Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The contemplative life. Recently I went away on a writing retreat organised by Leanne. At first I was afraid about not being a 'real' writer ('real', in this case, meaning "long-form fiction"), and intimidated by the fact that the other people there, whom I mostly didn't know, would be 'literary'. But it turned out that everyone had different kinds of writing (and reading, and planning) to pursue.

I'd been at the end of my tether before I went – that feeling of constantly being behind on everything, with work piling up (literally, in my case – unreviewed books, DVDs and CDs everywhere). Just making it from day to day was a real struggle. Worst of all, I was feeling fuzzy in the head, as though my brain wasn't quite tuned in properly.

By contrast, the writing week (although I only dared stay five days away from the internet) felt quiet and clear. Life was very simple and pleasurable: I would get up at around 9am, potter about in my PJs with avocado crazy toast and a cup of tea, reading bits from the weekend papers (we'd left on Saturday).

Then I'd get dressed and sit down at my computer for some serious work, punctuated with more pottering about and a rediscovery of my childhood fascination with the maintenance of wood fires. I'd finish work at maybe 6pm, then it would be time to have dinner and socialise with the others. I would be among the last to bed at maybe 11:30 or midnight.

When I got back I felt a real sense of loss. It wasn't just the hollow feeling that sets in upon returning from a lovely holiday. It was bewilderment: having 'rebooted' my life, how was I going to maintain that sense of quiet, that restfulness, among the usual internet white noise, emails wanting stuff from me, bills needing to be paid, bags full of unwashed laundry and a cat who alternately demands to be cuddled and poos on the goddamn floor?

I was worried that I had become the sort of person who can't handle everyday stress except by physically removing myself from it. That's just not practical. So I was intrigued by this Cary Tennis question on how to live a "contemplative life" while still being 'of the world'. It's a slightly different case here, as I don't especially want to devote my life to spiritual contemplation or permanently cloister myself, but I do want the sense of clarity and simplicity that can come from having time and space away from the quotidian.

Also, something in me responded to Cary's observation: "You mention groups, so it sounds like you are imagining not a solitary existence but membership in some sort of spiritual society, perhaps one that is shut off from the hustle and bustle, one made up of people who seek a spiritual way of living."

Perhaps what I seek is the kind of solidarity and companionship I enjoyed during the writing retreat. A group of people who were dedicated to thinking and writing in ways that were related, yet different, to my own. People who slid gracefully around each other's rhythms of work and spaces of thought, yet who were also fun and companionable in non-professional ways. Sometimes I keenly feel my lack of a workplace and colleagues. I mean, I have them, but I rarely actually work side by side with them.

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