Zen and the Art of Shifting Gears

Last year, I read an interesting book by Karen Thompson Walker called “The Age of Miracles”. Since I’m still thinking about the book a year later, I guess I could say it was worth the read. It’s sort of like shopping. There are things I buy and never wear, and wish I hadn’t spent the money (gray Calvin Klein dress), and there are things I didn’t buy and wish I had (blush-colored sequined tank that would go with seriously everything I own.)

Anyway.

There are books I read and forget and there are books that stick. The Age of Miracles is a book whose premise has stayed with me, and in fact has wormed its way into my brain. It wriggles out occasionally and makes me think, “Crap. Why didn’t I write that?” I won’t review the book here, as I am completely unqualified to judge anyone else’s work. I’m not even qualified to judge my own work. But the premise of this book is very thought provoking.

In The Age of Miracles, a slight physical shift of the earth takes place. This shift causes the rotation of the earth to begin to slow, sending nature and people into disarray. The world doesn’t end catastrophically – this is not an astroid crashing into the sea or anything instantaneous. It is but a slight shift, hardly noticeable at first, yet one that grows and affects the whole way humans think and exist.

What I love about this premise is that it shows that it isn’t always the catastrophic things in life that do us in; sometimes it is the gradual shifts. [I realize my post from two days ago, in which I wrote about life’s catastrophes, is in direct opposition of this train of thought. I am switching trains. Don’t judge me.]

In 2010, the idea of an apocalyptic ending was on the minds of many. Some went to the extreme and bought shelters and generators and canned meat. (Like a life worth living would be being stuck in a basement with a lifetime supply of Spam.) They retreated to their holes and awaited the catastrophe that didn’t come.

Or did it?

Perhaps our end (and by “our” I mean each of us and all of us) will happen with a graduality that we won’t exactly see as catastrophic, but will be just as significant. In our rush to finish our task, our hour, our day, our semester, our season, our year, our decade…would we even notice a shift in our earth? Are we so busy that we don’t notice the gradual shifts that affect us? I was married to my first husband for 13 years, and had my head so buried in the sand of kids and work and laundry and handmade Christmas ornaments that I didn’t even notice the blondes until it was too late. What aren’t we noticing about our relationships, our minds, our bodies, our behaviors, our earth and our universe that will eventually destroy us?

If a shift such as the one in The Age of Miracles actually occurred, and we had to adjust to a significant change in how our earth functioned (in the book, it was a significant change in the length of days and seasons), how would we handle it? I know people who can’t adjust to the fact that they didn’t get a cup of coffee in the morning, or whose day is ruined when they have to take an alternate route to work. People are enraged to the point of violence if the speed of their cars on the interstate drops from 85 to 70mph. And that’s a shift of personal magnitude – what about how we handle societal shifts? All hell breaks loose every few decades when a disenfranchised group of people decide they want equal rights. If a slight change in the world’s rotation caused our days and seasons to lengthen, thus changing our sleep patterns, our weather patterns, and our food production, would we be able to adjust or would we just collapse? What if certain climatologists are right, and global warming is gradually destroying our earth? Will we take notice too late? Thanks a lot, Republicans.

And now for a reality check. I am gradually dying, and so are you. We are all gradually dying. From brith, we begin our journey to death. (I could just end this post here with “Have a Nice Day.”) How should we react to this news, that in a matter of years (or days, or hours, given that life likes to throw us curves like speeding busses), we will die? Can we afford to bury our heads in the sand and forget to do the things we need and want to do? We all need to be more aware of our shifts, and understand which of these shifts are meaningful and which we need to let go. Perhaps we need to be more mindful of how we can adjust to meaningful personal and societal shifts.

I ruined three clutches on my first car before my dad taught me the right way to shift the gears. Eventually, I understood that you have to listen carefully to the engine noise and watch the tachometer to know when to change gears. And you can’t depress the clutch only half way – you have to commit. Finally, it takes practice to know when and how to accelerate through a shift. Applied to life, the same is true. Listen. Commit. Practice accelerating. Life doesn’t come in automatic, and shifting is an art that takes some time to master.

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