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Westmount Flânage

By: Kat Mulligan

Photo Credits: Kat Mulligan -- the intersection of Sherbrooke and Roslyn in Westmount


Czech author Milan Kundera posited in his 1995 novel Slowness that modernity has all but eradicated the art of slow living. In his eyes, we assume a quick pace in order to forget the present, while a commitment to slowness is a commitment to remembering. He viewed slowness not as a waste of precious time, but rather as the means through which we heighten pleasure in the long term. It creates out of joy a slow burning wick rather than a firecracker whose principal intrigue dissolves within a moment or two.

Take the nighttime, for example, whose lack of structure affords it a thousand possibilities. There are no doctor appointments scheduled for one in the morning, and the hours are identical in their darkness. Bedtime is a conscious yet non-committal choice. The night, whose length is tailored to the individual’s needs, prioritizes slowness by rejecting a strict schedule. Its pleasures are little surprises.

In our fast-paced world, however, any lapse in productivity is severely condemned. The day, too well-lit to hide within, achieves primacy over the freeform night. We can only grasp at slowness in the hours following the 9-to-5 workday or the 8-to-4 school day, scrambling for leisure time by risking sleep deprivation. The night becomes a conditional reward, and aperitifs, digestifs, and terrasse culture become pipe dreams reserved for small pockets of summer.

In my own life as of late, I find myself torn between my flâneur sensibilities and my self-induced pressure to constantly be learning or creating. I enjoy grabbing a coffee and people-watching in the park, but not when it bites into the time I could be spending on linguistics readings or playwriting. Life is so short, and beauty is so ephemeral—would creation not be a more valuable and concrete use of my time?

I ask myself this every time I spend too long in the sun. How, then, do we disengage from our incessant cravings for purpose? Inspired by Kundera’s novel, I resolved to conduct my own experiments in slowness.

In many ways, I already practice my own regimen of slowness. I rarely use my phone in public. I frequently choose the bus over the metro, no matter the travel time, in order to gaze out the window at the city whose splendor to this day has not ceased to overwhelm my nerves. Coincidentally, I even eat and drink slowly, physically unable to chew any faster. However, these practices are already deep-set and require no thought or energy. What I sought was a derangement of the senses, of my established order. I sought awareness of every minute. The line between luxuriating and languishing remained undefined to me, and through my experiment, I wished to toe it.

After drafting a few plans in my notebook one afternoon, I decided to take advantage of Concordia’s inaugural reading week to undergo a day-long experiment. On Wednesday, October 11th, I would go without phone, without music, without passive entertainment, without indulgences for the sake of distraction. I was to rope off my private world and live strictly within the communal world, where every stimulus has equal opportunity to be experienced by the people in my vicinity. The only formal plan I had was evening Mass; the rest of the day was open to invention.

That morning, I woke naturally, and immediately my first challenge presented itself. There was no bridge between waking up and getting up besides actually waking up and getting up. Normally, my phone would provide my eyes a focal point to avoid their closing again and seducing me into sleep. That time, however, I had to be resolute in my decision to start my day. Eventually, I hauled myself out of bed.

The gloom in my apartment was staggering. My roommate was visiting family for Thanksgiving and was set to return in a few hours, at which point I would have already released myself to the streets. My absurd theory that it never rains in NDG had been dispelled by a slew of monotonously drab days—most of which I had survived, equally as monotonously, in a creative trance in the same position on my couch—and yet another one of these days had arrived to heighten my despair and vitamin D deficiency.

Without the music with which I typically began my day, it was as if this gloom and I were staring each other down, the only two beings in the universe.

The first segment of my experiment passed by with brief and half-hearted readings for school, a few deep cleaning projects (that my fast-paced attitude would have continued to neglect), grooming, and breakfast. I ate without entertainment, resigning myself to my thoughts which streamed in full force after the first bite of my breakfast (whose flavor, by way of my presentness, I noticed more distinctly than on other days). I caught myself still strategizing my time by force of habit. As I ate, I pondered how I would fill the hours before church, and what inclinations I might have after church. This, of course, was my productivity clamoring against my self-imposed indifference, as well as my discomfort with the task of spending an entire day in unfettered consciousness. I was pelted with moments of denial.

The task did, however, lighten its strain once I stepped outside. A whole world of beautiful things to be conscious of bared itself to me. Without my typical explosion of Russian waltzes in the ears, I was able to capture the sighs of the rusted leaves and the steady rumbling of tires from the nearby highway.

Westmount was ablaze with an autumn so potent that not even the stubborn rain succeeded in smothering it. The past week had been strangely aromatic, and that Wednesday was no exception; deprived of my usual sound, my nose became ever stronger. I noticed the smaller things with great care, touched by the communal atmosphere I had previously partitioned myself off from.

