on being patient, and being a patient – and some reflections on elisabeth tova bailey’s the sound of a wild snail eating

Philadelphia Flower Show (2)Philadelphia Flower Show (1) Philadelphia Flower Show

Day 5 of recovery (they say give it another few days still) and I think that I may be getting the hang of this. I don’t have a history of being the best patient, haven’t always “done sick” very well. I am not usually very patient as my work projects get delegated to others, as I project forward into the future and fret about lost vacation days as snow continues to fall.

Yet the rhythm of these intensely quiet days – of appreciating the taste of chamomile in the afternoon instead of my usual coffee, of reading almost a book per day, of bedtimes that are closer to dinnertime than dawn – there is something restorative in all of this.

Sometimes it takes focusing on the small to understand the whole.

The Sound of a Wild Snail EatingExactly two months ago, at Christmastime, I sat in my mother’s sunroom and read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.  Fittingly, it’s a small book, a natural history/medical memoir of only 190 pages. At 34, Ms. Bailey was in all aspects very healthy when she contracted a debilitating virus during a trip to Europe and, upon returning to the States, became bedridden. When a friend brings her some violets, she notices a woodland snail nestled in the pot. The snail becomes a companion – and a comparison to and a focal point of her own life.

“Everything about a snail is cryptic, and it was precisely this air of mystery that first captured my interest. My own life, I realized, was becoming just as cryptic. From the severe onset of my illness and through its innumerable relapses, my place in the world has been documented more by my absence than by my presence. While close friends understood my circumstances, those who didn’t know me well found my disappearance from work and social circles inexplicable.

Yet it wasn’t that I had truly vanished. I was simply homebound, like a snail pulled into its shell. But being homebound in the human world is a sort of vanishing. When encountering acquaintances from the past, I sometimes see a look of astonishment cross their face, as if they think they are seeing my ghost, for I am not expected to reappear. At time even I wonder if a ghost is what I’ve become.” (pg. 116-117)

“Each relapse shrinks my world down to the core. And each time I’ve started to make my slow way back, over many years, toward the life I once knew, I find that nothing is quite as I remember; in my absence, the world has moved forward. (pg. 153)

My situation is different from Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s. I’m recovering from two surgeries in 24 hours, one being fairly common. (Who needs a gallbladder anyway, right?) There’s a name, a diagnosis, an expected return date to my regularly programmed life. This taking to my bed, I know, is temporary.

It has, however, shifted my perspective. To perhaps reach out more when those I care about may be hurting. To listen more closely. To try and make the extra effort. To do the unexpected.

I’d like to think I didn’t need the gallstones to remind me to think a little differently, that maybe I am capable enough without surgery and bedrest to vow, once again, to appreciate the small things. But it is our job to notice the reminders when they are given and to take them in the form that they appear.

“I could never have guessed what would get me through this past year – a woodland snail and its offspring; I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Watching another creature go about its life … somehow gave me, the watcher, purpose too. If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on …Snails may seem like tiny, even insignificant things compared to the wars going on around the world or a million other human problems, but they may well outlive our own species.” (pg. 154)

(Photos taken by me at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia, PA, March 7, 2009. I thought this teacup display was so cool and have been wanting to use these photos in the right blog post forever.)