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.

Heart lifting

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Baby Abby and baby Guion, engaging in favorite activities. (Photo from a sweet baby shower.)

The joys of spring are so apparent that they’re almost not worth naming. I part the curtains with anticipation every morning, noting the growth of my long-nurtured perennials and the return of familiar weeds. We continue to walk every day, observing how quickly the trees shed their blossoms and mature, how insane the songbirds have become in courtship and competition. I walk slowly now, but I am still walking. This seems to be what counts.

I have always tended toward loving home and domesticity, but this instinct seems to have kicked into high gear, now that I’m nearly nine months pregnant. I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. My first instinct at any invitation is to say no, definitely not (much to my extroverted lover’s chagrin). I am staying put. I am waiting here, where I have been planted for the time being.

. . .

Perhaps one of the strangest sensations I’ve encountered, poised on the brink of motherhood, is the fact that even though I am reading copiously about babies and parenthood, I don’t know anything more than I did before. All of this knowledge hasn’t transformed into preparation or prediction. I still have no idea what it will be like. In almost every other realm, I can read dozens of books and walk away with at least some increased knowledge. This does not seem to be the case concerning child-rearing. It’s all still a grand mystery. Maybe it always will be.

These days, most people ask us, “Are you ready?” And I always say no, of course not. Who is ever really ready for this?

I skimmed an interview with a designer, a mother of two, who used this metaphor for the voyage from childlessness to parenthood: You lived on Earth, very happily, for many years. Then you’re packed onto a spaceship and sent to another planet. You can always see Earth from your new planet, and you know you can never return. Sometimes this stabs you in the heart. This other planet is very different and strange at first, but you come to love it. It has its own joys and pains and secrets and pleasures. You accept it as your new home, remembering Earth as a distant, fond memory.

. . .

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.

— Susan Sontag, lecturing on Nadine Gordimer, quoted in Brain Pickings

Your uncertainty is God’s will

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Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.

Tinkers, Paul Harding

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A long quote, but a very good one: How uncertainty can be God’s grace to us. (I saw so much of Marilynne Robinson, Harding’s former professor, in that book.)

I haven’t been around here much lately, and my postings will probably be more than usually sporadic, since the month of May is pure madness for us. But everything in May will be good and new and exciting, even if just looking at my calendar makes me break out in a cold sweat.

I am trying to read many things, even though I feel like all of it is skimming over my head. I am spending a lot of time with Eudora Welty, one of my all-time favorites, in preparation for next month’s book club. I have missed you, Eudora. When I was about 14 and said I wanted to be a writer, Dave gave me a copy of her collected short stories and told me to read them closely. It was very, very good advice. I am so happy to return to her.

I also just started Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which is powerful and mind-opening. I think Guion would like it a lot. And Grace. Most people, for that matter. Anyone who’s ever looked at photographs before.

Talk to you soon.