Stuck on the slow path

by Helen Barker

I used to be a massive fan of Doctor Who. Well, alright, I used to be a massive fan of David Tennant playing Doctor Who. Tall, skinny guy in a mad suit with an unprecedented sense of adventure – who wouldn’t love him? But one of my all time favourite episodes has to be The Girl in the Fireplace. If you haven’t seen it, you have to. It’s set on board a 51st Century spaceship subject to the confused workings of a group of clockwork androids who use their ability to jump through windows in time to stalk the life of Madame de Pompadour (played by Sophie Myles – one of my favourite actresses).

As the clockwork androids hop across Madame de Pompadour’s timeline, the Doctor jumps in and out of the fireplace in her room, and (as all good stories go) falls in love with her. But he has access to her life at any given point, while she must live out every day in real-time, waiting for the days when he reappears.

I love this episode because it reminds me of just how painfully wonderful being “stuck on the slow path” can be. As I live out every day of my life, not knowing when something or someone may jump into my timeline, I am forced to appreciate every second that passes me by. Every so often, though, something jumps into my world and rattles my impatience. I long to skip ahead to the next chapter, I’m desperate for my very own fireplace man to leap through the flames and into my existence. Waiting is not always as beautiful as we would like it to be. It can be slow, it can hurt. And when the ending does not come, it can feel fruitless.

At the end of the episode, the Doctor arrives too late to reunite with Madame de Pompadour – and she has passed away, as all things mortal do. He is left watching as the real world slowly decays before his eyes. Her life, which included details he could never share, was long and slow and glorious – but he did not live it alongside her. He left too early, he arrived too late.

Timing, it seems, is everything in this life.

Over the last year I have come to know the true meaning of being stuck on the slow path. I’ve had numerous conversations with friends about perseverance and patience. But there is one truth I have come to know; that my capacity for joy is largely dictated by my capacity for appreciation. And the more I learn to appreciate each day for what it is, and not just what it is not, the more joy I will derive from my own, slow, existence. Joy does not necessarily come from immediate gratification, more often than not it is the long, slow journey through life’s intimate details that forges a deeper sense of appreciation in us, and that appreciation leads to true joy. True joy is tinged with sorrow. Hélène Cixous wrote extensively on the complex relationship between joy and pain, arguing persuasively that the two sit aside a very fine line. And, in a sense, how can we know real joy if we have not known real sorrow?

There is one key ingredient necessary to all of this though and I believe that Madame de Pompadour had it in The Girl in the Fireplace. It is hope. Hope is integral to those of us stuck on the slow path. It is what flips the coin from pain to joy and prevents us from dwelling too long in the place of disappointment. Hope is our companion as we travel snail-like through rain and through sun.

My dear Doctor. The path has never seemed more slow, and yet I fear I am nearing its end. Reason tells me that you and I are unlikely to meet again, but I think I shall not listen to reason. I have seen the world inside your head, and I know that all things are possible. Hurry though, my love. My days grow shorter now, and I am so very weak. God speed.

Whatever your faith is right now, it is most likely hope that allows you to travel from one day to the next. Hope is bigger than reason, it is deeper than experience, and it is more powerful than the shortest of days. Hope is what tells me that I do not love in vain, and that whether or not I die before my Doctor arrives – I have lived a joyful life.