The Tyranny of Time

It’s been two months since I sent my (possible) agent the book. My manuscript. My novel. (Whatever.) A book I’ve been obsessed with for several years. Lost in the pages. Hurtling myself across the screen, and then across Scandinavia, trying to remember who I was when I was twenty-two, working in the far north on a farm. Not much older than my son is now. Trying to remember the tiny birch leaves in spring, steamy manure in the barn, the way the light burned through my body, the taste of cloudberries and cream. At first I was sure I’d hear from her in two weeks. I didn’t. After that I despaired. “It’s only been two weeks,” my husband said. “Do something else. Write some poems. Finish that book you started two years ago when you came back from Wales.”So I tried. Printed out the book, a collection of poems. I tinkered with it. Made French bread. I ran until my hip hurt. I read about French gardens. Finished reading another mystery set in Denmark and was sure my book, also set partially in Denmark, was terrible. I watered my garden on the side of our narrow house until it was soggy. And then I watered it again.

I started to write about French gardens. They’re all about order and illusion, or they were once upon a time. Allées leading into the woods, fountains spouting jets of sparkly water. “A sense of infinite space.” Even in Versailles there wasn’t enough water for all the fountains to be on at once. The gardeners would signal each other with whistles when the king was touring the garden with friends (like John Locke). So the silver water was like a dance.

I made lacey chocolate chip cookies. I bothered my son with questions (he’s going back to college soon). I ate too many cookies. I looked at the poems again. I despaired. It was almost a month! I sent long emails to long ago friends. “I know I shouldn’t have put all my eggs in one basket,” I said to my husband.

And then I Googled: “How long does it take for an agent to respond to a manuscript?” I got lots of answers— two weeks! Four months! A year. I Googled my agent. What was she doing now that it was taking her (what I thought was) so long to read my work? I wrote a blog about French gardens. Didn’t post it. Wandered into a bookstore and found a book my friend Karen had recommended years ago: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. I fell in love with the author and sent her a note.

When Elisabeth Tova Bailey was in her thirties hiking in the Alps, she came down with a strange virus. For years she could hardly walk and spent months lying on her side in bed. During one of the periods when she was too sick to live at home, a friend gave her a pot of violets from the woods, a snail nestled at the base of the flowers. The snail became her companion. After several nights when the snail wandered around the room sampling “ink, pastels, and label glues,” Bailey’s caregiver constructed a terrarium, “filled with fresh native plants and other materials from the snail’s own woods.” She writes:

“While life in the terrarium flourished, time ticked away its seconds. But the relationship between time and the snail confused me. The snail would make its way through the terrarium while the hands of the clock barely moved — so I often thought the snail traveled faster than time. Then, absorbed in snail watching, I’d find that time had flown by, unnoticed.”

Her life folded into a single room, she spends days immersed in the snail’s world. She notes, “From my recumbent bedside view, the ferns and mosses appeared as miniature forests and fields, and as I watched the snail go about its life, it seemed as if it lived in a timeless world without change.”

I wanted to learn how to embrace time and not wish it away as I watched the computer tick off the days since I’d sent my manuscript to the agent. I started to notice small wild things again in my garden in Philadelphia. I wanted to be grateful. After reading Bailey’s book, I stopped killing slugs. I gently picked them up and moved them away from my flowers. I noticed their eyes dangling on the end of slender tentacles, like her snail’s eyes. I started to feel less desperate, and then felt desperate again. Went hiking with my husband in the White Mountains and found a glistening lake high up, full of yellow water lilies. Felt absolutely happy, forgot about my novel for almost a whole day.

Then, I spent two weeks with my mother in Vermont. “Did you hear from that agent, yet?” she asked. I just frowned. A friend I knew from years ago in England came to visit with his wife, and we discovered a hidden valley with eagles hollering in tall pines. Brown butterflies with dusky eyes, a winter wren singing her head off in the woods. Planted forty plants in a terraced garden with my friend Carmen. Startled by deer, started writing poems. I opened the folder from two years ago. Made chicken cacciatore with lots of just-picked peppers for a dinner party. Talked to my son on the phone, (asked him lots of questions). And then I took the slow train home and read another mystery, this one set in a village called Three Pines.

Back in Philadelphia, I had an appointment with my doctor who told me I had high blood pressure. “Too much wine in Vermont,” she said. I watched lots of junk TV. Maxwell and King, The Killing, Major Crimes, America’s Got Talent (with my mother). I had nightmares. One about teaching — I’m due to go back to my job after months off, a sabbatical spent in Denmark. It’s always the same dream. I can’t find the classroom and I’m late, lost in winding corridors. I had a nightmare about the novel, too. I couldn’t remember where I was. Couldn’t remember what the book was about. How did it end? After so many months breathing the book in like air, I was cut off.

This morning I planted three Black Pine seedlings in three tiny bonsai pots and patted their soil. Later, my husband looked up the name of an agent listed in one of the mysteries I’m reading and sent the link to her website. “Just in case,” he said.

Sharon White’s book, Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. She is also the author of two collections of poetry, Eve & Her Apple and Bone House. Her memoir, Field Notes, A Geography of Mourning, received the Julia Ward Howe Prize, Honorable Mention, from the Boston Authors Club. Some of her other awards include a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, the Leeway Foundation Award for Achievement, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship, the Calvino Award for her fiction, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Boiling Lake, a collection of short fiction, is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press.