Maybe Aesop had it wrong. Or maybe he’s just 2,600 years out of date. That’s how long ago he first told his moralistic tales, and they’ve been repeated ever since. “The Hare and the Tortoise” is the one that comes to mind, that tale of the triumph of plodding persistence over smug speed. Does anyone even believe that anymore?
The winter Olympics were held recently in Sochi, Russia, glorifying speed in all its manifestations. The Olympic motto is all hare and no tortoise: Citius, Altius, Fortius—Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger. Drawn by the lure of a Jamaican bobsled team that had little opportunity to practice their sport on snow or ice before the competition, we watched as bobsledders leapt into their machines and hurtled down the icy track, preferably (but not necessarily) right-side-up. In this event, like many others, entire nations rose or fell in the medals competition by one-hundredth of a second. “Slow and steady” didn’t have a chance.
* * *
Not only in the Olympics, but in our daily lives, we struggle with slow things: small kids, old folks, people with disabilities.
“Wait!” says Tony, and as though to illustrate his meaning he completely stops what he’s doing to make quieting motions with both hands. “Just don’t rush me, okay?”
I nod. Words are useless. It’s time to leave for our daughter Dara’s dermatology appointment. She’s apprehensive, wants to get there early; certainly doesn’t want to stand around the house any longer hopping from foot to foot with doctor-visit jitters. I’m already at the door, purse slung over my shoulder, checking one last time to make sure I’ve got Dara’s insurance card, the list of her current medications, my reading glasses and a supply of cleanup bags for Dude, the service dog. Husband Bob will drive; he’s jangling the car keys in one hand, thumping the end of Dude’s leash against his leg with the other. The three of us exchange glances: Tony is not quite ready, so we’ll just have to wait.
It’s not as though Tony were a toddler, oblivious to my schedule but small enough to be whisked up in my arms and hurried into a car seat as time demands. Or even a teen, consumed with angst-ridden self-consciousness but amenable to prodding, or even to reason. Tony is an adult with disabilities, already in his early 30s, so my relationship to him is an odd hybrid: equal parts parent, caregiver, and peer. His autism places demands on him that the rest of us can’t always predict, or even understand.
Today that demand is for paper, lots of it. At the moment Tony is leaning over his briefcase, loading it with a full ream of typing paper, a clipboard, two sets of marking pens, half a dozen pencils and four rolls of masking tape—enough drawing supplies to last for weeks, never mind that we’ll only be away for an hour or two.
But it’s the pace that really grates. While the rest of us wait, he arranges and rearranges each item until it suits some inscrutable sense of order. All in slow motion. Patience is not my strong suit. Give me the no-nonsense choreography of efficiency, expedience, artful timing—skills honed over years of mothering a large and lively family. Fast is easy; I’m still learning slow.
* * *
Here’s the story: a tortoise and a hare agree to a race. The hare is scornful and arrogant, certain of victory. The tortoise, blessed with an uncanny optimism, sets off in his unhurried way as the hare disappears into the distance. But the over-confident hare stops to dawdle along the way, while the tortoise hammers on, finally crossing the finish line first. Aesop’s story amuses us to this day because of the way it turns our expectations upside-down. But it also strikes us as quaint, a relic of quieter times.
We’ve evolved since Aesop’s day. No one does slow anymore. Speed wins, every time. Multitasking, previously the sole domain of harried farmwives, is now standard in almost every pursuit, even the way our kids entertain themselves on-line. Communication is brief and quick—the Twitter of social media, rather than that of a cactus wren stealing food scraps from our picnic table after a leisurely day together, hiking the desert.
I’m always looking for ways to speed up the pace of our lives with Tony, so he doesn’t drag our every outing to a near standstill. Despite all the neuroscientific (and pseudoscientific) research, experimental interventions, controversy, conspiracy theories, cults of personality and outright scams that swirl around the baffling subject of autism, little solid information about causes or “cures” has surfaced in the last decade. As for how to parent young children with autism—much less their grown-up selves—there are no reliable one-size-fits-all strategies, and few places where parents can feel safe expressing their struggles and concerns.
So last week, when I found an article that proposed a new way of thinking about autism’s time-consuming obsessions, I was eager to share it with Bob. The writer theorized that these behaviors represent a throwback to the survival tactics of our prehistoric ancestors, hunter-gatherers whose lives depended on that quirky kind of resolute concentration. Hardly a believable scenario, but it jogged my thinking about the kinds of motivation that Tony responds to: food, mostly. Perhaps if he had more ownership of the food-procuring process—more grocery shopping, cooking, presenting his culinary creations to the rest us—he would find it easier to cooperate with our agendas.
To assure uninterrupted time to share this discovery with Bob, I waited until the kids had headed to bed to sit down and read the article aloud to him. It was long and convoluted, but reading it again made me excited about the strategies we might invent from this new way of thinking. When I finished, I turned to Bob with anticipation. His head was tilted against the back of the chair, his mouth open—sound asleep. I didn’t wake him. We are both, after all, “slowing down”—that term everyone uses to indicate the loss that comes with age or advancing disease. The phrase is accompanied by pursed lips, furrowed brows and averted eyes. Life threatens to change yet again, not necessarily in a positive direction.
* * *
There are no Olympic events for slowness. On the surface, figure skating seems like a candidate for grace over speed, but the breathless TV commentary soon convinces us that without speed across the ice, all those dramatic jumps would be disastrous. In the middle of his most important Olympic performance, U.S. athlete Jeremy Abbott proves that point by muffing a triple toe loop and landing hard on his hip. We watch as he lies on the ice, face to the wall, for long moments, while the mother in me wonders what is taking the paramedics so long to rescue him. Fortunately they wait, because eventually, having no doubt contemplated the disgrace of failure on the world’s biggest sport stage and the aching sadness of missing out on a long-held goal, Jeremy stands. The crowd salutes his rise with wild applause and, encouraged, he goes on to complete his routine—jumps and all—with perfection. No, with ecstasy.
If Aesop had been at the judge’s table he’d have counted it a win—doggedness over haste. As it was, he won nothing for that performance. Or at least, no medals. Unlike Aesop’s day, we no longer award prizes for mere grace and the courage of our optimism. But no one who saw his triumph is likely to forget it. Certainly not this downtempo senior mama.
* * *
Back to the living room. Tony has finished stuffing his art supplies into his briefcase. He struggles to compress its sides with one arm while inching the zipper closed, then gives it a couple of pats, reassuring himself of a job well done. He looks up at us and smiles his satisfaction. My inner tortoise gives me a nudge, and I smile back. Maybe all the traffic lights will be green and we’ll get to our appointment on time anyway. Maybe the doctor will be so far behind schedule it won’t even matter.
Fast is exciting. The speed carries us along; we gasp and want more. But mothering is exciting in a different way. It’s about grace, not haste. About smiles, satisfaction, forgiveness, wonder. About the slow percolating of a dynamic, life-long relationship that continues to reveal its beauty over time, as our roles change and the challenges call for each of us to flex and to serve one another in new ways. It’s about hanging on to that focus that moves us forward, slow and steady, toward the finish line.
Moral: Plodding wins.