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Book Review : Essay/Creative Non-Fiction

World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down

Review by Mary Claire Mahaney
Every day the orange tabbies that we adopted as kittens three years ago show me the meaning of time. Both my husband and I care for the two of them; both of us feed them, groom them, and clean their box. My husband works in his home office upstairs, usually with the door open, and the cats could go in and keep him company. But they don’t. Instead, they stay with me, and I stay with them, in the living room, study, dining room, kitchen, wherever we are, wherever we go.
Rusty, the more skittish of the two, keeps his eyes on me, and when I head in the direction of the stairs, he sprints up them as if he’s training for the Feline Olympics. His aim? To be brushed in his favorite spot—the warm floor of my bathroom. He almost always gets my attention there, marked mostly by my brushing him, but Rusty also spends time in the bathroom stretching and slinking around, swishing his tail, bathing himself, cheek-marking his scent on the corner of the walls, and scritching away at the cupboard door to let me know that he wants to climb in and lie on the towels. His littermate Julius, a hunter with puppy-sized paws and jaws that can carry three plush toys at once, often follows along to make sure there are no millipedes that need ushering outside.
In addition to their daytime companionship, the cats stay near me at night. Rusty sleeps on a chair in our bedroom, and Julius expands himself in a devil-may-care sprawl across my legs. But before he settles in, every single night Julius brings me tributes—his jaws full of plush mice, plush birds, doggy toys, fuzzy balls, and other treasures that we keep in a box in the living room. When I awake in the morning, I find a trail of homage from bed to stairwell. Here’s the thing, though—when I’m out of town and my husband is home alone with the cats overnight, they don’t even come upstairs. Yet when my husband is out of town, it’s nighttime business as usual for Rusty and Julius, except that an emboldened Rusty moves onto my husband’s bed space.
The reason for the cats’ behavior we’ll probably never know, but I’ve had to wonder if it’s because I’m smaller than my husband or because my voice is higher than his, which in either case may turn on my seeming more vulnerable than he and and thus in need of protection. I’ve rejected that notion, though, for this: I’m the human in the house who puts in long stretches of time with the cats, and they know it. Consequently, I’m the one to whom they show their devotion.
If Christian McEwen, author of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, were to preach to the choir, I’d with smugness presume I was in the choir loft, feeling righteous about how I already take the world slowly, and how it’s other people who should be reading her outstanding book and heeding her poetic words. Yet, facing writing a review of her book, as I read it I kept wishing McEwen had written a thinner book. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I actually, just a teensy bit, begrudged the time I spent reading it—I had so many other things to do—and I don’t have time to write it all down here and you certainly don’t have time to read it!
Now then, if I calm down, I can tell you I loved every word of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, and I’m grateful that McEwen put as much time and attention into the book as she so clearly did. When a poet writes prose, and McEwen is a poet (“in the thin straps of the leaves,” she writes, of hearing the wind when she, as a child, lay under her spindle tree), the reader can be pretty darn sure each word is justified and is placed where it belongs. Ultimately, when I had put aside my rush to review the book, I was sorry to see the volume end.
World Enough is not a self-help book in the sense of, say, Fifty Fast Steps to Slowing Things Down (my apologies to the author if there is such a book). But it’s a book that all of us in our frenzied world should read, although as these things go most of us won’t have time for it. For those readers, however, who want to learn more about what it’s like to slow down, who want confirmation that they are not the only people who live life at a slower pace, or who long to be introduced to other people, famous or not, who aren’t dashing through life so much as meandering along it, there’s much to love in McEwen’s work, and much to learn. The reference list alone merits extensive study.
Some of the most provocative passages in World Enough concern childhood. McEwen questions what of “child’s time” today’s children actually have. Do they know a particular tree, a patch of grass, a ditch—small places that give children great joy? Do they have time without technology and the constant demands that follow in its wake? In my “reader’s conversation” with McEwen, as I made notes in the margins of her book, I had to wonder if modern children ever read for an hour without interruption, without multitasking, without surfing, without texting? Do they go to bed wanting to hear the crickets chirping? Do they know what crickets are?
In the chapter “In Praise of Walking,” McEwen writes, “Walking per se has been reduced to exercise; wind and birdsong replaced by our own personalized soundtrack, interrupted at short intervals by the ubiquitous cell phone. Pedestrians worldwide now walk 10 percent faster than we did in 1995; in China and Singapore, the percentage has increased by as much as 20 to 30 percent.” One might think we’d all be thin. But of course when we’re not walking fast, we’re probably driving. Fast.
There’s joy in this book, carried in by the author’s discovery of words at play, of people at play, of time made for friendship—real friendship, not simply another bullet point on a contact list. For readers in the creative arts, McEwen takes special note of the need to look, to think, to wonder, to discuss. Her sensual outlook is intimate, juicy, voluptuous, not in a sexualized sense, but in the sense that reading her book is a bit like nibbling away at a much-desired chocolate bar, in a lavender-scented bubble bath, birdsong coming from the swaying trees overhead, the wind lightly teasing the leaves.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m no time saint. My hair stylist recently put me under the dryer for a color process. As he set the timer and lowered the misty hood over my hair, I said, “How long will I be under here?” It seemed a reasonable question, for would I be wanting trashy magazines to flip through, a cup of coffee to stimulate me, my cell phone to fiddle with? His response: “Twenty minutes. You ask me that every time.”
I was horrified. Every time? Note to self: Don’t ask that again. Go with the flow—enjoy the time to people-watch, to discover patterns in the wallpaper, to study the pictures that hang on the salon’s walls.
Rusty and Julius have put me in mind of our human sons who lived with us for what now seems merely a twinkling of time. Those boys too made a ruckus at doors until I opened them; they too, behind me while I cooked, tugged on my clothes to get my attention. And they sat with me while I talked to them—about anything at all, about nothing at all. To my human children I’d like to think I gave, and still give, my unhurried time, for there’s really so little time in our earthly world, even when we take things slowly.
Bauhan Publishing, Peterborough, NH 03458