900 words about Keeping Still

By Martha Holland

I live in an old farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, built from stucco on stone more than 200 years ago by a prominent local family. While all manner of modern amenities and several rooms have been added over time, the main part of the house –— made up of six rooms, three stories high — remains largely unchanged. The hands of men built it using hand-made tools and its imperfections are what I love the most: the low ceilings, the slightly off-kilter doorways and window frames, the wavy glass and burnished heartwood floors. There is a section of plaster wall under our dining room window that won’t hold paint. Outside, thickets of maples, oaks and sassafras trees surround the one-acre lot, and although we have close neighbors and nearby developments you’d never know it standing there in the yard. It is a beautiful place in a beautiful part of the world just a few miles from where George Washington crossed the Delaware River. I grew up in an old house in a colonial town much like this one, and because I’m a sentimentalist it feels like home. I’ve sometimes stood at that dining room window in the front of the house and wondered about the world gone by. I do that a lot these days.

I’m housebound, you see. I’m not dying — at least no more quickly than the next person — but, I am certainly not healthy. It is a strange sort of limbo in which I find myself. The first signs showed up maybe six or seven years ago. I was bone-weary at the end of the day. I blamed it on the new job and believed it would soon pass. It didn’t. I ached all the time, but I’m a runner so I didn’t think much of it. I was so exhausted in the weeks following a half marathon that I sought advice from my doctor. I began experiencing debilitating bouts of vertigo. Then I found that I couldn’t read as deeply or follow conversational threads as closely or write as fluidly as I used to. I began questioning my own competence. I saw more than a dozen doctors, none of whom could provide any definitive answers. Then this bewildering descent into pain, brain fog and exhaustion reached the point where I decided I could no longer do the work in the way I needed to. My Head of School agreed.

The treatment for advanced Lyme disease – Lyme Borreliosis Complex, my doctor calls it – is nasty business. The goal is to kill the Borrelia burgdorferi that have been feeding off my nervous system and brain. But as they die, they release neurotoxins that wreak additional havoc on my body. So I take dozens of pills and supplements every day and it all makes me feel like absolute hell. It is a regimen that requires patience, endurance and more courage than I have within me most days. But mostly I wait. I wait for the fog to lift and for my symptoms to ebb. I wait as the world keeps moving along without me. I wait for renewed clarity and purpose. And I wait to get my life back.

The Germans have some truly splendid words for things that we just don’t have in English. For instance, the word torschlusspanik, which translates literally as ‘gate-shut panic.’ It refers to the momentary pang of fear you feel when it suddenly dawns on you that time is passing and maybe you haven’t accomplished all that you set out to do. The gate is swinging shut and you have no choice but to walk forward through it to whatever awaits you on the other side. Is that what this is? A midlife crisis with a twist? Or is this more like what Nabokov writes about when he defines the Russian word toska: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning.”

It is hard to put any of this angst into a context that friends and family might understand. Some quietly wonder about what exactly I do with all this time on my hands. Others have made some helpful if unrealistic suggestions to ease the treatment’s unpleasant effects. Take a class. Read the classics. Write that book you’ve been talking about for years. There is the line in Regina Spektor’s song, “You’ve Got Time” that haunts me: Taking steps is easy/standing still is hard. While I stay home and wait for my body and spirit to renew itself, I’ve got time and not much else. I cannot make plans and I cannot make promises. It is harder than you think.

So I find myself here within this old Quaker farmhouse and there is nothing else for it but to just be. I am learning to admire the craftsmanship and materials of its construction, flaws and all. I suppose therein lies my own salvation: I’ll learn to live in this imperfect body, and this old house and I will mark the days together. At least I know one of us is sturdy enough to withstand the test of time.

Editor’s note: This story is part of our September 2016 series ‘Hundreds of Words about Location: Where are you, and how does it affect how you see the world?’


Martha K. Holland has been an administrator and educator in independent schools for 26 years. She earned her B.A. degree from Mount Holyoke College and two master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and Harvard University. A native of Concord, Massachusetts, she is an avid musician, reader, runner, cook and gardener. She is genetically obligated to root for the Boston Red Sox. You can write to her at marthakingholland@gmail.com.

Read Hundreds of Words by Martha Holland here

One thought on “900 words about Keeping Still

  1. “It is hard to put any of this angst into a context that friends and family might understand… I cannot make plans and I cannot make promises. It is harder than you think.”
    Yes, it is. It sure is. But I understand, and our fellow Lyme-sick friends understand, even though the specifics are different for each of us.
    Thanks for giving voice to some of this. Hang in there ❤


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