Books: World Enough & Time

World Enough & Time, by Christian McEwen

The subtitle of this intriguing book, “On Creativity and Slowing Down,” makes it clear what the title alludes to: the cost of our culture’s “hurry sickness” on our creative energy, the very spirit that makes life rewarding, worth living. As poet and teacher Christian McEwen writes:

My own interest in slowing down came from a very different place [than that of the slow food/slow living movements]: less practical and product-oriented altogether. From the beginning, I was concerned with how slowness might intersect with happiness, and then again with creativity. I wanted to explore the space in which small, almost invisible habits might have the chance to flourish, seeing them as nourishment both in terms of “making,” and as an antidote to our usual frantic rush. Like the English composer Brian Eno, I wanted to find a way of living in “a Big Here and a Long Now.” It was obvious from the start that this would not be easy.

McEwen hooked me from that paragraph, first for that space she envisions where small habits that would nourish our inner creative selves can flourish. As one who continually wrestles with finding a sustainable rhythm for my life, I love that she’s not promising anything big or dramatic or instant, instead focusing on the “almost invisible,” the learnings we might overlook. Second, I love the dry humor in that last line. Oh, yes. Finding the space to slow down and live in a “Big Here” and a “Long Now” is definitely not easy in our culture, dominated as it is by instant gratification, and “hurry sickness.”

She lays out a path for finding world enough and time to nurture one’s authentic inner life in chapters that weave insights from creatives past and present, people as diverse as Adrienne Rich and Walt Whitman, and Alice Walker and the Sixth century Welsh poet Taliesin, as well as McEwen’s friends and contemporaries–some well-known, some not, along with memoir vignettes from McEwen’s quietly remarkable life.

Reading the chapter titles in the table of contents made me want to dive right in, and gulp the book down:

Hurry Sickness
The Infinitely Healing Conversation
Child Time
In Praise of Walking
The Art of Looking
The Intensest Rendezvous
A Feast of Words
The Space Between
Learning to Pause
Across the Bridge of Dreams
A Universe of Stories
A Day So Happy

But I couldn’t. There is too much in each to savor and consider, to let sit and “compost” in the back of the mind. So I slowed down and gave the book the time it deserved.

In the manner of a workshop, McEwen ends each chapter with “Tactics,” suggestions for ways to practice the lessons learned within, followed by two quotations for rumination during that practice. My favorite of these quotes comes at the end of my favorite chapter, “A Universe of Stories:”

‘Remember only this one thing,’ said Badger. ‘The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.’ (Barry Lopez)

This is a book to sip, to savor, to digest slowly. I’d recommend spreading each chapter over a month for a year-long “course” in learning your own rhythm and finding the space you need to nurture your own “world enough and time.” As McEwen writes:

As we follow in these artists’ footsteps, reading, writing, dreaming, telling stories, it should gradually become apparent that through the door of the ordinary, when treated with curiosity and respect, the extraordinary can appear: a song, a tale, a painting, a new poem. [emphasis in original]

“Through the door of the ordinary… the extraordinary can appear.” Only if we take it slowly. Which of course is the whole point.

I’m working on that. You?