I stopped at the grocery store for mayonnaise and fruit (not to be paired together, mind you). I held the door for an old woman, who thanked me profusely. I wondered how we would have interacted had my ears been obstructed by music. Once again, my age-old question presented itself at the forefront of my mind: are Montrealers always talking to me but go unheard due to my headphones, or does my rare lack of headphones invite them to say something? It seems as though I face at least one interaction with a stranger each time I am in public without headphones. But, with the exception of cat-calls, they come as small delights.

I moved on to the Westmount Library, one of my Montreal oases, where I put a few hours towards Woroszylski’s biography of my favorite poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky. Enraptured as I was by this book, those hours were no burden. Another stranger talked to me to ask for translation help for his thesis. When I went to the bathroom, I overheard a coincidentally very pertinent conversation between two women. “I am never in any hurry,” a woman said, justifying her request to cut her fellow bathroom patron in line. “I have had a lot of time in my life. But now I really must jump ahead.” Perhaps she, too, was a proponent of slow living—except, of course, when it came to the bathroom.

Fifteen pages remained in the massive biography when the time came for me to head to church. As pleased as I was to finally be attending Mass after so long, the fixed event of church partially impeded my slowness. It was a commitment to be aware of, even if this particular commitment was designed to grant me a half-hour of stillness and contemplation. I had fifteen pages left to read and a carton of fruit to eat, but not enough time to do either justice. Rather than rush those two activities, I extended my walk to the church.

Material discomfort, I found, also encourages speed. I had dressed insufficiently for the stinging fall air, my backpack drove its fist into my spine, hunger carved up my stomach, and a light rain teased the sky. I was tempted to rush ahead, but I conceded to my displeasure only by pulling out an umbrella. Accepting slowness in all its excruciatingness was the deal I had made with myself.

The church was dim with twilight air, its pews sparsely populated. I am not religious, but rather in constant pursuit of the numinous; I thought, then, that Mass would be the perfect agent in slowing me down and delivering me to the quiet mystery of my surroundings. Before the service began, the church’s entire patronage disappeared, to be replaced only by a few latecomers. The French Gospel rippled throughout the church, its echoes colliding with the massive, frescoed dome, and eluded me. My thoughts returned to my hunger, which alternated between strange euphoria and nearly insupportable sharpness. Unfortunately, it succeeded in corrupting my mind with a desire for speed.

When the service ended, I made the forty-minute trek home, determined to survive without public transit. To return to slowness, I appeased my hunger by eating my fruit on the go and mentally noting its flavor in detail. Luckily for me, my route home is my favorite slice of the city; I was blessed by the honeyed hills of Westmount. I stumbled across a flyer for a rummage  sale on my way, which perhaps would have gone unnoticed had I rushed across the paved slopes towards home.

My roommate was home when I arrived, and I invited him to check out a spot in our neighborhood that I had been curious about for some time. In some ways, it felt like cheating that I was distracting myself with company, but I unfortunately was bordering on starvation-induced madness at this point. When we took to the streets, the evening was assured of its darkness, and in admiration of our neighborhood, we strolled through it. The spot in question, cozy though it was, did not serve food and was oppressed by the smell of stale urine, so we settled a few blocks over to eat. Afterwards, we explored a grocery store reminiscent of the ones from childhood recollections, its windowsill lined with pumpkins and streamers.

The night was calm and undemanding, as nights often are by design. I finished the last poignant chapter of the Mayakovsky biography, as well as the assigned novel for my Quebecois literature class, then wrote a few pages of my play. Exhausted by my adventures on foot, I turned in early.

In truth, I cannot say that this experiment in slowness fundamentally changed my thinking patterns, especially since it was scarcely different from my normal leisure time schedule. I have always been at least quite visually attuned to my surroundings, and after that Wednesday I continued to fill my ears with music and my hands with technology. However, what it did reveal to me was that torture and pleasure are the head and the tail of the same organism, that by following one you arrive at the other. By altering the pace of my living, I also changed its scale. Immense satisfaction sprung up from miniature beauties.

Such is the nature of asceticism, I suppose. In the end, I did not even devalue my productivity; I still read hundreds of pages (passive creativity) and produced a few of my own (active creativity). Instead, I managed to value presentness. It happens more often than I would like that I waste my time thinking about time itself—with this experiment, I supplanted those self-obsessed minutes with serenity. I left more room in my mind for memory, which, as Kundera professed, is at the heart of slowness. That slow burn of a day remains vivid to me even now, because I waded, rather than splashed, through it.

Wherever you source beauty, I encourage you to extend it, to stretch it like taffy. Curl up with a cup of tea on a rainy day. Photosynthesize in a field. Read and reread the densest JSTOR article you can find if it’s learning you crave. Above all, take note and remember. Do not let speed steamroll over the texture in your life.


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