Once upon a time people recovered from illness in long, slow chunks of bed-ridden time. That was before we were so busy that we couldn’t be inconvenienced by our bodies. A time before we invented pills to mask symptoms and hide the battle waged by our hard-working immune systems.
I thought about this a lot last week, laid up for days with a mystery illness. I have the luxury of resting; I can conduct my work from the couch if need be. The laundry might suffer, but homeschooling and writing are as easily accomplished in the living room as at a desk. My husband, who works long hours in a downtown office, would never feel free to take that kind of time; most people I know wouldn’t. This is the world we’ve made, where a sick body is a nuisance to be subdued and enslaved rather than a friend to be honored and listened to.
A few weeks ago we finally sat down and watched the movie “Lincoln.” I was completely fascinated by the slowness of the time period. While war raged in real time, war dispatches were carried one by one across miles on sweaty horseback, or if you were lucky, by telegraph. Monumental events began – and concluded – before anyone could be informed they existed. Political intrigues yeasted and bubbled in dark, warm corners of silence. Communication was slow, cumbersome, and unverifiable. It was a world where distances mattered; where personal progress was subject to the limitations of physical strength and ingenuity; a world with limits that would frustrate and infuriate us today.
During my illness, my family had to go out of town. It left me with a day and a half completely to myself. I don’t think I’ve been entirely alone like that for 20-some years. I was feeling a little better by then, and inspired by the glimpse into slow-time, I decided I would spend my time in silence. I read, I napped, I ate when I was hungry, I wrote in my journal, sketched out ideas, watched the shadows changing on the wall. As the day faded, I lit candles, got more blankets, turned on some quiet music, fell asleep, woke, fell asleep, woke. The world felt soft, gentled, possible. When morning came, I rose out of the silence as if I was rising from the Jordan river fresh from baptism, blinked new eyes at this world I’ve been born to inhabit.
Writing a letter to a friend this week, I told her of the newborn sense I have of standing upright and still in the river’s current. I wonder how long I can stand here and part the waters before they take me again? For now, I have turned my energies to banishing the demon called “Urgent.” He’s a tyrant, that one, always prophesying doom and destruction for anyone who doesn’t respond instantly to his beeping and chiming and ringing. It’s so easy for him to make us believe his promises. To make us believe our success, our happiness, our relevancy depend on his summons and his applause. I shut him up by turning off the computer and putting the phone in a drawer. The river passes by on either side of me.
Today, the leaves are drifting off the trees, one long, slow aerial dance at a time. I’m listening to another voice now whisper to watch and remember, to store away the vision of this slimming branch, this twist of yellow leaf, this cold blue sky. It tells me all the usual, miraculous things: that surrender can be a long, beautiful dance; that the earth answers to no summons but God’s own; that the rhythms of time and silence are laid into the fabric of the earth; that I, too, have been woven and shaped as part of those same rhythms. Suppose, I ask myself, a person decided she was just going to keep standing here, living slow, present, learning the language of body and earth and spirit? A gust of wind blankets the side of the house, a swirl of yellow and brown lifts from the ground and then settles back down again. As I watch, five or six more leaves loose their grip on the tree and go.