If you’ve ever spent a few hours or a few days or a few weeks in a hospital, either as patient or as a patient’s waiting-room-loved-one, you know that time does a funny thing inside hospital walls. It doesn’t stop, exactly, but it also doesn’t feel quite like it matches whatever our wristwatch or smart phone indicates the hour to be.
I had a medical test this last Monday that required a roughly 5-hour hospital stay. I’ve seen the inside of more hospital rooms and doctors’ offices than I’d like in 2020, and every time, if I’m there for more than a couple of hours, the experience is the same–I walk out not exactly sure what time it is, much less the day. I walked out of there Monday just sure it was close to evening…it was barely time for elevensies.
Today, I put my finger on it…well, perhaps at least in “its” general vicinity.
When you are undergoing a medical test, or receiving a treatment (like chemotherapy), or having surgery, or are sick enough to warrant a hospital stay, generally the most important thing you’ve got going is that very thing. It’s what’s right in front you, having to be done, gotten through, that dominates your being and thinking. We are finally able to set aside the million things that distract us from most every moment of our lives because the here and now becomes what matters most. The very present situation we find ourselves in.
How fully have we bought into the rat race narrative the United States seems to hold so dear, that we can’t even escape it until we absolutely must–because our blood sugar or blood pressure is dangerously high, or we have a stroke, or a gall bladder emergency, or, perhaps, a diagnosis of a life-changing disease.
Our bodies have a way of telling us, “Hold up, Julie. All is not well with you.”
And in that instant, ironically, mindfulness, the act of being fully present in any given moment, becomes a lifeline instead of something we read about “how to achieve,” on the cover of a grocery store mag.
Mindfulness does not match a day defined by your Google calendar or your productivity chart.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to renegotiate our understanding of time. For many of us (not all of us–h/t medical frontliners and Amazon delivery folks), a sense of schedule, marked by time, has been thrown out the window since about mid-March. Work-from-home days and online school days, despite our best efforts, do not feel the same as at-the-office or in-class days, not to mention that many of the things filling our digital calendars have been cancelled in the last few months.
And while, of course, there are blessings to be found in what has happened, it’s also messed with our heads in ways that eventually affect our hearts. Anxiety and depression are very real things, perhaps for the first time for people, during these coronavirus days, and I am convinced that at least some of it has to do with what a quick pivot we had to do with life–quite literally overnight in some cases, we had to reorient ourselves to a completely different way of being.
A way of being for which we had no map. Because no one knows how to do this, y’all. No one. And because we don’t know, we stress. We try to control. We stuff back grief and fear like our lives depend on it because we have no idea how to navigate the feelings that come with your entire life having been upended.
We have no idea how to simply be in the midst of what’s happening.
Author Madeleine L’ Engle often wrote about two different kinds of time: chronos v. kairos. Chronos is what she described as “ordinary wristwatch time.” Kairos is altogether different. It is not fully measurable. It might not even fully be of this world. But it is space in which we are invited to just be.
I know, I know–just be.
Chemotherapy (and all the accompanying drugs used to mitigate its effects) has really jacked with my internal senses. And one of the ways it’s done this is that I wake up ridiculously early for no apparent reason. This is annoying, on the one hand. On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent on my back deck since March–sometimes with coffee, sometimes with a Diet Dr Pepper. Sometimes texting with my best friend from high school, who has long been an early riser. Sometimes crying so hard I could barely breathe. And other times letting every breath be a prayer. Sometimes reading. Sometimes watching the cardinal couple flit from branch to branch. Sometimes just being quiet and still.
I recognize already that this has been a gift. Of presence. Of mindfulness. Of kairos.
Here’s the thing–trauma, whatever form it takes, leverages a total reckoning with your life. A whole bunch of stuff falls apart and away when what you wanted for your life gets torn to shreds. But if you are very, very lucky, still intact, at the center of all that has shattered, are the things that mattered most to begin with–which tends to be the truth of who you are, and have always been.
So much is falling apart and away right now, y’all. So much. Very little looks at all like it did on January 1, 2020. All around us globally, all around us nationally, all around us personally, things are breaking.
What would happen, I wonder, if we embraced it. If we set aside the comfort of ordinary wristwatch time and leaned into this odd and painful space we find ourselves in. What if we said, “Ok. Everything is different. But this moment matters. And all is not lost.”
When I heard my doctor’s voice, over the phone, right at the beginning of March, tell me that there were enlarged and angry lymph nodes in my system, I knew, by the tone of his voice, that everything was about to change.
I was right.
Everything is different. But this moment matters. And all is not lost.
Everything is different, y’all.
But this moment? It matters.
And all is not lost.