Slow: Simple Living for a Frantic World by Brooke McAlary

I’ve been drawn to slow living in various forms over the years. I first became aware of “slow living” when I was in my early 20s and obsessed with minimalist fashion and design – namely through the ideas of capsule wardrobes, thrifting, DIY, and sparse neutral decor. As I started business school, the concepts of slow living returned in books I read about setting intentional goals, creating meaningful habits, and leadership in today’s noisy digital world. I spent a period of time post-college reading about relationships, mindfulness, and gratitude. In recent years, I’ve been interested in seasonal living, the slow food movement, and urban homesteading. All this to say, slow living is definitely something I aspire to. But lately, I have a creeping sense of self-doubt. I often feel whatever hobby, habit switch, or self-practice I’ve adopted is inauthentic, just a side effect of whatever is trending. Likely because my go-to inspiration and resources are blogs and Instagram, and sadly these places have morphed into lean marketing machines thanks to paid advertisements and sponsored content. I see more and more click-bait headlines in the women’s lifestyle articles and newsletters I read, all ending with product placement listicles disguised as “helpful tips.”

Last week I was (mindlessly) scrolling the available audiobooks via my library’s Libby app. I’d been struggling to find the motivation to read fiction and felt overwhelmed by the constant Covid-19 barrage in the media. How about a non-fiction audiobook?, I thought. I stopped scrolling when I saw SLOW: Simple Living for a Frantic World by Brooke McAlary was available. The audiobook is about 6 hours long and the description sounded like a typical light-hearted self-help read, so I downloaded it and started listening one night while cooking dinner. I ended up pausing the audiobook to grab a notebook. I couldn’t help but write down McAlary’s words and try out her prompts.

McAlary’s description of what slow living is not really hooked me. In the introduction she writes that slow living is not baking bread, growing your own food, wearing neutral tones, beautiful wooden chopping boards, and perfect kitchens – that’s Instagram. Yet, I’m guilty of ascribing to all of these traits, either currently or aspirational. McAlary shares her personal story of coming into slow living in the introduction. She gives props to the blog Zen Habits as her initial starting point. Then, she details how a eulogy writing prompt became her wake-up call. In attempting to write her eulogy, she was forced to truly examine what she actually spent her time and energy on. (Spoiler: scrolling social media.) Her discovery was that her current priorities (Facebook likes) didn’t match up to her imagined life legacy. That’s a hard truth right there, and also super familiar.

McAlary next moves onto the topic of examining your WHY. She first discusses finding your personal philosophy (which sounds abstract, but bear with her) and touches where to find inspiration sources (i.e. books). The conversation loops back around to the idea of your WHY, which she defines as your values and priorities. Or rather, your ideal values and priorities after cutting through the bullshit and noise. Your life legacy values and priorities. Here’s where I paused the audiobook and made my own lists of priorities and values. My priorities looked something like this: family, cultivating community, creativity, stories, and exscovery (exploring and discovering new-to-me places and things). My values looked something like this: family and relationships, independence, hard work, community, learning (but not necessarily formal education), and art/beauty. Have I been living up to these? In some ways yes, in others probably not.

The subsequent chapters focus on different topics typically associated with the concept of slow living, such as decluttering, mindfulness, disconnecting from social media, embracing imperfect over perfect, balance, etc. The first chapter is on decluttering, which sounds cliche. McAlary actually writes about her internal debate on including the topic of decluttering. Ultimately she chose to include it. Decluttering was her slow living starting point, and it is a great embodiment of slow living’s intentionality tenet. Her argument is that clutter is not intentional, and the point of slow living is to focus on what you truly need, for this stage of your life. McAlary further discusses the resistance to letting go of things (accumulating clutter) as deferred decision making, which is a limiting of self-growth. Again, hard truths.

My favorite thing about this book is McAlary’s relatability. I found myself nodding along, acknowledging that each of these topics are things I’ve also explored to varying degrees, but also things I’ve been putting off exploring in more detail. It seemed at times like McAlary had read my mind. Even after I finished listening, I felt myself wandering back to my WHY and my own attempts to achieve “wobbly balance.”

My second favorite thing about this book is McAlary’s references to authenticity. She brings it up consistently throughout the book, referencing both living authentically and vulnerability. (Here I thought of Brene Brown.) But McAlary also expresses disdain for the type of #authenticity that crops up on social media. You know the kind – the perfectly styled photo with the perfectly intimate caption…is that real life or just for the likes? The point McAlary is making in SLOW is that you are yourself, this is your permission to be yourself. Not the social media glossy version of yourself, but the figuring-it-out messy version. And no, you don’t need to post progress photos on Instagram to prove it.

SLOW is not the end-all book about slow living, in fact I’d argue it just scratches the surface. However, it is a great primer for anyone curious on slow living. It is also a good reminder about the benefits of taking the time to assess your current priorities and values, and evaluating whether these line up with where you see your future self. McAlary brings up several topics to explore further, including (but not limited to) gratitude, digital minimalism, empathy, slow travel, ethical fashion, mindfulness, sustainability, slow food, and the sharing economy. It’s not McAlary’s goal to be your go-to resource for all these topics under the slow living banner, but rather she’s acting as a connector. Now you need to put in the work (as she says, the real secret) and follow up on what speaks to you, because slow living is not one-size-fits-all. Slow living looks different for everyone, however you define that is up to you.

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