It’s something of an irony that at this time of enforced retreat I am trying to write a paper about the relationship between retreat and creativity. I should be an expert by now after almost four weeks of lockdown but I’m finding it harder to write each day. We are all across the world in isolation from COVID-19, a pandemic that is sweeping through our lives. This is an isolation that has been forced upon us and I’ve been thinking about whether a retreat that is enforced is any retreat at all.
The OED defines the noun ‘retreat’ variously as: ‘an act of moving back or withdrawing’, ‘a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax’ or ‘a period or place of seclusion for the purposes of prayer and meditation’ All of these definitions imply silence and solitude. In these dark days, we are all in solitude looking for the light.
But I’ve discovered that the light comes from the most unlikely of places and from the most unlikely of voices and that’s what I’ve decided to focus on in this blog post. Two days before the lockdown I spent what turned out to be an extraordinary day in Liverpool as unexpected as it has continued to be sustaining, remaining in my consciousness as a reminder that there is still a life out there, waiting to picked up again.
It went like this:
I had a free ticket for an afternoon concert by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra performing Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite a piece of music that has long been the soundtrack to my life. I had a row of seats to myself, so many had cancelled because of Covid-19 that the seats were free. I felt the breath of the past on my shoulder as I listened, a tap and a whisper – remember this? I did remember: Peer Gynt was one of the stars of my parents’ record collection and I used to skate around on the carpet in the living room imagining that I was Torvill and Dean, the blade of my skates slipping earth bound on the friction of wool and carpet, the ice palace in my mind became the edge of the limit of my imagination.
At university I discovered Ibsen’s play ‘Peer Gynt’ and used it as the inspiration for my own first play ‘The Wheel’ performed at a Student Theatre Festival in Leicester. The play was about a group of survivors left at the end of the world after a pandemic or a nuclear storm, I wasn’t specific, I didn’t think I needed to be, threat was everywhere. The nuclear disarmament movement was a constant feature of life, I marched for CND and supported the women of Greenham Common, if a nuclear bomb didn’t drop then a pandemic was expected every day. We knew about pandemics because we’d watched them on the TV (in the series ‘The Survivors’) and worried and obsessed by this I put it in a play, but in real life, it had yet to hit us. In the years between then and now we just forgot. More fool us. At the centre of my play was the Button moulder, Ibsen’s harbinger of death waiting at each corner, giving you just one more chance to redeem yourself before being melted down with the rest of the mass of humanity into his great ladle, each of us indistinguishable from the other. I’ve been thinking about the Button moulder these past few weeks, wondering where he is, reminding me that life must not be wasted but that he’s still there lurking somewhere waiting for those who have forgotten that. I don’t want to be one of those.
That same day, the day before everything changed, I went to the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, from where you can see the city glittering and spread out beneath your feet like a trail of breadcrumbs leading down to the mighty River Mersey. I attended a service in the beautiful Lady Chapel where we were a congregation of three and then, as I always do, I went to the bookshop. The bookshop is where I found Julian of Norwich, or to be precise, I found a perfect little book about Julian of Norwich by Janina Ramirez who paints a portrait of a woman of whom we know precious little other than that she took what seems to us today to be an bizarre decision to be walled up in a cell inside the church of St Julian in Norwich for almost 30 years. Her reason? So that she could retreat from the world and be able to focus on more spiritual matters without distraction, so that she could be ‘in the world but not of it’. Apart from her name (which she took from the church in which she was living) and the fact that her book Revelations of Divine Love is one the earliest surviving books written in English by a woman, we know almost nothing about her. What we do know is that Julian wrote ‘deceptively simple words, which exist outside time and will always ring true whenever and wherever they are read’ (Ramirez, J. 2016, p. 85). Julian survived the aftermath of the Black Death from 1348-9 and the plagues that hit Norwich four times between 1369 and 1387, ‘with death carts trundling down King Street, past her cell, Julian would never have felt far from reminders of the transience of life and inevitability of death’ (Ramirez, 2016, p.25).
I knew about Julian but had never read much about her until that day and then read what she had to say, discovering in the process a book that is ‘singularly optimistic, hopeful and finds a positive path through suffering’ (Ramirez, 2015, p.25). Words in a book that was written in a cell not more than a few metres wide. If that’s not an inspiration for a writer in the days we’re living through now then I don’t know what is.
We need Julian’s words today: ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.
I’m reading them over and over again.
With thanks to my reference:
‘Julian of Norwich’ A very brief history, (2016) by Janina Ramirez