Ways We Pace Ourselves - Andrew Johnson

“Adopt the pace of nature: Her secret is patience.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

My eighteen-month-old son, Annen, adores his mama and wakes from his afternoon nap with nimble anticipation of her arriving home from work, tossing her purse on the couch, and crouching in heels to hoist him up for a hug. He can’t wait for this moment. Every day he wakes, toddles toward the front door, puts on a pout and says, “Mama? Mama?”

“Annen, Mama is still at work,” I say, “but she’ll be home in about an hour. Let’s be patient.”

It takes a while, but I think he is grasping what I mean. For several weeks he wakes up and begins mumbling his new mantra: “Mama wook, Mama, ah wuh.”

Then comes the week following Daylight Saving Time. The loss of one hour tosses Annen’s internal clock into chaos, causing him to snooze later into the afternoon and closer to when Kristen arrives. Awesome, I think. This makes afternoon duties of stay-at-home fatherhood way easier. When he wakes up I gladly tell him Mama is on her way from work and she will be home in just a fewminutes!

“Mama wook, mama ah wuh.”

“No no, minutes. It is shorter than an hour. Much shorter. Minutes.”

“Mama wook, mama, minih?”

“Yep, any minute now, she will walk through the door. Minutes!

“Mama minih!”

He gets it. He is content. He’s learning how to build his expectations around the passage of time, I think. This is patience.

*

As a child I looked to my father as my model for patience, especially on Sunday mornings. He would wake early to read the newspaper by himself, then wake me, my three sisters, and my mom two hours before church began. He fixed breakfast for us then returned to his paper while the rest of us showered and dressed for church. My mom spent most of that time helping us, making sure our clothes were ironed and matching, brushing my sisters’ hair, only saving a few final minutes to get herself ready. Dad sat in his chair reading, looking up every five minutes to give us the countdown to departure: “We’re leaving in 15 minutes.” “We’re leaving in 10 minutes.” “Five minutes, we’re out the door.” “Time to go.” And finally, standing up and putting down his paper, my father, the piously punctual, said, “I’ll see you there.”

Dad would walk out the door and drive his truck to church, arriving on time and saving five extra seats in the balcony. We’d arrive late in the minivan, straggle in and find our seats, avoiding eye contact with everyone around. This happened regularly. I used to think my parents preferred church services from the balcony, the expansive view of the congregation. But eventually I learned the truth: no one notices a large family arriving fifteen minutes late to church if they are hiding in the balcony—no one, that is, except for the other large and tardy families occupying the balcony like a monkey house in a zoo.

I hated being late, hated the embarrassment, hated sensing the judging eyes from the pastor in the pulpit, or worse, from Mrs. Potter seated at the organ. I made a pact with myself and scrawled it on the back of the prayer card in the balcony. When I’m grown up, I wrote, I’m never Ever going to be Late to Anything. I couldn’t wait to grow up, to drive, to arrive five minutes early everywhere I went, just to prove that I could.

*

I still hate being late. Twenty years later I’ve become my father’s son, always dressed and ready to go, whatever the destination, anxious to arrive on time, unforgiving of my child and wife when they take too long. But when it comes to my ability to be punctual, there’s a key difference between my birth family and my chosen family: we own only one car. “If you are so worried about being on time,” my wife says softly as I flail my arms at the front door, “you better start running.”

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for Kristen to get home so we could all leave again to meet some friends for a 6:15 dinner reservation. I had the diaper bag packed, the boy in clean clothes, most of the lights shut off, and everything else I could think of to help us leave as soon as she arrived. She walked in the door at 6:07, which gave us eight minutes to make a ten-minute drive and arrive on time.

“I think we can make it,” I said. “Ready?”

“I’m ready,” she said, “but I’d like to change clothes before we go.”

Of course. “All right. Okay. I’ll take the bag and stroller to the car, so you just need to bring Annen and then we can go, okay?”

She picked up Annen, gave him a hug. “Yeah, we’ll be out there soon.”

I walked out the door, loaded the bag and stroller in the trunk, and calmly sat in the humming car. Calmly sat. Sat calmly. That lasted at least four minutes before I turned off the car and raged back toward the house, wondering what the hell was taking so long. I walked in and looked around the house. I found them in the nursery, Annen sitting on Kristen’s lap, Kristen wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, and no shoes, both of them laughing and singing and enjoying each other. I stood in the doorway watching them, suddenly aware of this distance between where they were and where my mind was.

