When the lights of health go down

For most of the century, we have done a marvelous job at removing the specter of disease and death in the Western world. Death is often presented as a problem that can be solved, or at the very least, battled and delayed for as long as possible. We prefer not to ever think or talk about it. The pandemic, however, has forced us to confront the closeness of death—and the unpredictability of our citizenship in the country of the well. The prospect of illness raises our primal hackles. We want to hide ourselves away, find safe refuge, and locate and then hoard a cure.

I’m in a weird place with my own mortality, as I suspect many of us are, and I’ve been thinking and reading a lot lately about the landscape of illness. It is a terrain that is marked by paltry language and often poorly told stories. We don’t know how to talk about our bodies; the paradoxes of medicine confound us; words fail. We are often at a loss for words to describe how we feel in our mortal frames. How can I express the pain I feel to someone who is not feeling it? Are our bodies our allies? Or are they our enemies, liable to betray us at any moment? When will we pass over into that shadowy country of sickness?

Two luminous writers always come to my mind on the subject of the sick: Virginia Woolf, in her essay “On Being Ill,” which you can read in its entirety online, and Susan Sontag’s short, deep book Illness as Metaphor, written after her cancer diagnosis.

Both Woolf and Sontag discuss landscapes and countries when they reach for language about health. Sontag references “the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick,” and Woolf writes, eloquently,

“Consider how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness….”

When the lights of health go down, we retreat inward—and somehow find ourselves in an “undiscovered country,” as Woolf says. I have found it helpful, in my own illnesses, to have a richer internal language about sickness. The country may still be unknown, but its borders may now have ramparts supported by a stronger vocabulary. In this vein, I’ve gathered stories about the body and what happens when its machinery runs predictably and when it doesn’t. Stay warm, and be well, dear reader.

Excerpted from this week’s issue of Story Matters.

. . .

I’m a poor excuse for a real Episcopalian, but I have enjoyed, since my conversion, participating in the liturgical calendar. The season of Lent feels especially poignant this year, in the endless pandemic. We are finding ways to be more intentional about it this year: to read more poetry, light more candles, watch less TV, pursue fewer mindless distractions. The weather is an absolute nightmare, so it has been a fitting time to be somber and meditative. There’s nothing else to do: no one to see, nowhere to go. We think about all of the things we have to be grateful for, and we feel humbled to count so many.

Moses, for his part, is very thankful for snow plows:

And I was thankful to spy these four hidden deer in the woods on a cold morning walk with Pyrrha:

We are quiet and we are trying to be at rest, but we are more eager for spring than ever.

Monday Snax

A view of the street from our study window. Not sure how our windowsill is that dirty. Don't look at it.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day to all! I have the day off from work, but thought I’d bring you a bag of Snax anyway. I’m grateful for the long weekend and the opportunity to hibernate, read, and drink copious amounts of tea. I feel like I’m getting a cold again, which is absolutely unacceptable. I am never this sick this frequently, and so even the slightest bit of illness turns me into an absolute diva. Good thing I have an endlessly sweet and forgiving husband.

Snax in your tea with lemon:

The Charlotte. A handful of my creative, classy friends/acquaintances in Charlottesville just launched this beautiful design and lifestyle blog. I’m loving it and I can’t wait to see what’s next! Do stop in for a visit. (The Charlotte)

UFO Sighting Map. Angela is a genius; I can’t believe she actually MADE this: an interactive map of 15 years’ worth of UFO sightings in the United States. Apparently the aliens really like coasts? Check it out; I could play with it all day. (Slate)

First Few from Wellington. Grace is alive and well in New Zealand! Enjoy these fabulous shots of her first week there. I think she’s now en route to her first farm assignment on the coast. So excited for her; still having trouble believing that she’s actually living down there now. (Como Say What?)

The Hazards of the Couch. New study claims that sitting in front of screens will kill us all. Not even the gym can save you now. I need to get my cousin’s job: Searching forests for black locust trees and then cutting them down with a team of draft horses. No time for blogs if you’re doing that, and ergo, no time for DYING prematurely. (New York Times)

It Doesn’t Matter Why He Did It. A short and insightful piece from the New Yorker about the Tucson assassinations: Perhaps Palin’s crosshairs map isn’t responsible, but rather the body of violent political discourse, which has become acceptable. (The New Yorker)

Women of Istanbul. A beautiful portrait series from this amazing, world-traveling couple. (Mr. and Mrs. Globe Trot)

The Year of Journaling Fearlessly. A great article on the challenges of keeping a journal, from a Charlottesville-based online magazine that my friend Natalie runs. I aspire to this type of “fearless” diary-keeping and appreciate the writer’s shared insights. (The Curator)

We Took Him Home. OK, so you know I’m not a huge cat fan, but whoa. Reading this post made me seriously consider getting one. That first picture with her hand full of kitten? Killing me. (Fat Orange Cat Studio)

New Year Wishes. Reason #1,506 why I’d like to be a Japanese woman: They carry rabbits around on their shoulders when walking in the park! (Tokyo Times)

Gold as a Mindset. A simple iteration of the Japanese aesthetic worldview of wabi sabi: Filling the cracks of broken things with gold dust. (Wide Open Spaces)

And the Snow Fell Quietly. This is the kind of snow I can enjoy: From a window or a photographer’s lens. (The title also makes me giggle a bit, though. Who ever heard of snow falling loudly?) (La Porte Rouge)

A Love Story. A beautiful tribute to one of our family friends, who recently passed away. You can’t read what her husband wrote about her without crying. Thanks for sharing this selection from the blog, Megan. (Thoughts from the Nest)