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Difficulties in slowing down

The summer pace of a U.Va. student

No matter what my speedometer tells me, the real test of the pace I’m driving is how long it takes me to stop. Or even better yet, how hard I’m stopped by my seat belt when I slam on my brakes. If I’m driving 25 mph down Rugby, stopping is easy — if I’m driving 75 mph down I-64, stopping on a dime is something else entirely.

I don’t think I realized how fast life moves at the University until it was time for summer — time to stop and rest — and I had to slam on my brakes after keeping a consistent speed of about 1,000 mph. Let me tell you, that stop was violent.

It’s no secret that University life moves quickly — we are movers and shakers, thinkers, artists and adamant pursuers of that which we love. We stay up to date, we stay informed and we stay busy — and that’s only in the academic realm. We volunteer. We join clubs. We play sports. We work jobs and hold internships. Socially, our lives tend to be equally demanding. If there isn’t work to be done, there are people to see. This lifestyle is what got most of us into this University, and it’s also what gets us through the rigorous years and ever-expanding community. We are doers.

Quite frankly, it’s not our worst trait either, and simply put, we wouldn’t accomplish nearly as much if we didn’t do all we do. It’s nothing shy of incredibly impressive, but after living a schedule that somehow squeezes 36 hours of work into every 24-hour day, we are all more than ready for a break. What I’ve realized, however, in the last few weeks since turning in my last final, is how difficult it can be to slow down.

This summer, I decided to nanny in Charlottesville. I live in a cute yellow house with some of my friends, volunteer with high school students I mentor, spend my days reading and taking kids I love to the pool, paint my nails and go on a few weekend trips. No crazy internships, no jobs with rigid office dress codes and no pressing deadlines. Slow and steady was going to be so, so wonderful — until it happened. How could something I looked forward to for so long, which I was sure would feel so right, feel so … wrong?

At first, it was as if I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t have any work keeping me up, so should I go to bed early? I didn’t have an 8 a.m. to rush off to, so how late should I sleep in? If I wasn’t rushing to eat lunch before meeting with a professor for office hours at 12:30 p.m., what should I make? Most pressingly, as an English major without a book assignment, I was overwhelmed with the lack of instruction and direction and found myself totally at a loss for what even to read.

Though I had perfected the skills of organization, time management and a strong work ethic — the necessary characteristics of any student giving an honest try at the little task of juggling EVERYTHING — I had become terribly out of practice at the common skills of a slower life. I finally had the time, the space, the energy … but I found that I was no longer quite sure how to rest, how to relax or how to enjoy a space without the grind of constantly being productive. It’s been about three weeks now, and while I don’t have everything figured out and am very much still struggling with this transition, I have learned a few things about being a Hoo on break.

First off, it is okay to engage in activities that don’t have a point. When we’re in the academic semester, we become experts at focusing on the task ahead. When I lost my long list of tasks, I felt out of sorts. Everything during the school year had a point — if I was walking, I was walking to class. If I was reading, I was reading an assignment. If I was eating, I was catching up with friends and seizing an opportunity to engage before heading back into Alderman’s stacks to write another paper void of human contact. Things were done out of necessity, not pleasure.

There’s nothing wrong with getting things done, but it’s okay to do things that don’t need to be completed on a schedule — and even better yet, it’s okay to do things simply because you love them. Do you know why I became an English major in the first place? I bet you can guess — I love to read. It’s okay to read without a point — in fact, it’s better, and I love it. This summer, I hope we Hoos can redeem pleasure.

Secondly, in order to accomplish all of our tasks, many of us excel at multitasking. Not only does everything we do have a point during the semester, but we often need to do more than one activity at once in order to pull off our cool party trick of the 36-hour day. Again, multitasking isn’t wrong — I like it! But I don’t need it anymore.

I don’t need to read while I eat in order to finish the last required chapter. I don’t need to look at flashcards while I walk to the Corner. I don’t need to split my attention a thousand different ways in order to care for everything in front of me. If I am working, I can focus on being present with the babies in my care. If I’m spending time with a friend, I can give them my undivided attention. If I’m having a cup of tea, I can actually do so and sit and breathe and think and be a real person drinking a cup of tea and nothing else.

I think sometimes as University students, we are afraid of single-tasking. We are afraid of doing something simple, normal, mundane or ordinary. I want to fight against the lie that our worth is measured by the quantity of items we finish on a to-do list and protest instead that some of the sweetest things in life are quiet, little things done free of distraction, free of obligation and free of a schedule.

Finally, I think what tends to make us so self-conscious about slowing down — what brings us to fighting an opportunity we all desperately desire — is comparison. Classic, right? Comparison, the thief of all joy, is stealing all of our joy in being slow. It’s a simple hypothesis, but I think it might be right.

So much of the fight to slow down and enjoy this past month played out in realms of mental matches with myself, beating me up over someone else’s plans, someone else’s internship in New York City or someone else’s job. It terrified me to slow down when others were speeding up. It’s not crazy — it’s scary to pull over on the side of a highway and watch other cars flash by you at record-setting paces, whipping your hair into your face and roaring as they kick up dust and gravel behind them. This summer, I am attempting to turn away from the road. I image that on the other side, there is a field where things are growing. Maybe there is a house with a porch and a swing that moves, but not you forward. Perhaps there is a book for me — and whatever you love for you — welcoming us back, rather than to a vacation, home to normal life that isn’t so bad after all.