*

 Letting go of my desire for punctuality is not the same as mastering patience. This much I’ve tried to understand. Yet the clock keeps ticking, and time never takes a day off. Like most kids, I learned to tell time in second grade, learned what the big and little hands mean, learned that sometimes one means five and 12 means 60. I learned to watch the clock on the classroom wall, counting down the minutes until recess, lunch, afternoon recess, dismissal. I learned to put my body, my full being, in sync with the rate of movement of those big and little hands.

Surely Emerson had something else in mind other than the passing of time and unhealthy addictions to punctuality. I can’t quite put a finger on the pulse of what he meant, but fatherhood is forcing me to come to better terms with my relation to time.

*

Annen’s newfound patience waiting for Kristen works for several days until this one Tuesday when she doesn’t show up on time. She calls during his nap and says she needs to finish a project before coming home, so go ahead and have dinner without her. Around 6:00, Annen wakes up cowlicked, crawls on the couch to watch out the window and chants, “Mama minih! Mama minih!”

“Sorry bud,” I say, “but mama won’t be home for a few hours.”

“Mama minih!”

Hours… Patience, remember?”

“Mama wook, mama minih!”

After a few more attempts, I give up trying to explain what is unexplainable to a developing mind, a mind that depends on consistency and repetition to make sense of the world. He pouts, I apologize, and I leave him alone looking out the window, hoping he might figure this out by himself while I continue fixing dinner.

*

Before the sun came up on my fourth birthday, Dad woke me up, helped me into my coat and winter boots, and put me in the passenger seat of his truck. A brown paper bag with my name on it rested between his seat and mine, and he told me to go ahead, open it. I don’t remember what was inside, some small gift he picked up on his way from work the day before. What I do remember is his annual ritual on my birthdays: wake me up way before sunrise, load me into the car, and take me to a special birthday breakfast at McDonald’s.

Every day of the week he’d be gone to work before I woke, so those early morning birthday breakfasts were special partly because I knew he was taking time out of his normal routine to be with me on my birthday, and it made me feel loved.

Until I turned twelve. The excitement of small gifts and birthday breakfasts had worn off, and for some reason, a strange sadness started to creep in every November when my birthday came around again. That morning after breakfast, sitting in his truck as he drove me to school, I started crying without knowing the reason. When he asked what was wrong, all I could manage to mumble through the tears were some words about my birthday just not feeling special like it used to. He nodded and said nothing. Then finally, he said, “I know it’s hard, but it changes as you grow up. Soon it won’t bother you as much, I promise.” I calmed down, wiped away the tears, stepped out of the car, and walked into school.

*

It bothers me to no end that patience, like all virtues, takes time to cultivate. So, to pass the time, I read and hope to learn something. I read about Galileo. After abandoning his plan to become a priest, he began studying tides. He thought tides ebbed and flowed because the rotating Earth sloshed the seas about as it orbited the sun. Although his theory proved false—he couldn’t account for why high tide occurred twice a day, and refused to consider that the moon had anything to do with tide—he continued to work out his understanding of the rotations and orbit of our Earth.

Pulsing motions fascinated Galileo, and he turned his attention to the uses of pendulums. Galileo had a friend—his name, no joke, was Santorio Santorio—who found a way to use a pendulum to measure pulse and named his invention the pulsilogium, the first machine used in medical practice. Santorio took science to new extremes: to learn about perspiration, he began systematically and regularly weighing himself, weighing everything he ate and drank, even weighing his own urine and feces. He was among the earliest scientists to argue a mechanistic view of nature, suggesting that the human body worked like a clock. Nature, he argued, could be reduced, studied, and understood completely—we only lacked methodology.

*

Last summer, Kristen, Annen, and I spent a week hiking Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand Lake, Colorado. In our cabin one morning, preparing for the day’s hike, Annen took three wonky steps—his first attempt at walking. He was nearly one year old and had been crawling everywhere for months, showing no interest in becoming a biped. Now he proved ready. On the hike that day, we occasionally unstrapped him from my back and set him on the ground. He wobbled, walked a step or two, then tumbled into the dry Colorado dust.

A pine beetle epidemic had swept from Canada to Texas the summer before, killing half the trees in the park. The landscape of the forest was gray-brown instead of green, dead trees fallen everywhere like pick-up sticks. Occasionally we heard a distant crack as another tree fell. A ranger along the trail said the forest had its natural cycle: every 100 years or so, either fire or disease took down the mature trees, allowing the younger ones on the forest floor to thrive. The fallen trees decomposed back into the ground. The ranger showed us a picture from 1915 of Teddy Roosevelt standing in the forest, declaring it under protection by making it a national park. Around the turn of the century, wildfires destroyed the park, and in the picture the landscape looked similar to how it appeared to us now.

