Posts Tagged ‘Lao-Tzu’


Patience, we are told, is a virtue. As a child growing up in eastern Iowa, I heard that bromide more than once. However, as an adolescent I learned about patience not from listening to Methodist sermons or elders’ proverbs but by spending time with an exceptionally patient man.

His name was Sven Jorgensen, and he was the co-owner of Eble and Jorgensen Office Supply, where I worked after school, on weekends, and in the summers. Unlike Fred Eble, a former Navy Seabee and a tense, frenetic striver, Sven exuded steadiness and calm. Wiry, high-strung Fred dealt with the public and could often be found in the front of the store, filling out orders or talking on the phone. Thick-set, sedentary Sven worked quietly at his table in the back room, cleaning and repairing typewriters. Nearby was a photo of Sven and his dog Walt in a flat-bottomed fishing boat. Like his owner, Walt looked stable and relaxed.

To everyone in town, Sven Jorgensen was known as Speed. Speed Jorgensen. He acquired that name at the age of fourteen, when he barreled down a steep hill on his bike, rode into a pile of frozen leaves, and flew over the handlebars. He hadn’t realized that the leaves were frozen. Ever after, all physical evidence to the contrary, Sven would be known as Speed. It was a lifelong joke, played by the world on a slow-moving Swede.

At Eble and Jorgensen’s I sometimes waited on customers, made deliveries, or stocked shelves, but much of the time I worked in the back room, where dirty or broken typewriters waited to be restored. With his big Swedish hands Speed would carry them, one by one, to his table, where he put them in a deep tray half-filled with solvent. There he would clean their typebars with a solvent-soaked toothbrush, adjust their springs, replace broken or tarnished keys. When he was finished, even the most abused machine would function smoothly and look as good as new.

Much of the time, Speed worked silently, as did I, but sometimes we chatted as we worked. Or rather, I talked and Speed listened, offering advice when advice was sorely needed. Once, when I had manged to deliver rubber cement rather than duplicating fluid to an office, nearly precipitating a crisis, Speed sharply admonished me to be more attentive. On another occasion, when I was enumerating my father’s faults, Speed remarked, without looking up, that my father was a very nice man. And once, when I repeated a mean-spirited joke I’d heard at school, he told me in so many words that my joke was not very funny. I would not repeat it again.

In his unchosen role as friend and mentor, Speed taught partly by precept but mostly by example. What he exemplified was not only patience but also the virtue of slowing down, even when typewriters needed to be cleaned or supplies delivered. Working slowly but productively at his table, or pausing in his work to offer kind advice, he provided vivid proof that life could be lived at a slower pace, allowing time to look more deeply and act more wisely.

The pace at which Sven Jorgensen lived and worked is also the pace of meditation. “Do you have the patience to wait,” asks Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “till your mud settles and the water is clear? / Can you remain unmoving / till the right action arises by itself?” And in his book Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry, the physicist Arthur Zajonc observes that “hurrying is antithetical to the required tempo of meditation”. Elaborating that point, he notes that “the tempo of meditation is the same as that of artistic attention; it is the rhythm of poetry. Speed hides all subtlety; and reality is subtle.” *

Which of us isn’t in a hurry? Although my son once referred to me as his slow-moving dad, I too can get in a rush, lose all patience, and miss the subtleties of experience. If I need a retardant, I can find it in the image of Lao-Tzu, writing immortal poetry in his mountain retreat. Or, closer to home, I can call back the memory of Speed Jorgensen at his table, patiently scrubbing an ink-filled “o,” or winding a cloth ribbon on a spool, or calmly wiping a well-worn platen.


* Arthur Zajonc, Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry (Lindisfarne, 2009), 98.

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