Slow Culture, Fast World

The honeymoon is over. The bubble has popped. Reality slammed me in the face at 6 am this morning.

That tender space of suspending thinking, in which you float between the time you return from vacation and the return to the day-to-day, is filled with wonder. Your brain has emptied. Your thoughts are fluid. Your consciousness is elevated. You are on a cloud, feet barely scraping the ground. You wonder how long you can keep up the feeling. You hope it lasts far longer than it will. But you hope nonetheless.

2017-02-23 13.49.05“Maybe it will be different. This time.”

And then Monday morning comes. You wake up before the alarm with a startled thought. It’s nothing really. You made a less than optimal decision about something so banal that it’s not even worth thinking about. But you do. And then you get mad that your bliss has been disrupted by something so meaningless.

Just yesterday I chat with my neighbor, revealing I had just returned from the most life-changing trip to Nepal and India. His eyes lit up and he began his tirade about what’s wrong with Western civilization.

“Why do we keep running? Toward what?”

He summed it up beautifully.

“We are distracting ourselves from the thought of death.”

Perhaps he is right, I thought. But I wasn’t ready to take on those thoughts just yet. I guarded my bubble carefully, going on to my yoga class for a moment of “Om”.

In the evening I wasn’t feeling particularly fearful or distracted or worried or annoyed. I drank lots of water and went to bed early. And then morning came with the reality that I had some even harder decisions to make that might rattle even the most Zen-like person. I watched my age-old fear awaken from its slumber, stilled only for the time it took me to realize it is alive and well.

Stay in your center, stay in your center, I told myself as I brushed my teeth, feeling like Julia Robert’s character, Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat, Pray, Love.

Momentarily, I have regained ground on myself. Filled with Slow Culture, I cannot deny that it feels strange to be back in a fast, fast world.

The feeling is slipping slightly. I have lost a noticeable grip on the ephemeral sensation of alignment. But I know where to get it when I really need it.

Deep within in the archives of my memory of what has been, what is and what shall be.

 

Our Nightmare Ride to Delhi on the Shanti Express

Life in India is like a mandala. So many pieces and parts, colorful and blending, fitting together in harmony in an ebb and flow of energy and stamina.

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Nothing reflects that truth like a car ride on an Indian highway. The roads aren’t like the asphalt strips with which you may be familiar. They are ribbons of Earth and holes and dust — sometimes the roads cover miles made of tar. But always there is an abrupt ending, sometimes so sudden you have to screech to a halt to acknowledge them.

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

The road in India is also a place of commerce. A chance to sell toys or food or to beg for money inside the windows of stopped cars.

The gaps in the road are the kind of holes that make give your coccyx a new meaning in life. As the vehicle regretlessly slams your body to the ground without shock absorbers or any type of protection between you and the machine that carries you forth, your tailbone involuntarily stamps a circle in the sand, an ethereal moment of “Yes, I was here.”

We hired a car and driver to make it back to the country’s capital by lunch time.

We awoke to the sound of Sadus’ breath blowing through conch shells, their fingers laced over bells ringing in intervals. The music lured us out onto our balcony for one final look at Pushkar Lake before leaving for Delhi.

The driver greeted us at the hotel entrance in Pushkar. In the pitch black pre-dawn air, we only saw the glint of his eyes.

“Bonjour, ca va?”

We blinked, blinded by the darkness.

“Oui, ca va. Allons-y?”

Numbed by the early hours, we sat in the backseat, clutching our backpacks and wondering how long the ride would take.

The driver, who had introduced himself as Kamal and who had a French girlfriend (thus the greeting), tried to encourage our mood.

“You only need three things when travelling through India: Good brakes, good horn, good luck!”

It was only then that I observed his head periodically spitting brown juice out the window.

My well-travelled love explained:

“He’s chewing a stimulant to stay awake.”

It turns out he had been driving a young married couple since 10pm the night before. It was 5am and he had an eight-hour drive ahead of him.

He hadn’t slept a wink.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired -- and used often.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired — and used often. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

“Don’t worry, my dear,” my love assured me. “There’s so much to do while driving in India that he won’t fall asleep. Ever.”

