A Little Test of Time

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My dad used to joke that death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down, but I think it’s pomegranate. God was in a sensuous mood when he created this fruit. Big, intense red, vaguely irregular in profile, at first blush, the pomegranate will tell you a lot of things besides just slow down. To cut through it is to meet a few dozen minor disagreements, as your blade makes its way around the chaotic fascia. Now hold the halves in your hands, and regard the cloven surfaces: you have just driven a bulldozer through a hillside favela. Now, it is time to address those shiny red seeds, dressed to kill. This is no time for speeches. I surrender all dignity, using my teeth to deliver the seeds from their natural habitat.

Having spent several afternoons in Yerevan pediatric clinics, I have tried to slow down, an intention supported by the consideration that I understand approximately every 11th word of the conversation. To get to one clinic, I take one of the walkways up the hill that surrounds the city’s heart, and salute Mother Armenia, who watches over Yerevan, holding a sword like it was an M-16.

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A 6 year old boy with speech delay sits by his mother through a 25 minute interview about his epilepsy. Normally he is pretty hyperactive at appointments, yet today he is somehow unusually quiet. He and I are joined in a silent movie, for the talk is going over our heads. Not a bad way to relate to someone though, to be restricted to their actions rather than their words.

Back home, I will often introduce the notion of “Theory of Mind”–what autistic individuals lack–by asking a student to picture a silent film: see how the players anticipate each other’s action, as though they are judging each other’s intention. Barring slapstick comedy, where bodies become things, we inevitably participate in the pleasant contagion of mind-theorizing, because our survival depends on the slow, iterative process of matching utterances to actions, of deducing what’s on the minds of our co-habitants. For this reason, I doubt that “If lions could speak, we could not understand them.” This is a jaunty, mistaken aphorism if I ever heard one, and if I get the chance to converse with a lion, I’m sure not taking Wittgenstein’s word on the prospects for successful communication.

The boy finally gets up, walks to the door, exits into the busy hallway outside of the exam room, closes the door. The interview continues without missing a beat. In a minute or so he returns, closing the door, his hand grasping the doorknob with exquisite deliberation. Two minutes later, he does the same round trip, and again both the physician and parents continue, mindful, accepting of these little tests of time.

On my return home, I see Mother Armenia again, but this time she can’t anticipate my approach. I’ve got your back, Mother. How nice to be seen, then unseen; to slow down, to witness actions before hearing words.

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