SCOTT SIMON, host:
Illness may rob us of vitality, but maybe - just maybe - sometimes it can help bring us understanding in improbable disguises. Elisabeth Tova Bailey was struck with a neurological disorder in which she was too weak even to sit up. Illness essentially sentenced her to stay in bed, where she felt life was slipping by, unused.�
A friend brought her a gift of flowers in a small pot in which a wild snail also resided. What once Elisabeth Tova Bailey might have seen as just as just a nearly motionless mollusk among violets meant to console her becomes instead her companion, almost her surrogate.�
Elisabeth Tova Bailey, who is an essayist and short story writer, has written a book about how her view of life in a small, slow scale enlarged her view of life. Its called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story."
And Elisabeth Tova Bailey joins us from her home in Maine.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. ELISABETH TOVA BAILEY (Author): Thank you very much, Scott.
SIMON: And we should explain, Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a pen name. Yes?
Ms. BAILEY: Yes. Due to my illness, I really have to lead a very, very quiet life. I think it's just a helpful buffer for me in that way. I am not somebody that ever wanted to write about myself or my illness. And I would never have done so but I really wanted to write a, sort of a biographical thank you for the snail and I also wanted to help other patients with my illness.
SIMON: Could you help us understand your illness a little better?
Ms. BAILEY: It's not a very visible illness but it physically limits you. So, it's extraordinarily difficult to live with and it's very unpredictable.
SIMON: Does it have a name?
Ms. BAILEY: Depending on what specialist you go to, you can get a different diagnosis, whether it's dysautonomia or mitochondrial disease or chronic fatigue syndrome.
SIMON: So, a friend brings you this pot of flowers and says there's a snail at the bottom, I thought you might enjoy it. What did you think?
Ms. BAILEY: I was surprised and not at all sure why she had picked up a snail and brought it. I have very down-to-earth friends. I have spent my adult life living in the country. But even so, I was a little bit perplexed and it felt like, oh, just one more thing that I couldn't deal with and it was overwhelming.
She, of course, you know, left and drove home and there I was in bed unable to get out with this very small animal a foot away from my bed and no understanding of its life or how I would ever get it back to where it came from.
SIMON: How did you begin to notice the snail's life?
Ms. BAILEY: Well, when you're that bedridden and the world around you is quite still - you're too sick to watch television or read - and if something is moving, you start to watch it. I think sometimes of that Emily Dickinson poem about the fly on the windowsill. And the snail within its shell originally -'cause it had been disrupted from its life and it went into a shell to be safe, and later on, a few hours after my friend left, came out of its shell and began to explore.
And I just watched it because there was something watch. And I didnt - even then I didn't really become interested. It still felt like a burden and a responsibility. But it was in the next - as the next day and then a few more days passed, I began to see the pattern in its life. And when you start to observe the patterns of another animal's life, I think you get to know that animal and feel connected.
SIMON: And the animal ate your flowers too.
Ms. BAILEY: There were some flowers in a vase that had sort of gone by(ph), so I gave it some of those petals and it began to eat them. And I think when you're that ill and you can do almost nothing for yourself, let alone for anyone else, being able to help this very tiny creature that was hungry was a very amazing thing for me to be able to do. It gave me a feeling of being useful again.
SIMON: Did you begin to project yourself one way or another inside that shell a bit?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BAILEY: I think my connection to the snail when I was when it was with me that year was more about appreciating its pace in life. It moved at a speed that was actually faster than my own speed. And so it really was peaceful to watch it. You know, it moved so smoothly and gently and gracefully, it was like a Tai Chi master. And it was very calming and just helped me deal with the fact that I was at a level that was so low in terms of what I could do.
SIMON: Now, at some point you got a little bit better, at least better enough to move home. You've been in a studio apartment.
Ms. BAILEY: Yeah.
SIMON: And you thought you ought to release your snail companion back into its natural habitat, but you worried about if it had become domesticated, I guess.
Ms. BAILEY: Well, I'm not sure well, Im not sure if I - yeah, I suppose domesticated in that it was used to getting fed, you know. It was safe, but you know, like any animal it's incredibly evolved to deal with its own environment, but it was very hard to let it go.
SIMON: Did the different pace of the snail's life and human life change you in any way?
Ms. BAILEY: I don't know. I think that I'd like to say that I continue to move at a snail's pace, but like most humans I try to do too much still always. It's a constant struggle to live within the boundaries of my illness. And as I note later in the book, there's a point at which I am doing just a little bit enough better that I don't have as much patience to watch the snail.
I think we're naturally geared to live within the speed which our species has evolved to function in. And I think the functioning of humans is evolving to be faster and faster.
SIMON: Elizabeth Tova Bailey speaking from Maine. Her new book is "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story." Thank you so much, Miss Bailey.
Ms. BAILEY: Thank you.