Though illness may rob us of vitality, sometimes it can also help bring us understanding — albeit in improbable disguises.
Essayist and short story writer Elisabeth Tova Bailey was struck with a neurological disorder that left her too weak even to sit up. The illness forced her to stay in bed, where she felt life was slipping by, unused.
Things changed for Bailey when a friend brought her a gift: a pot of flowers that also contained a wild snail the friend had plucked from the ground. That nearly motionless mollusk became Bailey's companion — almost her surrogate.
Bailey, who uses a pseudonym due to her illness, has written a memoir called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story.
"I really have to lead a very, very quiet life," she tells NPR's Scott Simon from her home in Maine. "I'm not somebody that ever wanted to write about myself or my illness."
What Bailey did want to do, though, was "write a sort of biographical thank you for the snail. And I also wanted to help other patients with my illness."
Though Bailey's illness is debilitating, it is not very visible, she says. Still, it's physically limiting: "extraordinarily difficult to live with — and it's very unpredictable," she says. The illness is also difficult to define: "Depending on what specialist you go to, you can get a different diagnosis," she explains. Those possible diagnoses include dysautonomia, a mitochondrial disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Despite the snail's tiny stature, Bailey says she found herself overwhelmed by the little creature when it first arrived: "I was a little bit perplexed," she says. "It felt like just one more thing that I couldn't deal with." After her friend left, Bailey found herself bed-ridden, with a small animal in her room "and no understanding of its life or how I would ever get it back to the woods where it came from."
But soon, Bailey found herself fascinated by the snail. Though she was too sick to watch television or read, the snail's minuscule movements were captivating. "I think sometimes about the Emily Dickinson poem about the fly on the windowsill," she says with a laugh — the poem that begins, I heard a Fly buzz — when I died ...
As the hours and days wore on, the snail emerged from its shell and started exploring its surroundings. "I began to see the pattern in its life," Bailey recalls. "And when you start to observe the patterns of another animal's life, I think you get to know that animal and feel connected."
Bailey was so ill that she could hardly tend to her own needs, let alone anyone else's. She could, however, care for the snail, feeding it petals from wilted flowers. "It gave me a feeling of being useful again," she says. Listening to the nocturnal snail munch on petals was comforting to Bailey when she was struggling with insomnia.
She also admired the pace at which the snail lived: "It moved at a speed that was actually faster than my own speed, and so it really was peaceful to watch it. It moved so smoothly and gently and gracefully, it was like a tai chi master."
Though not fully recovered, Bailey is moving a little faster these days, and says that "like most humans" she tries to do too much. "I think the functioning of humans is evolving to be faster and faster," she says.
Perhaps there's something to be said for moving at a snail's pace.