Somehow I found his statement to be only vaguely reassuring. And I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much either. In fact, I spent most of the eight-hour ride doing this:

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

For the first two hours we drove in the dark, getting to know one another. I figured if we knew each other’s life

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can.

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

stories, perhaps even loosely, it would create a bond that would hold us together – and out of harm’s way – for the duration of our ride to Delhi. We stopped for chai and what passed for coffee at a roadside stop. As dawn broke, we fell into a comfortable silence.

That is until, in the span of sixty seconds somewhere between breakfast and the first thought that my bladder might burst, we witnessed the following amazements:

 

  • a shepherd ushering a herd of cows across the entire six-lane highway crossing both directions;
  • a troop of camels hauling firewood and galumphing their load serenely to our left (on said highway);
  • a young child racing across three lanes to get to the other side;
  • tuk-tuks filled with twenty people that any Western family of four would consider tight for their standards; and
  • always, always, always the plea from trucks’ backsides to blow your horn.

Kamal got us to our hotel safely and in record time. He manoeuvred through potholes, toll booths, animal crossings and blinding sunlight. He is the only one working to support his entire extended family.

As I held on for dear life, I wondered if we were going to make it back in one piece. Occasionally, Kamal would spontaneously break out in song or chant something in Hindi. It sounded like a choral prayer and so I began to silently pray with him to the Shiva on his dashboard, then Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Whoever Else Was Listening. His job is dangerous and he is not able to say “no” to 2 am requests like ours for delivering tourists to their destinations.

“My family is counting on me.”

We thanked Kamal for his courage for getting us to the city in tact.

May the mandala of life continue its endless cycle of flowing energy and endurance.

It was an experience of a lifetime I won’t ever forget.

Alright then...

Alright then… (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Many Pieces of Me

As I inch toward the fifth decade of my life, I have taken pause to reflect on all the places I have been. The list is long. The road has been too.

When people ask about my history, I tell them I left home at 16. My heart took flight to a European country. With no knowledge of the language or culture, I lived amongst the natives for an entire year. At the time it felt like an eternity as my inner self was molded into something new. I began to see the world with their eyes. Or perhaps more accurately, with a blended vision of my own and theirs. My world view was altered forever and I had no idea how enriching that would be. From that point on, I developed an acute ability to consider that all that I had known may not be the absolute truth and that every person on the planet carries their very own interpretation of what that might be. Coming home felt more foreign to me after a year away. In my heart of hearts, I could never return there because my shape had taken on a different form altogether.

I have moved 19 times in my life and with each place I have landed, a tiny piece of myself has been left behind. Whenever I return to those places, I greet that part of myself with a smile — or sometimes a tear. As I recently motored across the A99, I waved to the Allianz Arena, home to several Bavarian soccer teams. A long time ago, I even taught English to the guy responsible for the lighting there. Later I headed up a team of athletes for a show on national television. It was the only time I stood on the playing field, but I will never forget the exhilaration as we paraded onto the green.

Next week I will visit the Northeastern part of myself, first in Boston, then in Northampton for my twenty-fifth college reunion. Thereafter I will fly down to Florida to visit my dad and his wife. I’ll saddle on the Southern, twang with the best of them, and sweat in the steamy heat near Orlando. My children will be there who are indeed the greatest parts of me. And as they grow, leaving pieces of themselves wherever they go, they too will experience the revisiting and the wonder that is this life.

The Journey’s Way

Plans are a wonderful point of orientation, but like any roadmap, they change over time. New roads are added. Old ones turn to dust. Anyone with an outdated navigation system will tell you not all roads lead to Rome. Sometimes they take you down dead ends or endless traffic rotaries. Even if you were intending to go to point A, you sometimes land at point B instead.

The journey is the destination, not the end point on a map. And although we often live as though the most important thing comes at the end of one’s travels, the things that happen during those travels are the essence of our existence.

MoonWhenever I am confronted with life’s challenges, I say a prayer of gratitude for the fruits those lessons will bear — even before I receive or fully understand them. I live with a deep faith that everything happens for a reason – but oh! When that faith is lost! That’s when the turmoil begins. Faith and trust are the foundation for your engine’s happiness — gratitude greases the wheel.

