World Enough and Time

Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.

                                                         Theodore Roethke

A few days ago I heard Christian McEwen speak about her new book, World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. She is the sort of woman who exudes serenity. On in years, she has close cropped, thick gray hair yet a face without wrinkles.  She read us an early passage in the book, describing a childhood in which she and her rambunctious siblings made up games to play together in their large old house. I am susceptible to accounts of growing up in rural Scotland, Ireland, and England, so I was immediately taken in. But I have to-do lists that never end, and have never, ever in my life been caught up, so her notion of slowing down both intrigued and horrified me.

After all, cramming as much as possible into each day ensures a full life, doesn’t it? Not according to McEwen: “The human mind is fed and nourished by every sight and smell and sound that we encounter, from the movement of the clouds to the shrill of the birds outside our morning window.” She wants us to slow down enough to notice.

She writes of “hurry sickness” telling us that it “speeds up our hearts and breathing rates.” Instead, she wants us to go for early morning walks like the poet Mary Oliver, to schedule our children less and encourage them to play outdoors, to look at the little things, and savor. McEwen is a poet and a teacher. She began this book as a message to her writing students who she found wanted to do everything as fast as possible. She believes that all creativity is enhanced and nurtured when we slow down, if only a little, and wanted to impart that wisdom to her hurried students.

We all know she is right. She points out that we complain about how busy we are, but perversely take pride in our overwork and busyness. We look askance as people who are not over scheduled.

After I have been at my wheel for ten or fifteen minutes, I begin to feel calm, to focus. I cherish the mornings my granddaughters and I stop whatever we are doing, and together watch the eastern sky over the pastures turn pink as the sun rises. McEwen suggests these moments foster our creativity, and that more such moments in our daily lives would enable us to be more creative. Yes, time spent on nonproductive activities is actually productive.

The book is full of stories and anecdotes as well as McEwen’s deep thinking on the matter of time. She draws on the insights of writers, artists, dancers, philosophers and spiritual leaders. World Enough and Time can be read straight through, or picked up and read a chapter here, a chapter there. I like that. And, collector of quotes myself, I love all the quotations she has gathered and shared.

Here from Lao-tzu in the Tao Te Ching

We join spokes together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole

that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that holds whatever we want.

We work with being,

but non-being is what we use.

McEwen wrote World Enough & Time for poets but it speaks to potters too.

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