When I was working (many moons ago!) one of my colleagues told me that she went on retreat in a local convent two or three times a year. I was intrigued and she tried to explain to me what it was she found so useful from the experience. I kind of understood intellectually but struggled to imagine how it might feel.
Walking the dogs this morning I started to connect my experience of lockdown (which is still pretty much in force here in Wales) with going on retreat. I haven’t followed the horarium of a monastic day but a rhythm has developed which includes work (housework, gardening, decorating, time in the workshop); socialising via the internet; reading; and times to be quiet (yoga, dog walks and crafting in the evening). I have been less secluded from the world than on a retreat but because I live alone apart from my pets there has been a lot of silence. My dogs ensure I go out for walks, my cats give me cuddles and they all entertain me, but great conversationalists they aren’t! So I have spent more time alone with my thoughts and have had fewer means of distracting myself than usual. No longer can I find something to justify a quick trip to the shops or arrange to meet a friend for coffee.
In the early weeks it was fine. I did what I always do and kept busy. I had already planned to do some decorating and bought the paint. There were seeds to sow, veg beds to clear and planting out to do. The weather was glorious. My head was full of lists, plans and ideas. I finished my library books. I noticed that I then chose old favourites to read. Books of short chapters with gentle, amusing tales – Deric Longden and his cats, Jeanine McMullen and her small country living, Peter Mayle in Provence. I needed to be occupied but couldn’t settle to anything demanding. Knitting simple jumpers for charity was fine, complex patterns were beyond me.
Then matters in my daughter’s marriage came to a head and she decided she needed to get out whatever the long term consequences. She has the support of an amazing group of friends who helped her find a house to rent and enough furniture and equipment to live in it in reasonable comfort as well as giving her emotional support and encouragement. Apart from being one of the guarantors that her rent will be paid despite her low income, there was nothing for me to do practically. But emotionally my head was full to the brim! It was weird being unable to follow my instinct and rush to her aid. She was coping well, had all the support and help she needed and I would have been putting myself at risk for no good reason. I could commiserate, encourage and send love by Whatsapp from the safety of home. A hard but excellent lesson in sitting on my hands!
Rumbling in the background has been concern for my son’s brother in law who has been in intensive care on a ventilator and a lung machine since early April with Covid 19. It began to seem that whilst he could technically be kept alive indefinitely the decision might have to be taken to let him die. This weekend he finally improved, was brought out of his induced coma and is being taken off the machines.
Now that the dramas are easing my mood is shifting again. There are still projects I want to do and I find myself almost hoping restrictions aren’t eased too much too soon – not just because of concerns about a ‘second wave’ but because I don’t want to be faced with responsibility for making choices about how much time I spend on my own here getting on with things and how much I go out and about or entertain visitors. I have been surprised how much I have got done when there are no distractions. I have quite enjoyed the solitude. Yesterday I picked up a book on garden design I planned to re-read back in March and a philosophy book the librarian picked out for me on my last visit, also in March. Both had lain on the chest in the sitting room untouched, reproaching me for my laziness. Once I started on them I found I was enjoying them both. The garden one requires me to stop and think about applying the ideas and the philosophy one needs digesting so I read a little bit of each in turn!
I am lucky. I have a loving family, good friends, kind neighbours, a comfortable home, a garden I enjoy, a secure income which is enough for my needs. Even so I have found lockdown hard at times. There have been times of loneliness, worry, frustration. I have learned things about myself. Some have been good things; my resilience and ability to pick myself up when I am feeling down, my ability to cope with extended solitude. Others less so; my need to be always busy, my impatience, my bossiness. And some are just interesting; how much I have to learn about gardening, how my reading choices changed.
I am looking forward to being able to see friends again, to have a hug, to go to the library, to shop for things I want to see and feel before I buy. But I am also grateful for the experience of confinement. I have had no temptation to do an online search for retreat houses (of whatever religious persuasion) but I am beginning to understand better why some people do.