PAUSE: A Nod to Tortoises
When adding the Goodreads “Currently Reading” widget to my website, I wavered over whether to include Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England, Volume I. In the months to come, wouldn’t some alert follower wonder why I was still reading that book? Oh, maybe not in October, but by Thanksgiving surely someone would notice. Perhaps take pity. Poor girl, a shame she can’t finish that book. Maybe she’s dyslexic. Such a challenge for a writer. A tad self-conscious, I wondered: Should I nudge it over to my “have read” shelf? Treat it as a total aberration (“How did that get there!”)? Plead its excessive shelf-life as necessary background for the book I’m now writing—and how to square that with the fact that Ackroyd starts somewhere in prehistory and ends 80 years before my characters step onto page one?
The truth is I’m a slow reader. I flip back to page 36 to recall exactly what Aunt Fanny told Little Marcie about the stranger living in the attic. I pause to look up an obscure reference to the mud volcanoes of Italy (messy but fascinating!). I muse on the motives of a shape-shifting, time-travelling Transylvanian crossdresser (or would, if I ever encountered one in a novel). I like to sip a good book. Roll its words and images over my tongue. Taste its meaning.
Before I give the impression that I’m impossibly dysfunctional, let me assure you: I can prepare a salad without pausing to research the history of the avocado, devour a slick thriller without stopping to ponder its ruses (well, almost), and empty the garbage with only a brief reflection on how much trash 7.3 billion people generate and where it all goes.
It’s just that I’m . . . a tortoise. I savor the journey. Many things intrigue me as I travel through this life and, like any self-respecting three-year-old, I have a zillion questions I’d like answered. “Need to Know” is not just an espionage term bandied about by James Bond. For savorers, it’s where we live.
I approach most things this way. After buying a century-old house situated in the middle of a small, but entrenched urban jungle, I spent four years digging up every weed, root, and rock on the lot. The black plastic tarp laid over the yard to discourage weeds became a standard joke in our annual holiday letter. There were certainly days—and years—I was tempted to fling my shovel far into space. But, as I battled thorny bushes and cursed the tenacity of bindweed, I developed a connection to this plot of earth. From its untamed weediness, I imagined the shape it could assume. In year five, I brought in rail ties and terraced the front for a tiered garden. Last year, we laid down pavers in the back, leaving islands of lilac and rhododendron, and a large rectangle of naked dirt—this year’s new garden. I’m okay with the slow struggle. I like to see what emerges in its course.
Savorers have taken a serious dive in status since the invention of the nano-second, but history owes much to its tortoises—those contemplative slowpokes who just kept on. Wondering. Thinking. Envisioning. Inventing.
Case in point: atomic theory. About 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Leucippus, gazing at the visible dust drifting in a ray of sunlight, came up with the idea that all matter is made up of bits that move in a vacuum. He called these bits “atoms.” Inspired, his pupil, Democritus, started wondering what would happen if a piece of matter was divided repeatedly. Would there come a point where it couldn’t be divided anymore? Would it finally yield an indivisible particle from which, as Leucippus suggested, all things were composed? Democritus called it his “theory of the universe,” and it became the foundation of atomic theory. You can see a very simple, cool little timeline here that shows the progression. It’s a tortoise masterpiece.
Tortoises probably miss a lot of meals, or eat them cold. They see something, and they just have to keep following it—a thought, a sunbeam, an oddity. Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist, was studying stomach acid secretions and salivation in dogs in response to the amounts and kinds of food they ate, when he noticed something odd: sometimes, stomach secretions and salivation were present even though the dog had not yet eaten. Pavlov could have said, “This has nothing to do with my experiment,” or “It’s late, and I’ve got tickets for the opera,” but instead, he asked, “What’s going on here?” The thing that was going on was that the dogs had learned to associate the sight of their feeder—even the sound of his tread—with chow. Feeder sighted → chow is on the way → salivation. We know it today as classical conditioning, one of the basic learning processes.
One more. In 1508, the pope had this room at the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel. He wanted 12 giant apostles painted on its ceiling, so he hired Michelangelo. But Michelangelo, gazing at that ceiling, began to develop other ideas. He argued for his vision, and spent the next four years laying down wet plaster, applying the paint inch by inch, creating 343 figures to tell the stories of the Old Testament, and centering it all on that amazing image “The Creation of Adam.” Would 5 million people still visit the Sistine Chapel each year if he’d simply slapped on the apostles, taken the money, and run? Of course, they come because it’s Michelangelo, but then again, if Michelangelo hadn’t been the sort of inquisitive, determined, visionary tortoise that he was, would they come at all?
The rewards for the speedy in this world are obvious and instantly measurable. Fast track promotions. Bigger houses. More money. Loads of prestige. Less obvious are the attractions that drive the savoring tortoise: the pursuit of curiosity; the joy of knowing; the articulation of a dream; chance encounters with the unexpected, the counterintuitive, the just plain odd.
In some imagined universe, a sign hangs above my door: “Everything takes longer than you think, so come in, have a seat. I’ll make tea and we’ll gaze at the dust motes drifting through sunbeams. Let yourself be a tortoise and savor this marvel that is your life.”
The journey goes so fast.