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)
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.