For just about all my life, I’ve walked along at three miles per hour. I know this because I used to time myself. Sometimes, I also used to count steps (for years 95 per minute, 10,000 per day).
Now, however, approaching the age of 80, I’m finding that my walking speed has fallen to just over two miles per hour and I’ve stopped counting steps.
And that’s just the tip of a lumbering iceberg. It takes me longer these days to do my exercises before breakfast, eat my breakfast, go through my emails, write a blog. Because I’m always looking for my keys, it takes me longer to get in the car. On the highway, every other car seems to whiz past. On the sidewalk, almost everyone walks around me. At the grocery store, people all seem to be in a hurry, and back home, on television, personalities seem to be talking like machine guns. My grandchildren leave me far behind when we’re outdoors, and indoors, they race through board games far too complicated for me to understand.
And you know what? I’m enjoying it all.
I think I began to slow down after my heart by-pass surgery two and a half years ago. Not immediately afterwards, because in the months that followed, I kept notes on my walking speed, heart rate, and blood pressure, trying to get back to what I once could do. No, it was when I’d reached all my old benchmarks that I realized I didn’t want to work so hard. I’d been given my life back. It was time to pay more attention to the time I had left.
After years of starting each day with 20-30 minutes of sit-ups, push-ups, leg lifts, and back raises, I started another program based on posture and balance. Part exercise, part meditation, part philosophy, the teachings run counter to everything I ever learned about exercise: less is better than more, nothing should ever hurt, slow is better than fast. Instead of hearing the voice of my eighth-grade coach roaring in my ear: “Come on, Wile, move it, do more!” I hear my teacher whisper, “You’re trying too hard. Relax…” One reason it’s taking me longer to exercise these days is that one movement from my back to my side can take five minutes. But all the time, I’m becoming more and more aware of how everything everywhere in my body connects, and I’m learning how to relate bones and muscles in ways I never knew I could, in part because I’m finding parts of my body I never knew existed (the 7 bones of my cervical spine, for example). Becoming more aware of these connections and relationships makes me more aware of how the universe coheres, everything from the galaxies wheeling around the heavens to the roots of the trees in the wooded land trust behind my house to the quarks and leptons wheeling around in both my body and my grandchildren’s.
Speaking of the land trust behind my house, until recently, the distances I walked along the trails were determined by how much time I had and how far I figured I could go in that time. Now, I just head into the woods. Strolling down the path to a pond created by the run-off water directed through all the various drainage systems in our housing complex, I often see a blue heron fishing in the weeds. Walking slowly, quietly, I’m able to observe it—the stately posture, the focus, the grace—without frightening the bird into flight the way I used to. Time seems to stop.
After the pond, I enter the woods. This time of year, I notice the autumn sunlight slanting through the trees, highlighting the yellowing bracken in ways that always make me think of the British Isles. I stop for a bit, smelling the piquant aroma of the fallen leaves and decaying trees strewn around me. That’s when I start noticing all the mushrooms: red, white, black, brown, pie-shaped, trumpet shaped, button shaped, smooth, bumpy, crinkly…
I don’t know my mushrooms, certainly wouldn’t try eating any, but that doesn’t stop me from poking along, taking pictures, dropping to my knees (not a real problem; it’s getting up that’s hell) to inspect more closely.
When I get home, I realize it’s taken me as long to walk one of the shorter loops in the woods as it used to take to walk a longer one. I also know I’m happier than if I’d walked the longer one, eyes straight ahead, counting steps, pushing myself and ignoring the life around me.
That I’m also slowing down these days in my ability to remark or respond to others may not be such a bad thing either. The one thing I used to be able to do was come up with the fast retort or comeback—many I regretted as soon as they came out of my mouth. As a teacher, I had no trouble talking for an entire class period, often after the bell had rung and the kids were headed toward the door. These days, I’m finally learning how to listen, and to wait (which, by the way, is a 12-step acronym for “Why Am I Talking?”) before speaking at the various meetings I attend.
And, you know, folks, it’s amazing how much wisdom I can hear when I’m not talking or thinking about what I’m going to say next.
I used to love the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go Gentle into that good Night,” in which the poet uses nighttime as a metaphor for death, and anguishes over his father’s acceptance of it, urging his father to “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” Yes, I used to think, this is how I want to die: skydiving from an airplane or climbing a mountain, pushing myself right up until the end.
Now, however, I think that when the time comes, I want to stop and look at that dying light. If it’s anything like the waning light in October, it will be beautiful.