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From Hyperactive Gerbil to Capybara In One Summer

When I was a little girl, I spent countless Saturdays at the Buffalo Zoo. It’s a smallish zoo to navigate, though very full and well laid out which made it the ideal outing for a kid in all four seasons of the year. There were two habitats that were my particular favorites: the small animal pens where I could play with and hold rabbits, guinea pigs, and gerbils, all held in the same circular pen, and the capybara exhibit, which was more desert-like and traditional where you could observe these enormous gentle rodents from behind a fence. I liked these quiet, almost regal animals even though my father pronounced them “ugly as sin”. They looked serene and content, they made no noise, and they moved slowly and deliberately, yet they always looked like they were smiling. The guinea pigs, gerbils, and rabbits were darling. They squeaked and squirmed whether they were in their pen being left alone from the constant barrage of small children wanting to touch them, or in my hands while onlookers oo-ed and ah-ed over their cuteness. It made no difference, particularly with the gerbils who seemed to be in a constant state of motion.

I was clearly gerbil-like.

The stillness was not my friend nor my comfort zone. My report cards always read the same from grade one through grade six; “Rachel cannot sit still. She loves to interact with others and is easily distracted.” My parents were always on me to sit still, though they themselves could never follow their own advice, each moving in a perpetual state of motion both professionally and personally. My mother was my custodial parent and spent her days and even single moments off cleaning, preparing the house as though it would soon become an operating theater. If she wasn’t cleaning, she was gardening, ironing towels, talking on the phone, running to a jazzercise class, paying bills, or doing a million other tasks. She ran from calmness, as though being still would lead to some kind of lethargy that would surely be fatal. My father almost vibrated with a nervous energy that kept him on the go day and night, even in those rare moments where he had to sit for a meal or meeting, his leg would swing, his foot would tap or his hands would move as he lit and smoked his twentieth Old Gold Light of the day. “Look at that guy!” He would say in his loud voice when he saw someone just quietly reading in a chair outside on their lawn. “Jesus, it must be nice to be lazy all day.”

This idea of stillness being equated with laziness stayed with me for the entirety of my life. The notion of doing nothing was so abhorrent to me that even if I would take my chair down to the beach, I would bring an article I had to read for work or take work calls to avoid the self-imposed guilt that would permeate my being each and every time I took a few minutes to myself. This ridiculous state of mind has landed me in the hospital on three occasions in my life, the last requiring an almost six-hour surgery to untangle the vascular hernias, largely caused by overwork and stress according to my surgeon, that was strangling my intestines. Finally, after 47 years of this behavior, his stern admonition scared me enough to force me at long last to slow down.

To be sure, it ain’t easy. I like movement, I like interaction, I like activities and outings and socializing. However, I’ve noticed something that surprised me, which is the seemingly dichotomous idea that the slower I go, the better I feel. The guilt is still there but it dissipates more with each passing day when I consciously carve out time to do…well, nothing. I finally finished The Romanov Sisters (which is a most excellent book, incidentally) while lying in a lounge chair for an hour a day. I’ve started to meditate each morning and night from a free app on my phone and when I skip it, I feel it. I jump in the bay for no other reason other than in the moment, I think it will feel good to move my body in the cold saltwater. At long last, I finally feel capybara-like. As I age, I may lose some of the adorable patina that I once had in my gerbil life, but that’s okay. Frankly, I think capybara’s are kind of cute.



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