On living like a nun and other quiet thoughts
In yesterday’s blog post about reading I sort of apologised for not writing much on here lately. And this morning, today being a sort of holiday, I thought I’d say a bit more about what I’ve been doing instead. Which as you can see I’m describing as having days full of silence and, what’s more, living like a nun. These being days where my work has become my life.
I’m deep into the PhD work I’ve taken on now, which in the mechanics of its writing is turning out to be deeply interesting to me. But beyond me? Certainly to the PhD friend I mostly talk it through and work with, hello Abi. But anyone else? Anyone not also some sort of academic? Not really. And maybe that’s true for all writers at this kind of stage? The stage where all the thinking, planning and false starts of writing something long and complicated have started to become a lot of words that seem to be adding up to, well something. I have a real writer friend who I’ve noticed never talks about her work while she’s writing it. And I feel like doing that too. So I won’t be talking about my work itself in this piece. Because its details are so detailed and so personal while they’re being worked out, like they are now, that talking about them would feel wrong. With ideas so fleeting in their passing even I don’t think many of them will work a couple of days after I get all excited about first having them. I have notebooks full of passing ideas. Full of the might have beens that are best kept to myself.
So what’s in my life beyond writing with Abi and living with Sarah, the only two people I see on most days of most weeks?
Well the garden here at the allotment, sure. Though that’s often featured, like here, as the background to where I’m working. And walks? This blog is full of walks and I know that’s what a lot of people read it for. But walks have been more occasional this past year because of, well you know why. But more walking blogs would be good wouldn’t they? Maybe of a city coming back to life? Except I’m not sure I’d want to come back to the kind of life most people might be missing.
Let me explain.
Yesterday I was listening to a nun, Teresa Keswick, talking about her life on ‘Private Passions’ on Radio Three. And I understood her. Not merely about the times of stillness and reflection in her life, but also about the order, the busyness and the sense of purpose and meaning, along with the seclusion of them all there in their convent from the rest of society. And as well as understanding her I liked the sound of doing it. Then realised I already am, really.
What with the rhythms of my life now, the habits, the rituals, the times for this and the downtimes for that. Living like a nun. The mixture of devotional work, which for me is the PhD, and the secular, like her the gardening and the household. The washing of clothes and dishes, the rhythm of the bins, the shopping days, the watering and tending of what’s coming into leaf. Living in near silence mostly. With music on headphones when I listen, as often as not, so’s not to disturb what Sarah’s doing. Much of the music also being the sort of devotional a nun would recognise. Thomas Tallis, Georgian plainchant, the Johns Taverner and Rutter, choir music, chapel music. Listening like a nun.
And when the pubs and restaurants open? I won’t be going to them, going to them having long stopped anyway. Morning cafés might be visited sometimes, might be, as I’ve missed chance meetings with a very few others in all of this. But on the whole there’ll be silence, as I’ve mostly liked living the way we’ve all had to for this last year.
At the beginning of this 2021, so three months ago now, I decided I’d have what I called a ‘writing retreat’ until April started. A change in the pattern of my life you’d only have noticed if you were one of the very few university people getting regular updates of where my writing was up to. I decided I’d stop all the interrupting that had involved and just write. In peace and without comments or critique. And it’s been great. Has created a deeper and more silent space for me to work in than I’ve ever had before. And a space I’m so reluctant to come out of, now we’ve reached April, that I’ve decided I’m not going to. Not until I’ve written what I want to write. Whenever that is.
Because I like this living like a nun. The habits of it, the quiet of it. And it’s not like I’m doing nothing, far from it. In these days of silence.
Reminding me, and finally for now, of the best of the career advice I got while I was at school in Bootle back in the 1960s and early 70s. The school was run by priests, and beyond some inept advice about local jobs from a priest who’d never had one, their really expert help was about what kind of priest all of us who were altar boys might like to be? So they took us to ‘vocations exhibitions’ and visits to seminaries, here and in Ireland, so we could be making informed choices about whether to become Franciscans, Benedictines, Jesuits, Cistercians, or even Salesians like they were. Which as far as I know none of us did. Except here I am now, living my cloistered life, albeit without any kind of religion, and more than quite liking it.