come away to a quiet place

Tuesday, April 15

This weekend, I took the train to Perth for a silent retreat at St Mary’s Monastery, Kinnoull. 

It was a trip with two intentions: One.) to take focussed time out of my regular routine to be still, reflect, re-centre; and two.) to pay close attention to the sounds, textures, light quality, atmosphere etc of living in the house itself (...research for the novel. The monastery is an example of neo-gothic architecture and shares aspects with the house in my story).

Sitting on the train up – suitcase on the seat beside me, my journal open on my lap – I felt slightly apprehensive. Travelling alone is always – I hesitate to say ‘nerve-wracking’. That’s too strong. But there’s something different about going places alone. There’s no one to hide behind or lean into. 

You have to pay attention in a different way than you would if you were with other people. You have to stay alert – stand boldly and speak up. I also wasn’t at all sure what to expect. What was I going to do when I got there? What would I say? Would I have to explain myself? What if I went that shy way I go when I’m nervous? Why exactly had I decided to come again? (etc, etc.)

My worries, though, were unfounded. Such a restorative ‘enriching’ weekend (which went far beyond simply being ‘useful’ for gathering authentic story details). It was beautiful. Quiet. Peaceful.

Birdsong filtering through the wind as I wrote by the window in my little room. The sound of footsteps scuffing on the stone stairs. The warm smell of varnish as my fingers slid down, down, across the wooden banisters. Light silhouettes from arched patchwork-glass windows falling across the carpet in the oratory – appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing – as the priest read aloud psalms in the morning in his deep voice.

The smell of roast chicken filling the whole house before lunch. Eating in silence and tasting, really tasting, each burst of flavour. Whispered ‘thank-you’s in the kitchen. Plates clinking in the sink. Walking in the gardens, sticks and pinecones cracking underfoot, apple blossom branches dipping and bouncing in the wind. My fringe blowing across my face. Closing my eyes: the feel of air rushing against my skin, the force of the wind almost knocking me back, back. 

Back inside – the sound of someone whistling in the hallway. Golden light causing the trees below to glow. Sweeping crumbs from homemade scones into my hand. Daylight fading as we – me and nine other women – sat together in silence. Latin words sung without music. The window in my bedroom rattling, shaking, at night. Waking, after a deep sleep, to the sound of birdsong. Again. Their song coming gently through the wind.

Ah, it was beautiful. And interesting how refreshing just being quiet was. Being quiet, and listening. Not checking my phone every three minutes – not trying to think up chitchat while eating dinner – not playing music full volume while I got dressed. Just being – paying attention and finding space to think and let words from the day properly soak in. I want to leave more space for silence now that I’m back home. The world is noisy, but there are moments of quiet. I just need to listen out for them.

(Pictures taken on my iPhone throughout the weekend. My phone is the main reason I am unable to be still and rest most of the time. It beeps and purrs and flashes and whistles and I have very little self control when it comes to leaving it alone. It is a great Time Waster. But I am grateful for the camera. It helps me see ordinary details as artworks.)


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