On Sick Time
taking measure of the hours
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“The idea of organizing time into standards units of hours, minutes and seconds, would have seemed strange, even macabre, to [people in] medieval times,” writes Jeremy Rifkin in Time Ways: The Primary Conflict in Human History. I stumbled upon this quote in Waverly Fitzgerald’s Slow Time: Recovering the Natural Rhythm of Life, a book I just finished with my spiritual journaling group. I was drawn to Slow Time because I never feel like I have enough time. Maybe you can relate? I’ll spare you the mundane, but carefully itemized details recorded in my Bullet Journal of what demands my time.
My key insight from Slow Time is that there are artificial, humankind-made markers of time: years, months, weeks, days, hours, etc., and there are natural rhythms of time: moon cycles, seasons. The clash between regimented artificial time and the ebb and flow of natural time create my deepest time conflicts.
In winter, my animal body wants to sleep more because there is more darkness, but my time clock at work never makes for this adjustment. When I’m on my menstrual cycle, my body often cries out for more rest, but I rarely give into that urge unless it’s the weekend.
Yet, there are many times that I thrive in the rhythms of artificial time. Most of my life I’ve lived and worked by the academic calendar. I truly enjoy a weekly routine where every Monday or Thursday, or whatever day, I do the exact same thing, in the exact same order for a 16-week semester. I enjoy planning a writing schedule and a workout schedule to maximize my energy levels and mental acumen throughout the day. I used to become irate, despair, or crumple into frustration if anything from a car breakdown to a strained hamstring interfered with my schedule, but Slow Time has shown me I’m better off if I honor what I cannot control, and if I surrender to forces beyond my control.
Slow Time is full of wonderful journaling prompts and reflection exercises. I set about completing the weekly writing assignments on a manual typewriter because it forced me to—delightfully—slow down. One of my favorite prompts was to name the hours of the day, like how the daily office of prayer named the eight times of day to pray. My first two hours of the day I’ve dubbed, “Caffeinating the Writing Machine,” because it’s the time when I drink and do my Morning Pages. Another journaler called those early morning hours, “Stretching the Whole,” the time just before getting out of bed when kids stretch from head to toe. “Chasing the Shadows,” is the late evening when my cats begin to prowl.
Slow Time showed me that interruptions to artificial time can be accepted with gentle grace instead of frustration. Sometimes we move out of regular time (which is to say artificial time) and into something more human, like when illness strikes.
Here’s a reflection (originally drafted on a 1949 Smith Corona Skywriter):
On Sick Time
Our schedule’s now being set by stomach bug. We are on Sick Time.
Just like Daylight Savings Time, this invisible time marker switched over precisely at 3 am. I looked at the clock right after Stanley finished vomiting, after he woke me up, after he puked once on the floor by my bed, and then again after he’d made it to the toilet.
It’s mid-morning now. Stanley and I barely got any sleep. He’d puked every 20 minutes the rest of the night: another thing I timed. He’s finally crashed out. Before he did, he asked me to tickle his back in the Big Bed. I drew the curtain. Tucked him in. And for a flash, I remembered him as a baby.
That was five years ago. Before potty training. Before weening. Two lost teeth ago. It’s the same bed. The same room. Something about the curtains being drawn in the middle of the day transported me back to the breastfeeding days. I’d spent so many hours there nursing this very human.
There’s something vulnerable and baby-like in Stanley’s sick face today that I haven’t seen come out in a long time, now that he’s a kindergartner. I watch him drift to sleep.
I think about the labor of caregiving, how the labor of caring for vulnerable bodies—sick ones, young ones, elderly ones, unhoused ones—is undervalued. How the most vulnerable being cared for are often exploited. This morning I read a news article. A woman had been found alive in a mortuary. A few hours before she was found, she’d been declared dead at her nursing home. At the very end of the article, the author mentioned the same thing had happened two weeks ago at a mortuary in Iowa.
I think about the labor of caregiving, how so much of it is numbingly repetitive, uncompensated labor. I think about my friends Gillian and Jon, who prepare food and gather clothes for unhoused people every weekend. How Jesus washed feet.
I think about the labor of caregiving, how I have so much privilege to be home on a weekday without having to work.
To have ample sick days with no penalty
To care for another’s sick body and clean up after it
To let that person surrender to his body’s demands, so they may do only what the body asks.
To rest, to sleep, to snuggle under the quilt made by hands that loved him even before he was born, made to commemorate his birth.
I’m surprised to realize that I like the rhythm of sick time. It is low. It is quiet. It is surrender.
What would you name some of the hours of your day?
When has your schedule or sense of time been interrupted? How did that feel?