I call it The Slow Time of Accidents: what happens when – through loss, illness or emergency – our sense of time stretches and slows, both immediately and in the long-term. Cut off or cast adrift from the routines that make our days tick past, we arrive unprepared by the tempo of modern life into a becalmed, uncharted place.
Just over a decade ago, my life almost ended in minutes – faster even than the events of this last month which are separating all of us from work, schools and loved ones: an arterial haemorrhage a fortnight after the birth of my first child. I saw the light, believed my life was ending. I survived, just. Mended, almost. What I never recovered from – and hope not to – is this slow time I’ve lived in ever since, and learned how to navigate. This fragile extra life; the total, continuous attention it gifted me.
In the first years afterwards, I was aware mainly of struggle; of not knowing how to make good on my abrupt separation from a familiar world. It was a suspended, difficult stage, full of frantic and largely mistaken attempts to retrain: I could be a counsellor, a midwife, a teacher. I signed up for courses and worked late into the nights while my babies slept, trying to attain a new and useful identity (one that had, too, some external status in the world).
But eventually, exhausted by my failed attempts to rebuild firm ground while suffering long-term health consequences, I simply swam out into the free days, and away from news cycles, office gossip, TV shows.
I became a student of older traditions, where time had another measure. My only essential tools were now pens, paper, a park bench. Poetry. I travelled through time and space; landing in the east of five hundred years ago, a thousand. Kenko’s Essays in Idleness, Chōmei’s An Account of My Hut, Bashō’s Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, Po Chü-i and others collected in Arthur Waley’s Chinese Poems — all a world away from fast, mass-produced culture. I began to write outside and attract lost souls, as they did.
(I’ve just been made redundant. I’ve all these hours now. Will you read to me? said a middle-aged man, seeing me in a park with my books. Does it come back, the quiet? A wistful new mother, with her pram. My reply, succinct and Zen-strict: Not unless you keep just a little space for its return; build in quiet minutes.)
As I began to imagine a late creative life for myself, this by Japanese painter Hokusai transformed my relation to time still further:
From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing’.Hokusai
I wanted to feel for myself such a long view – that steady persistence in pursuit of mastery – even if it would have to be fitted around the care of small children. And this was how I arrived in 2016 (already a decade after my near-death) at my Wild Patience Scrolls. A mile of longhand in which time, attention and paper were all stretched to mythical proportions. As I inched along my five 150ft scrolls across two summers, watched by hundreds of pool-goers, I was newly free of worry, full of thought. Held by the here and now.
My slow and patient work surprised strong feeling in others. Office workers who had come to the lido to do fast laps and grab the lunchtime sun, began to draw near, grow curious. One wrote to me later: Your simplicity was profoundly affecting. I imagined you from a distant time, focussed on something important.
It had become a novelty I realised, with sadness, then hope: Writing – that ancient, simple means of being both self-contained and open to experience; one of the cheapest means of becoming fully awake to one’s lives and times. Here is a pen, I said to those who came close, and paper. Use them. Write me how it feels.
A Wild Patience Exercise
And this is my invitation to you now, in turn. In this slow time you have been cast into, take a pen and allow time to stretch and spool still further, if just for one day. Around your necessary care for others, pick up your pen over and again to make minute by minute notes: Noises from your house, your body; how the light moves in rooms you are often not in during the working week; what birds go past the window; short transcribed snatches of your family in talk.
What depths does it sound in you?
Further Resource (a 30-minute listen)
Pursuit of Beauty: Slow Art (BBC Radio 4, 2018)
As the 21st century continues at break-neck speed Lindsey Chapman brings you a moment of calm, as she meets some extraordinary musicians and artists, to find out the motivation behind creating slow art. Featuring the Ash Dome of David Nash, Jem Finer’s Longplayer – a composition for a thousand years, and Tanya Shadrick’s Wild Patience mile of writing.
15 thoughts on “Wild Patience Diaries: Wise Guides to Slow Time”
It was wonderful to speak to you a while back; I felt your presence albeit on the other end of a telephone. You’re gifted beyond measure, and I love what you’re creating. One day, I hope, we’ll get to meet in person.
Thank you for the prompt. I’d never thought of using a pen and paper that way.
Blessings, and much love,
I enjoyed that talk very much. I feel sure you will be running events in your part of the world in a future season – and it will be my pleasure to come and speak/offer a session when you do. Thank you for these kind words now.
Thank you for this reflective entry and the writing exercise. I am using this weekend as a bookmark between worlds to meditate on the word. Your instruction is a whero (challenge) to sit with the discomfort of writing.
Have tried with two different e-mail addresses, but they were not accepted.
I’m so sorry to hear that, and thank you for making such efforts. I will send a query to WordPress about it. In the meantime – and I know it is less than ideal – you will find the new post up on my website tanyashadrick.com in the Wild Patience Diaries section every Friday. I’m now going to enjoy looking at your site in return.
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Thank you. This is beautiful, inspiring, uplifting.
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And my thanks in return for these kind words. To know it is reaching a reader, and being of use to them, means a great deal.
One of the best things that has happened in the aftermath of my first book coming out is the connections I made with people and how those connections opened the door on many of the “older traditions” you talk about, and how I too have found myself “landing in the east of five hundred years ago, a thousand.” It was beyond magic how literature, and contemplation, can connect us to people thousands of miles distant and centuries gone. It is simply the best thing. Also, how that connects people like us, separated by mountain ranges and great plains and seething oceans too, and yet … kindred, in a way. Yes, kindred.
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Yes, that feeling of being closer – through our own work – to the work of others come before us, however distant in time and place. As well as these living connections now, which are just as precious to me. Birds of Firle hasn’t made it back from Netherlands yet (likely due to COVID-19) but when it does I will send it you as soon as I can safely reach a post office.
This week’s task has reacquainted me with Ryokan, Basho and Thomas Merton. I have to imagine a space that I do not have. A minimal quiet space. I like it when you say the only tools you had were pens, paper and a park bench. This minimalism of need is what brought me to writing. In my visual art work I had pared down to only needing a needle and found materials to sew and materials gathered from the earth to draw with but even that became too much. I felt I was creating ‘stuff’. Writing appeals, as a pen and paper is all that is required and an acceptance of slow time.
Once again, thank you.
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It’s so lovely to know how these new diary posts of mine are working out where you are. Thank you. I’ve only read a little bit of Merton – Raids on the Unspeakable – so would love your recommendation of what else of his to try next? Tomorrow’s post – if I can even manage after this week of fast & hard Covid-19 symptoms – will likely be a previously published essay of mine with an exercise added, whereas I am usually trying to make new work each week from old notes and experiences. It may still be of some interest to those who have come to my work more recently though. Back to normal next week I hope, even though I now (like so many of us) have the children at home…
Wow. This is beautiful. And timely. There’s a rare gentleness in this softly spoken entreaty to make a moment, to slow down, to truly engage in being present. Paradoxically, I discovered you today in the fast-moving world of Twitter, slowed down for a moment by a reflection by a connection of ours on a parcel we posted to him, our way of making a more considered connection … he showed the gift we sent with a copy of your one and only poem, a gift to me as I followed the trail of breadcrumbs over here to a world of inspiration. Just the sort of ripples I love to see from the pebbles we throw in the pond. Warm regards Barrie
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Touched. Truly. And likewise very glad to have made the connection today. Thank you.