Thursday, December 23, 2010

On Convalescence

Two days before I should have finished my marking for the fall term, I came down with the flu for the second time in three weeks.

The first feverish day I mostly slept, trying not to think too much about the fact that I should be marking and that the next term is already pressing in upon me.  I need to read Heidegger over Christmas for an M.A. thesis I'm examining, and I need to get a new issue of Wascana Review online.  When I wasn't obsessing about the passing of time, but listening instead to every voice of my body, feverish memories arose:  vivid, fragmentary, yet surrounded by context that arrived like a flash of lightning, illuminating everything momentarily.  Is memory somehow housed in the body?  Is it when we're ill (or sixty and ill for the second time in three weeks?) that we feel the full weight of our history?  In those moments, time actually stretched out behind me instead of racing toward me, and I turned to face in the other direction in a kind of hazy wonder.  I am the person made out of all that.

Past the worst of the fever but still wobbly in the knees, I contemplated the personalities of my cats.  This is a good thing to do when you're sick and have time on your hands.  Four years ago when I broke my ankle and was confined to the house for several weeks, Twig climbed into bed with me to be nursemaid, leaving only to eat.  In spite of this bond, I feel I don't know him very well; even his needs (except when it comes to food) seem quiet to me.  I imagine that he's a Zen philosopher who has accomplished detachment from much of the material world, leaving only food, warmth, sleep and love.  He now nurses me only when I'm awake.  Instead, it's wild little Sheba who's there the whole time, though she prowls up and down my body when she's bored and thinks I really ought to play with her or at least do something interesting.  When the two of them come, he gives her a bath, nibbling off yet another of the startling white eyebrows on her little black face.  If she climbs under the covers, he's so careful to go around her and not disturb her cozy sleep.  What are they thinking when they take such care with one another and play this nursemaid role, or is there simply some intuition of need?  I suspect they know a lot more about me than I know about them.  My definition of "cat" is "a domestic animal whose habits you know intimately.  Yet there's always mystery beyond what you (think you) know."

Illness is a time to re-read books.  I was too hazy-headed to read any of the year's book that are on the bookshelf in my workroom--Kathleen Winter's Annabel or Ian McEwan's Solar.  I wanted something small, so began to re-read Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses.  It's perfect for illness: short, physical in a philosophical sort of way.  The first time I read it, it seemed like a coming of age memoir told from the vantage point of Trond's sixty-seven-year-old self.  This older character I thought I understood:  his desire to strip down to essentials in his life seems familiar to me as I start to line up my books in the third floor AdHum hallway so some unwitting undergraduate will take them home.  I also understood when he said that after the deaths of his wife and sister he didn't know how to speak  to people; I've had depressions when I didn't know what to say to anyone.

Maybe one of the advantages of re-reading books when you are sick is that you're too wooly headed to defy the fact that you always read a different book, even when you are re-reading it.  If nothing else, your own context provides a different filter that draws attention to some of the events or images, motifs or phrases, while ignoring others.  At their best, though, all novels have this rich complexity; we simply pretend too often to have a single, coherent reading experience.  That's harder to do when you have a fever.

This time, Trond's asceticism still appeals to me, but I found his philosophy grounded in a physical, active  masculinity that didn't really know what to do with women.  And how many silent women's lives there are at the border of the novel--his deserted mother who only gets a single scene to herself; his thirty-nine-year-old daughter whom he hardly knows; the two wives we know nothing of, besides the second one's death; and of course "Jon's mother," who doesn't even merit a name.  Still, it's a novel with the hard-working aging body of a man who wants to be, deliberately, inside the time that is left to him.  A fine novel for convalescence.

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