When I was knee-deep in writing The Power of Slow, my sister shared a beautiful mantra with me: “Trust the process.” It is about opening your eyes to what is really in front of you instead of watching the film that is in your head.

We are all owners of our very own head-based movie theater in which our films get played over and over again. We react to the world through the lens of that movie theater camera. Sometimes our films take us to beautiful, exotic places, but most of the time the repeated movie performances lead us down those dead ends to the land of the lost. And when that happens, it’s time to change the film roll to a new one that serves us better.

While many of us pine for a better future with the supposedly comforting saying “One day my ship will come in,” I say why wait for that ship when you’re already on it? If you don’t like the direction it is taking you, steer it in a new direction.

You can weather any storm, my friends. You really can — if you believe.

 

The Story of an Orchid

Sometimes we must die to be born again. Even the most fragile of us can be resurrected. It just takes the right conditions.

Nature's resilience

Nature’s resilience

This past June my orchid languished in record temperatures while I lounged in the French sun. It wasn’t fair. It was careless. I came back to what my partner called “certain death” on my balcony in Freiburg. My poor plants had been through the wringer. Ignored, forgotten, undernourished, they were limping on the precipice between here and the thereafter.

Rushing to their aid, I doused them in buckets of water, murmuring prayers of apology as the water hit their soil. My orchid plant had been damaged the most. Sunburnt and petulant, it lacked forgiveness for my thoughtlessness.

But as I fertilized and sympathized, I had a feeling my partner’s prediction was wrong. The orchid would survive. It would forgive. And it would come back stronger than ever.

It took a few weeks before the first buds formed. But they came — willingly — just waiting for the invitation to emerge.

Kind of like what happens to us when we’ve been on a long, thirsty journey, only to be rewarded and given the opportunity to show our truest potential.

I am grateful for my orchid’s resilience. Its encouraging robustness gives me strength. And it has taught me that when we finally get what we need, we not only can survive. We can thrive. And shine. And cast off the most glorious colors when sunlight and rain merge to reveal what is nothing less than magic.

Taking the Slow Train

Nothing reveals more about human beings than physical discomfort. Trapped in an overcrowded train with no air conditioning as it stood still on the tracks for over an hour, I realized how quickly things can turn sour when things get a little uncomfortable.

Pont d'Arc, Ardèche, France

Pont d’Arc, Ardèche, France

People shouted. The conductors hid in the safety of their locked cabinet, giving us periodic updates that said nothing. A medical emergency ensued. It was chaos for a while until one guy said he’d either call the police or see why the train hadn’t moved in an hour. I went with him. We quickly discovered all the other wagons had air conditioning. We got the conductor to make an announcement for passengers in our wagon to move elsewhere. And we decided we would cheer once the train got moving again. Another thirty minutes passed and the train moved forward. We applauded, laughed and jumped for joy. Until the train stopped again for another defect. At this point, I had already hugged the conductor, who was rather shocked by my response.

After a two hour delay, I made it back to sweet Freiburg to meet my son whose bus, by some miracle, arrived with a similar delay fifteen minutes after I did.

As the train rolled into the central train station, I told a fellow passenger that this experience had changed my perspective on Monday morning. After two weeks frolicking in the South of France, I felt a deep reluctance to return to my work life. But after realizing how good I actually have it — with clients, friends and family I deeply love — I happily returned to my every day life with renewed gratitude for cool spaces, calm surfaces and meaningful work.

Sometimes it takes the slow train to remind us of what we have. I am grateful for the experience and for the goodness of this life.

 

Why Friendships are Soul Food

“The only way to have a friend is to be one.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

A few weeks ago I took a test. It was meant to determine what my values are and to see what kind of job would be most suitable for me.

The results weren’t surprising. According to the test, I value relationships above everything else.

I am in public relations, after all. It reinforced that I am in the right industry. And it got me to thinking about values and relationships and the decisions I have made because of them.

I have no regrets.

Regret is a wasted emotion in my book because we are all on our own journey. Every aspect of our lives is essential to get us to where we are meant to go.

