Walk slowly, and bow often.
Mary Oliver nestles this sage piece of advice in the middle of her poem “When I Am Among the Trees.” It’s a poem I committed to memory years ago. The words come to mind as easily as a childhood bedtime prayer each time I wander in the woods. Gently, they remind me:
There’s no need to rush.
No moment is more important than the one happening right now.
Stay in it.
How easy it is to hurry through the world. One of my most vivid college memories is from an entirely ordinary fall day. I emerged from my fifth meeting of the morning as the campus bells struck noon. With just five minutes to spare, I powered to my next appointment with the force of a determined mall walker.
Cutting through the administration building and pausing to adjust my backpack strap, I made a disturbing realization: I had no idea where I had just come from or where I was going.
I had operated on autopilot all morning, beelining from one gathering to the next. I was unable to be fully present anywhere as I tried to be everywhere. No doubt I consumed a lot of information at each stop, but what about the deeper meaning? What about the people I encountered? Had I taken any time to process?
I stood in the hallway feeling a mix of confusion, disgust, and regret for hurrying through the world. Being so anxious about missing the next thing, I missed what was right in front of me.
With all my 20-year-old determination, I vowed to live life differently from that moment on: Stop scheduling so many meetings back to back. Stop texting and walking. Stop moving at such a rushed pace.
Stop scheduling so many meetings back to back. Stop texting and walking. Stop moving at such a rushed pace.
Years later, do I keep my vow perfectly? Fat chance. Life gets busy. I scroll through my news feed on the walk to the grocery store. Colleagues schedule meetings back to back. In pandemic times, although I’m not physically moving from one building to the next, I still feel the same rushed sensation as I end one Zoom meeting and immediately join another.
The lessons of that hallway moment help me recognize when I am out of balance, when I’m hurrying through the world and it’s time to slow down.
My calling now is to “be where you are and be there well”—a riff on the famous St. Francis de Sales quote. And when it’s time to move on, do so in a manner worthy of the call: Walk slowly, and bow often.
My calling now is to ‘be where you are and be there well’—a riff on the famous St. Francis de Sales quote.
I’ve embraced this second part of the invitation, to bow often, in a new way during the COVID-19 pandemic. I miss physical interactions. My body feels the void of hugs, handshakes, and friendly pats on the back. How will I greet others and express care without touch?
Early on in the pandemic, a dear friend emerged from his car as I headed out of the post office. He said a quick hello then moved around his vehicle so I could see his whole body from a safe distance. Slowly, he bowed—a “profound bow,” as Catholics call it.
The simple, ancient movement communicated all that our usual hug would have and then some. I felt his reverence for my being. Lowering my head in return, I felt the connection longed for in this time of isolation and was reminded once again:
Walk slowly, and bow often.