I spent the weekend on Lummi Island, in the Salish Sea off Western Washington. It’s not far, nautically, from the San Juan Islands, but instead of taking a long ferry from Anacortas, you drive up to Bellingham, drive across Lummi Nation, and board a tiny, 22-vehicle ferry for the ten minute trip across the water. Like so many of the San Juans, there’s a fascinating mix between long-time islanders, retirees, artists, fisherman, and people who’ve farmed and raised animals on the land for decades. There’s a small convenience store, a cafe open a few days a week during the winter, and the Willows Inn, where the food is so good (and almost entirely locally sourced on the island, or nearby) and so famous that people fly from all over the place just to spend a night and enjoy the billion courses featuring things like elk heart. You get the picture.
There’s no gas station. There’s a very small elementary school. There’s slow internet. The pace of life is just different. During the week, the ferry runs quite regularly — people come back and forth, some to work, others doing errands, some kids coming onto the main land for school. But on the weekends, the ferry goes down to once an hour. My friend was telling me about the schedule early Sunday, as we were making plans to get me to the airport down in Seattle.
“Oh, that sucks that it only runs once an hour on Sundays,” I said.
“Actually, not really?” she replied.
And it’s true: there’s no reason, really, why you’d need a ferry more than once an hour. My automatic reaction was that there should be more: more convenience, easier, faster, on demand. But there’s nothing actually difficult about waiting for the hour to do whatever you need to do. (And yes, of course, the ferry can be summoned for emergencies; leaving the island to go to Trader Joe’s in Bellingham is not that).
My response made me think about all the areas in our lives in which we demand optimization, or think a service is less-than if it’s not immediately reactive to our demands. When I lived in New York, for example, I refused to get a microwave — there wasn’t space in my tiny kitchen. People were astounded by it, as if it was somehow offensive that I hadn’t acquired an item that would make my food instantly hot. But most things warm up just slightly less quickly on the stove.
We get mad when our internet signal isn’t as strong as we’d like — even when there’s no reason we should be able to access information, or dumb YouTube videos, instantaneously. People are always popping off in the reviews of hotels, including in very rural or isolated areas, when the WiFi goes in and out, or isn’t as fast as expected. I get that it’s a problem if you thought that you could perform a certain sort of work, and those plans are foiled because of it. But most of these people aren’t mad because the WiFi speed directly affected their lives in any meaningful way, but just because. Because it’s not what we’ve come to expect in every other moment of our lives. Because it doesn’t respond to our demands immediately, and thus, we’ve decided, it makes our lives worse.
In situations where the WiFi is bad, or the roads are slow, or the ferry only comes once an hour, I’ve watched more people and places work to set expectations: This is a rustic cabin down an isolated road, This is not a luxury resort, You are on an island, Please Be Aware That You, Yourself, Opted to Stay in Place.
They all seem to be trying to communicate: this place is not your everyday life, which is part of why you want to come here. They get that so-called “ease” usually produces its opposite, as connectivity and immediately ultimately makes a lot of things harder, especially real and true relaxation. Bad or nonexistent cell service cuts the tether between you and your phone, and the feeling of weird responsibility we’ve developed to maintain it through constant inbox refreshes, text responses, Instagram checks. And a ferry once an hour means you either catch it or you don’t, but you’ll still, eventually, get where you’re going. It’s liberating, in its way, to not be able to do every thing, at every time, in every place.
I’m not trying to fetishize a 17th century way of life, or an undeveloped one, in which life is really and truly arduous in sorts of back-breaking life-threatening ways. Yet the inverse fetish for on-demand services is so clearly a symptom of how we’ve overpacked our lives. We need overnight shipping because we didn’t have time to shop for gifts until the day before. We need a Lyft at our door right now because we’re trying to squeeze in a few extra minutes of work before heading to the airport. We need the food done in 20 seconds because we’re trying to feed kids and ourselves and the dog while also sorting the recycling and changing the laundry and making a grocery order on FreshDirect which, ugh, why can they only deliver at 6:45 pm tonight, not 5 pm the way I’d like? Busy-ness fosters a perception that the only way you can possibly survive is through convenience — and you’ll pay a considerable amount the money you make through that busy-ness to obtain it.
I’ve found that purposefully slowing down — continually subtracting from my life in all ways — to be transformative. Instead of making my life feel empty, or less efficient, it opens up space for what remains (friends, commitments, activities, hobbies, books, movies, whatever) to spread, grow richer, become more nourishing. It’s just not fewer physical objects, KonMari style, but less stuff pulling at me, eating up the open space in my brain — and, by extension, pushing me to opt for things that might be convenient, but are worse for me, and my family, and my neighborhood, and the world at large.
Sometimes you find yourself so desperately hungry that you eat a ton of food really quickly and realize that you’ve tasted nothing at all. I have to remind myself every day: how you feed yourself, in every sense of the word, and feed others — that’s the life you’re living. What a privilege, truly, to eat slowly.
DECEMBER BONUS: Gift guides are always weird and often make me feel alienated (who has Dads who like these sorts of things???). But I do like when people list some random recommendations, which is what I’ve done below with the books I’ve read and loved this year:
Book for a History Buff/True Crime Person: Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe
Book for a person who loves engrossing ‘literary’ fiction: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips; The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
Book for Someone Who Just Loves Beautiful Prose, Full-Stop: Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson
Book for Someone Who Likes Slightly Kooky Slightly Weird Women of a Certain Age: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Takorczuk or Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Book for Someone Looking to Channel Their Righteous Anger Against the Enduring Patriarchy: Women Talking by Miriam Toews or All the Rage by Darcy Lockman
Book for Someone Who is Always Trying to Have a Conversation That’s Kind of a On a Different Theoretical Plane Than You, and You Know They’re Smart, But They’re Also Maybe Sometimes an Asshole: The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
Book for Someone Who’s Actually Ready To Think Seriously About Addressing Their Burnout: How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell
Book for a Smart Women in Your Life Who Enjoys a Good Mind Fuck: Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi
Book for Someone Who’s Processing Grief, But Would Probably Never Buy Themselves a Book About Processing Grief: H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald
But also, This Week’s Things I Read and Loved:
Who’s gonna buy this bar in a 14-person Montana town
The False Promise of Morning Routines
The smartest piece on the Peloton blow-up
Instagram is broken. It also broke us.
The funniest thing I’ve read this week
This week’s runner-up just trust me
This week’s just trust me, which intersects with a lot of what I’m thinking about this week re: subtracting
If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can find the shareable, online version (and subscribe) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any weirdo sentences or typos; relative inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to do this every week for free.