Four miles up the trail the next afternoon, the three of us stood staring at one of the fallen pines. The sunlight slanted through the few living trees and onto the moist forest floor, landing on this pine, the heat causing it to give off steam. We watched and witnessed its decomposing, its passing on, and I tried to listen for what this forest might tell me about the pace of nature. Annen walked into the slant of light and lifted his arm to grab at the dust particles, glimmering like the falling snow that covers the mountains every winter.

*

During her pregnancy with Annen, Kristen regularly read out loud from her copy of the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, telling me about the latest changes happening in her body. For me, pregnancy was a crash-course in paying attention to small and subtle changes. Sperm and egg join together to form a one-celled self. A zygote. In a month, the zygote forms three layers and has everything in place to grow a human child, but is still no larger than a thyme seed. At some point on the 22nd day of pregnancy, our baby’s heart would begin to beat. Skin still translucent, stretched tight around his pin-point body, bone and muscle not yet formed, but suddenly an impossibly small heart in the middle of this mess would thump.

*

Standing in the kitchen, I hear Annen’s gloomy murmurs for his mama, a few sobs, then the sudden sound of Velcro ripping. That would be his diaper coming off. I turn the corner into the living room, and he runs at me hoisting the diaper in the air as if it were a scalped head. “Dypuh! Uffff,” he says with a defiant scowl. In some cultures, tearing your clothing is common when mourning, so perhaps this is just Annen’s way of dealing with his loss of understanding. I thought I had taught him how to wait, but he had simply latched on to a system of tracking time, and when that system failed, he had to act out. So he grabbed at his tiny hips until his fingers hooked the flaps and ripped the diaper off.

I go back to cooking. I’ll put a new diaper on him as soon as the water starts to boil and the pasta is in. A thud comes from the living room, then another thud, and I suddenly have a vision of Annen falling off the edge of the couch, or worse, busting out the front door and standing on our front porch crying for mama without a diaper and my bad parenting on full display for all the neighbors. I run into the room and find him still inside, naked as a newborn except for his feet. He has dragged my hiking boots to the doorway and now stands in them, his chest leaning against the door, a yellow stream running down the white door panels and pooling on the floor, and his Kewpie forehead banging against the door in rhythm with his melancholy chant: “Mama minih…” Thud… “Mama minih… ” Thud

*

A friend of mine recently noticed her heart beating irregularly and she began to worry. The added stress accelerated her pulse, which made it beat more irregularly. She saw a doctor, learned the word palpitation, quit drinking coffee and soda, quit smoking cigarettes, but her heart continued to beat irregularly on occasion. I told her it was all in her head, and it turned out, in a way, that I was right: the human heart receives electrical messages from the vagus nerve in the brain, telling the heart how often to beat. My friend’s average heart rate is 80 beats per minute, sending blood racing through 90,000 miles of circulatory system, completing the full circuit before the 80th beat. A palpitation is arrhythmic; a healthy heart keeps a steady beat.

Perhaps it is here where I can find traces of nature’s pace, in the heartbeat feeding brackish red fluid through my body. The salty flavor of blood, Joseph Campbell suggests, is the salt-same taste of the silent, primordial seas out of which we have spent the last hundreds of millions of centuries evolving. We can taste the pace of life by licking our own wounds and discover that our bodies pulse like the tides.

 

ABOUT THE ESSAY:

I tend to live in my head. I’m drawn to the exploration of ideas. So, in one sense, this essay began as intellectual curiosity. What is patience? How does culture influence our experience of time? What does nature’s pace have to do with my daily life? The first draft was even more fragmented, regularly shifting between ideas, scenes, quotes, facts, and reflections. I was aiming for an essay along the lines of what Samuel Johnson called “a loose sally of the mind.”

But if I’m being honest, this essay really began when I became a father, which is when I realized that no amount of thinking about patience would actually make me a more patient father and husband. When I wrote the first draft of this essay, my son was eighteen months old. It was primarily an exploration of patience with a few cute anecdotes thrown in for the sake of keeping it somewhat grounded in narrative. But as I continued to revise the essay over the following year, the daily experiences raising a son challenged me to rethink how pace, patience, and punctuality influence my relationships and daily life, and challenged me to see how impatient I actually am. The revision process helped me bring Emerson’s words down from their lofty place in the clouds and a bit closer to my everyday experiences and choices of fatherhood. Gradually the essay shifted more toward narrative, became more personal than I anticipated, and ended up in a place that is hopefully more tentative and less declarative about the prospect of learning patience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Andrew Johnson is an MFA candidate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His work has appeared in New Letters. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his wife and two sons.

“The Ways We Pace Ourselves” also appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of The Pinch.