. I hear him when I’m about to end a phone conversation. I hear him when I’m eating. I hear him when someone wants to enter traffic and I need to wave them in instead of rushing forward to make the light three seconds before the other guy. I hear him saying, Instead of anticipating and filling in two-way conversations, try listening.
Over the years I went to three more 10-day silent retreats, and each time I made tiny, incremental steps toward actually slowing down.
But with all the work that I have been doing, I have still been living in the fast lane.
Until last week.
When something monumental happened.
A friend who knows I walk alone in the woods told me to get the Cornell Merlin bird app which I promptly did.
And better than any 10-day silent meditation retreat, better than having a neon flashing sign saying “Slow Down Turbo” (which was going to be my next step), better than my sister yelling at me instructions on how to end a conversation gracefully, the birds have become the Answer.
What the app does is identify the birds by their song. You hold up your phone and wait. It turns out birds have conversations. When one bird speaks, the other one doesn’t jump in right away with a snappy answer. Or finish the other bird’s sentence. She waits. She digests the meaning. She thinks. She rolls it around in her head. And then she sings back. Meanwhile, do you realize how long these birds’ pauses are? I have to stop walking, keep the phone still and facing the sound. And wait. And wait. And, oh my God, wait.
And then the most amazing thing happens. On my little tiny screen, a perfect picture of a bird, orange and brown with little white flecks, then the caption “Eastern Towhee.” And then all of a sudden another voice is heard from. And the words “Black-Capped Chickadee” and another picture appears, and then “Gray Catbird,” and I’m almost crying with some kind of otherworldly ecstasy.
How is it that I have spent 20 minutes not moving, just listening? And not caring that I’m planted in one spot, or being tempted to move?
Can it be that with just a simple app and being forced to WAIT, that birds become my teachers? This waiting game is harder than sitting on a little pillow deciding between tuna tartare with that sesame oil marinade or the candied ginger and pine nuts thing.
But it works! It works! It’s working.
Next, let’s see if I can let you finish your thought … before I hang up on you.