Slow Time, Fast Time
Category: Adapting in Place • slow time
Posted on: October 26, 2010 8:46 AM, by Sharon Astyk
One of the tensions in my life -is that between two kinds of time. “Fast Time” is the world I live in, the one with a two hour meeting scheduled at 7pm, my husband’s classes at 12:35, Eli’s bus at 8:15 and 3:30… payments due by the first of the month, etc… It is the world run on clocks and calendars, where expectations can be fixed and formalized. All of us live in fast time in some measure, some of us almost completely, others only barely. There is, however, no good way of escaping it entirely.
I also live in slow time. Slow time is the world of things that cannot be subject to fast time – things that take their own time, that you cannot schedule, that get done when they are ready. This is the time in which the wheat is ready to harvest, in which babies are birthed, in which winter sets in for real, in which children learn to walk or read or ride a bicycle, in which the plums ripen, in the ill recover strength, in which bread rises, in which change happens. These are things that occur, as the saying goes, “in their own sweet time.” They cannot be hurried – and that is part of the problem, since we often are in a hurry, tied as we are to fast time.
The two are connected, of course, and often in conflict. How often do we need to go back to work in fast time before we are recovered from our illness? How often do we need to be somewhere at the same time the plums are ripe and ready for harvest? How often do we pass the child who had not mastered a skill set ahead, because fast time defines the school year, and there isn’t time enough to wait for him to read or learn algebra completely. How often do we schedule the c-section for the day that’s convenient, harvest the corn early and then pay extra to dry it with fossil fuels?
It doesn’t work only this way – sometimes things that belong to the territory of fast time take their own sweet time – the project at work that turned out to be more involved than you thought, and won’t be done until it is done. The house that the builder promised by February, delayed in the excavation stage and then when the plumber was ill. The meeting that reveals a deep chasm – or better yet, deep possibilities, that will take their time to be resolved or brought to fruition.
In either case, slow time and fast time often bang up against each other, and it can be challenging to give each one its due. We live in a society that gives strong preference to fast time – our answer to the conflict between them has been to live ever more in fast time, where things do not take their own sweet time. And there are some merits to this – my oldest, Eli, who has autism, for example, received early intervention help by the time he was two, rather than waiting, as in the past one might have, until he was five or six to diagnose him and begin addressing his delays.
On the other hand, there’s a price to this – my nine year old had difficulty with writing and pre-writing skills when he was younger. Enormous pressure was brought to bear on us to give him early interventions like his brother, and we did, a little bit. What we found, however, was that Simon disliked being pressured, and responded by not wanting to learn to write, and was frustrated by the emphasis placed on what he didn’t do well. He did not progress. We stopped the interventions, left him alone for a year without any reference to writing, and in the meantime, he discovered cartooning. At almost-9, other than slightly messier than average handwriting, there’s little difference between him and his peers. What Simon needed was time – and so did Eli. But different kinds of time – one was served by fast time interventions that said that a child should be doing these things by this date, the other was not served by them.
Much of my life involved finding time outside of fast time to do slow time work – to give things the time that they actually take. My work is biological in nature, for the most part, and organisms are messy things. Days to maturity are estimates. Time to harvest depends on sun and wind and temperature and soil. Good flavor in a lacto-fermented pickle or a pan of goat cheese depends as much on time and temperature as it does my work and intention in them. Relationships take time – the time to get to a barter relationship with my neighbor can vary – one might have something to offer immediately, another might take months of friendly approaches and talking and time before taking that risk.
Parenting takes time – and it takes the time you have to give it, and always a little more besdes. Marriage takes time – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Trees grow in their own times – the sugar maples I’m establishing now take my time and attention, but it will be 30 years before they return syrup. Who knows if my climate will support sugar maples by then? And yet they take the time they take – and it seems worth investing in their possible future.
Haying comes when it comes, in a stretch of warm dry weather. The tomatoes come when they come, with as much as a month between first ripe tomatoes. Peace between neighbors, or families being ready to talk about a touchy issue or make a life change comes when it comes. Elders needing care, babies being born – that happens when it happens and it throws our lives into disarray, as we try frantically to rearrange the fast time realities that say “you cannot give this all the time it really needs.”
I have no good or simple answers for the conflict between fast and slow time. For some of us, barely making it, we may need to give over to fast time almost entirely, taking what little sneaked slow time we can get, but the most important thing is to keep body and soul together. For other people, caught up in too much slow time, without the anchor of fast time and the job that went with it, it might be necessary to find solutions in slow time – perhaps the garden and the children that had been going to daycare and embracing the work that needs to be done in its own time is a kind of answer to the despair of exclusion from fast time. For most of us, we are destined to be caught betwixt and between.
In a society that lived mostly in slow time – and much of human history did – there would be little need for me to assert the merits of this kind of time. Indeed, I can certainly imagine myself an advocate for standardization and formalization in some measures in a society that lived almost entirely slowly. But that’s not the world in which I live – instead, we live in a world that heavily prioritizes fast time, and tends towards contempt for the idea of slow time.
In this world, there is nothing that should not be available on a fast time schedule – here strawberries and tomatoes may take time, but the time is erased with international shipping and hothouses. The time that a tomato takes – 60 days to transplant, another 75 to harvest, and a four month harvest season, that time is erased into the time it takes to stop by the supermarket in February on the way home from work – on the way from picking up your daughter at SAT prep classes.
Here I feel the need to assert the merits of slow time – of stopping sometimes to give things the time they actually require. Of having experienced, at least, slow time and the sweet, sweet time that things actually take when left to do the work as they do it. This is not an argument against early intervention, against breeding plants for shorter or longer seasons, in favor of letting earthworms build topsoil alone. It is an argument for seeing things, however, that take their own sweet time as being a thing worth having. For seeing natural time as something other than a burden, a pain that we must bear in order to get on to the next event and meeting. It is a case for suggesting that sometimes the answer is to hurry less, and to slow down, and that perhaps we do not always make our best choices on fast time.
The fact that slow time has a place in our society does have a few lingering acknowledgements – summer vacation for kids is a lingering acknowledgement not of children’s need for an unstructured couple of months in the hot weather, but for children’s participation in the slow time of hay and harvest. The week or so most people take at the darkest time of the year is an acknowledgement both of our lowered productivity in the deepest of winter and our need to celebrate the slow time return of the light and life.
We grew and evolved on slow time, and the place fast time has tken in our space is new to us. I make no claims about what that means, only wonder what how we are changed as we live at a pace and in a time that has little precedent. What I do know is this – when I can allow things to take their own sweet time, that time is truly sweet.