I’ve never been a big fan of large power boats, even when I lived on a resort island and was surrounded by them all summer. Instead, my dream was always to own a smallish sailboat. There were two sail regattas in the lake every July and August. What’s unique about a sailboat race? The vessels don’t move any faster once they cross the starting line (old island joke). Twenty-odd years ago, my husband and I were in Antigua, and we signed up for a day’s outing on a commercial-sized catamaran, hosting about 25 eager visitors. We had to motor out to the scenic area where lunch was served on the boat, but there was enough wind to come back under sail, and it was glorious! The company’s motto: “Sail fast, live slow,” (“fast” under sail being a relative term). And that’s life in much of the Caribbean. Not to say that the inhabitants don’t work hard, because they absolutely do, but the pace is leisurely. It was the same at the resort where I lived; we used to say that events moved according to “island adjusted time.” The tourists may have kept to a schedule, but for the islanders, timeframes during their off hours were flexible. A party that officially began at 4:00 PM might see new arrivals at midnight.
In a world in which speed has become an essential quality, one might think that people would slow down when they had the opportunity. Unfortunately, we know that’s not the norm. In the past decade-and-a-half or so, reams of print and megabytes of digital space have been given over to the concept of mindfulness. That is, the advantages of living in the moment, concentrating on sensations, discoveries, and experiences as they happen, without tying them to either outside references or future actions. Practicing mindfulness seems to slow the passage of time, and it certainly adds to feelings of calmness and fulfillment. It provides for small snatches of pure happiness. Enjoying a superb meal without thinking of what’s next or what’s on tap for tomorrow is a joy we all too rarely allow ourselves.
Needless to say, our obsession with being wired in 24/7 is the antithesis of mindfulness. Connectivity must be universal and instantaneous. If we have to wait five seconds to reach a website, we’re frustrated. We hear the sound from our phones that means we have a message or update, and we feel compelled to drop whatever we’re doing to check. Given the shelf life of data, that message might survive ‘til the end of the world —or at least, until e-devices are gone —but that doesn’t matter in our rush to find out what the ping was about. Technology steals our time, and definitely steals our leisure. The hype about efficiency and working faster….fantasy. E-mails have to be answered NOW, especially when job related. The average office worker is barraged with non-stop messages all day; quite often, the traffic spills over into evening and weekend hours. The name of the game is speed, and performance is frequently judged according to response time. It’s a hellish cycle for hundreds of thousands of workers. The pressure level is off the charts. A corollary of the breakneck pace is snap judgments that often can’t take every essential factor into account, and all manner of endeavors suffer as a result. As with communications, the sense of ceaseless hurry inevitably bleeds over into our non-work lives. Go faster, spend less time on whatever it is, get it done, and on to the next thing, whether it’s on the to-do list or the TV watch list.
The U.S. culture is in the minority with its glorification of haste. We know our counterparts in Europe, for example, take long lunch hours and enjoy weeks of vacation each year. Conversely, not taking vacation days is so common here, some companies are making vacations mandatory. Staff don’t even want to take a break for the sake of time off. Some businesses are even shutting down their internal networks at the close of each business day, in the realization that the continual exchange of packets of data does not increase productivity; neither is it healthy for employees. Perhaps at last, at least in some areas, “speed” is being sacrificed for sanity.
Meanwhile, speed continues to be worshipped when it comes to sports and spare time activities, cars and boats being the obvious examples. Boats weren’t enough, though, so jet skis came along. I can imagine it’s exhilarating to zoom through the water on a personal watercraft, but after the second or third pass down the center of a lake, wouldn’t the thrill start to pall? I was invited onto a cigarette boat with a few other friends late one night, and yes, we probably did hit 60 miles per hour in under a minute from launch, but after a few more minutes, it was a “so, what?” experience. The adventure was exceedingly brief. And uncomfortable, actually, as the boat slammed into waves. I recently saw a YouTube video (how I happened upon it, I don’t know, as I don’t look for that kind of thing) entitled, “Kayak vs. Jet Ski.” A reedy, milquetoast type of guy paddled a handmade bamboo kayak, munching on organic trail mix and talking to the fish in friendly tones. The scene switched to a very beefy, hairy, sweaty man with a sleeveless shirt and baseball cap on backward, swilling beer, crushing the cans, and throwing them into the water from the jet ski he was riding. Naturally, he was yelling and pumping his fist. He tore across in front of the kayak and almost swamped it. He did stop and turn around, at which point he laughed at the kayak and the hapless paddler. The kayaker was most polite, but did mention that it wasn’t pleasant to be soaked and almost run over. The big guy told the kayaker that he should find out how much fun jet skis are, and for a few minutes, the kayaker held out. The final scene showed both men on the jet ski, “Hoo-rah!”-ing at the tops of their voices, beer cans in their hands. I was mightily disappointed; I’d hoped for the opposite outcome, although the nerd on the jet ski was admittedly pretty funny. Given our appetites, though, could it have gone any other way?
I have yet to get the sailboat. My husband and I are making do with much more affordable kayaks, and we go slowly. Our top speed isn’t much faster than a run-walk pace, depending on wind conditions. But we don’t miss much. We see turtles on logs, herons standing in the shallows, schools of minnows, frogs jumping into the water, flocks of geese resting on the shore. We can see into the woods and make close-up observations of fallen trees and boulders that have dropped off riverbanks, get ideas about local patterns — the water seems to be lower than usual here or high there. There’s no need to avoid gardens of water lilies, and we leave everything we see undisturbed, instead of roiled up and shredded by whirling propeller blades. Not to mention, kayaks are quiet: we don’t scare the wildlife. It’s our way of taking a break from the hectic pace and engaging in mindfulness. Pausing long enough to breathe allows for contemplation of things greater than ourselves. The utter serenity of a small, tranquil lake just before full dark….the peace is indescribable. Simon and Garfunkel had the right idea: “Slow down/You move too fast/You got to make the morning last….” Would that we could do it more often.