I first encountered slow time in a science fiction story: what if some people lived in a bubble and didn’t age at the same rate as the rest of us?
John Keats, like the other British Romantic poets, used an older, pseudo-classical style, with ye’s and thou’s and odd capitalizations for emphasis, to give Ode on a Grecian Urn an almost Biblical authority and resonance.
The poem is a reflection on how the interpretation of art and artifacts changes, and is not based on an actual relic glimpsed in a . The young Keats found inspiration in printed illustrations (this old Kent would have hesitated, having grown up on literary giants like Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, whose search for “truth” in fiction gave them license to cannibalize the lives of friends, enemies and nice people who invited them for long weekends at fancy estates, research-crazed thriller writers like Elmore Leonard and John le Carre, who must visit a location, or learn as best as possible how a nefarious thing is done, before writing about it and an unnamed critic who caused psychic scarring when he dismissed one of my unpublished short stories with “how can you write about Paris if you’ve never been there?” as if that ever stopped Hollywood set makers from throwing together a few cafe chairs on a Los Angeles studio while a guy walks by wearing a beret with a lavishly dressed woman on his arm.)
Keats began this beautiful poem:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,/Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time.
An unravished bride of quietness is a virginal female (Feminist critics may object: though an urn is hollow and has been fashioned to hold or enclose, why must it be feminine?) who has been raised in the absence of sound or attention. A foster-child of silence anthropomorphizes the lack of sound: quietness is a nurturing presence, possibly (though not necessarily) maternal. “Slow time” is a characteristically Romantic defiance of the punctually British understanding of time as a fixed, irrevocable, cause-and-effect process by which one thing happens after another. It is almost a privileged aging process, the kind we imagine would be a divine gift.
Keats ended this poem with a famous Romantic slogan that only the young can accept without qualification: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
If only this were so….
Let me set aside my English major prose and treat the usage personally: I am now a person of slow time, and it does feel like a gift, divine or otherwise.
My right knee has become “problematic,” a coy euphemism for things that don’t work properly and may never will. I’ve had difficulties with both knees that were resolved years ago with surgery. It’s too soon to know if I must endure steroid injections, go under the orthoscopic knife again, or have the joint replaced parts that will arouse metal detectors.
But I do know that my knee is stiff and doesn’t enjoy the load-bearing yoga stretches that were once waystations along a path to relaxation. When I run, or stress the knee, I feel pain that remains for several days. The agony is sufficiently intense to inspire a gobbling of tylenol tablets, and a limp.
A few days ago I paused at a traffic intersection, pressed a button on a pole supporting a traffic light, and waited for a signal to stop the cars and trucks so I could cross the street. A flashing signal told me I had 40 seconds.
As I limped across, I saw one driver glare at me with contempt. I was the old person who selfish intent halted his progress down the busy thoroughfare. And I was moving so slowly. Though the light doesn’t change any faster if I speed up and finish with ten seconds left over, I imagined him wanting to see me demonstrating haste. What had he done to be so annoyingly delayed, and what had I done to be so incapable of running across, as I used to, as we all used to, when our knees worked perfectly?
I know why my knees do not work perfectly. Each meniscus–the fancy latin term for a knee cap–has been torn by the ends of the bones grinding together. The grind in my right leg happened when I mounted a horse from the horse’s right side. I put my right foot in the stirrup, swung left leg (and the body attached) over the horse’s rump, leaving my knee to bear the weight of the turn. The weight pushed the bones against the knee cap. They tore it up as they turned.
If I had known mounting the horse would cause permanent damage to my knee, I would not have done this. It was only when I dismounted after the ride that I noticed my knee was stiff and swollen. Some hours later the joint became…problematic.
I don’t know how I injured my left knee, though it may have had to do with climbing stairs at a landscaped garden. You bear down on the knee and, while going up, you turn to look over your shoulder. That could have done it, or something else.
Problematic injuries bring their own kind of slow time. You have to focus on your movements. You must improvise ways of doing things that used to be so simple you weren’t aware of your body. The use
As a child, I stood on one leg to imitate a bird. As a teacher, I stood on one leg to illustrate the Talmudic story of a challenge given to the Rabbi Hillel by a man who would convert to Judaism if Hillel could recite the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) while standing one foot. According to the story, Hillel accepted the challenge, stood on one foot, and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation. Go study it!”
I also stood on one foot in a few yoga balancing postures. These became very helpful later in martial arts, where maintaining your balance in any conflict is always a physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual advantage.
Now standing one one leg requires a consultation with my knee. Are you up to this? Would you be more comfortable if I bent my leg, or can you take the full weight?
Problematic injuries also require a wariness of people, places and things that may resent, or simply not be aware of, the fact that you are temporarily in their way. You must examine trustworthiness of the earth beneath your feet, the chair beneath your bum, even the wind beneath your wings! What choices you have tend to be limited to moving faster, and more painfully, or slower and more pathetically.
Despite this difficulty, slow time does bring a gift. When you must slow down, you see things differently. You discover that, as much as you feel alienated, disaffected, scorned or rejected, you may also be part of something larger, smaller or more interesting, than the busy, narrowly self-absorbed world that you typically inhabit.
To that driver who was so annoyed: yes, I may be the reason you had to slow down.
But you and I are so much more than that.