Sure, we can optimize things. The Power of Slow is about optimizing how you spend your time by spending it on what is most important to you and getting rid of all the yucky, distracting stuff we do to compensate for not getting what we want.

And that gets us back to our value system.

Friends and family are most important to me. They are my soul food. Over the years, I have travelled hundreds of thousands of miles to see the people I love. And I have never regretted a single moment I have spent with each and every one of them.

As a dear old friend told me on the phone just yesterday: “You won’t remember how expensive that trip was. You will remember the time, not the money, you spent.”

In a way it is hard, having friends all over the world because I can only be in one place at one time. And so we have to choose with whom we will spend our time.

Choose wisely. Embrace the ones you love. Remove toxic relationships from your life because your time is better spent with people worthy of you.

You never know if this moment is the final one. Treat it as a gift. Give of that gift generously. And you will be the very friend you seek.

Don’t you just love how that works?

 

The Google-ization of Life

There is more to life than convenience and quick answers. Sometimes the slow route to knowledge is more interesting.

Yet Google would have us believe — with its heart-warming television commercials — that the world is just a click away. And every answer to every question too.

Google is indeed a great service. Thanks to the search engine, I was able to consolidate my vacation time by spending it exactly as I wanted to. With a quick search, we were able to find restaurants, parks and even a massage place in just a few minutes. With the help of our iPhone navigation system we quickly found what we were looking. It saved us time and gas trying to find these places.

But technology is not infallible. Even our GPS wasn’t aware of changes in the road system. Sometimes we had to take a right instead of following the insistent voice of our device that we should turn left.

Nobody’s perfect. Not even Siri.

Google has set a new pace to modern life. We now expect to know virtually everything. We can Google-sleuth to find information based on even tiny bits of information — online reviews tell us whether that movie or doctor’s office is worth a visit. And we tend to believe total strangers’ opinions rather than trying things out for ourselves. Google has shaped our world in ways we have yet to realize.

The service itself continues to change at a quick clip too. Take Google Maps, for instance. Just a few weeks ago, it still had that grey-green satellite view of the world. Today, it’s sexier, pointing to exact streetcar routes and even the intervals within which they depart and arrive.

Last year Google purchased an app that used to cost $250 to use. Now it costs $30,000.

I don’t call that progress. I call that extortion.

Love it or hate it: Google has us by the gaggle. It is up to us as to whether we choose to live life according to its algorithm or our own biorhythm.

Maybe if we relinquish the need for omniscience, we will actually open our eyes to what is before us instead of following the commands of our gadgets that often lead us astray. Taking the slow road sometimes is a task worth considering, if only for a moment.

Out of Your Mind

The tingling sensation of true mind suspension is a delightful thing indeed. I am not talking about dropping acid or snorting something funny. I am referring more to the restorative powers of taking time off.

You haven’t heard from me in a while — in true slow style I took a much-needed online break, also known as vacation. And it was delightful. Admittedly, I wasn’t 100% offline because, after all, we had to post some of our snapshots on Facebook, then delight in people’s reactions. It is a different world now and the pull to share is strong. So we did. A little bit.

But the main focus of our vacation was conversation, sunshine, warmth and, yes, a glass or five of wine. We allowed ourselves to drift away from the every day problems of raising children, negotiating work or the rest of our lives for that matter. We filled our heads with new ideas, sights and smells. We ate whatever we wanted when we wanted it.

It felt good to be that free.

Moving out of our minds and into our hearts was a welcome, relaxing change. It filled us and gave us memories, which will last a lifetime.

The most delightful part of being away was coming home again. The flavor of warmth was similar to the Floridian skies — a calming sense of familiarity washed over me despite the distance of days that had separated us. My apartment felt strangely cold and empty, awaiting our return to replenish the laughter these walls have often absorbed.

It is good to be out of our minds for a little while, to turn the lights down low and to reconnect with the deepest part of ourselves. Removing distraction is healthy and, in today’s hyperconncted world, a necessity for mental health.

When we fill our well to the brim, we have more to share with others.

Replenish your soul often. It is what will give you the strength and courage to go on — no matter what.