"I am not failing the test of lockdown. Instead, I’m getting a taste of the hidden pitfalls of the solitary life, the trials experienced by ascetics through the ages."Writing -isms
It’s happening again. It happens every day. I sit at my desk and it comes upon me like a hot flash. All morning I’ve been bent to my work. But suddenly, I am fidgety, unhappy, full of complaints. I lose focus. I hate my screen. I hate all the tools of my trade: the pens, the flash drives, this very keyboard, the gaps around its key stuffed with lint, stray hairs, dead skin cells. It’s a reliquary of myself.
It comes out of nowhere, this mood, punctually. Negativity doesn’t really describe it. It’s a spasm of darkest nihilism, a cramp in the soul. I put my head in my hands. What is happening to me? I’m usually stoical about work and life. I get down and bullishly plow through it. Or that’s the way I like to think of myself. Is this pandemic lockdown destroying my character?
I think of the sensible careers I failed to have, the wonderful countries I moved away from, places I could be now, doing useful, fun, profitable things if I hadn’t come here and done this. If I’d played it smarter, I could be somewhere else, perhaps somewhere where there would be no covid-19 and no lockdown! Clearly, I am delusional.
I imagine swimming alone in the cold blue sea, far, far away from where I am now. It is my deepest desire and desperation overtakes me at the thought of all I am missing. I want to get up and run out of the house shouting for help, but who could help me? The NHS? The NHS are very busy. A friend? My friends are no good either. They are all just like me right now, bad tempered and barren of inspiration. Talking to them is just like talking to myself. How could they bring relief?
And then I think of Helen Waddell. All writers have secret, slightly embarrassing literary proclivities, things they read on the sly. For some, it’s mystery novels; for others, it’s porn. For me, it’s Helen Waddell, the Oxford-educated Irish bluestocking who wrote about wandering scholars, Peter Abelard, and the early Christian ascetics who lived in the Egyptian desert. Don’t ask me why. We could not be more different as people or writers, but I love everything she does. And today, I believe, she alone in this vacuum-packed world of closed borders and empty skies, may offer an answer for my sorry state.
I find The Desert Fathers on my bookshelf and somehow locate the half-remembered chapter entitled "Of Accidie: Of Mortification." It’s Waddell’s free translation of an account by Cassian of Marseille, a fourth century monk also known as John the Ascetic. Even though I know the original comes from him, as with everything Waddell writes, I somehow imagine this description flows straight from her own experience.
Accidie, Waddell explains, “is akin to dejection and especially felt by wandering monks and solitaries…” (Ah-hah!) It is “a persistent and obnoxious enemy…disturbing the monk especially about midday, like a fever mounting at a regular time…” It’s also called acedia and “the demon of noontide,” as mentioned in Psalm 90:6.
I’m already feeling better, just knowing my condition is a thing, and a monk thing at that. It makes perfect sense in my cut-off situation. Waddell (or rather Cassian) goes on to provide a thorough run-down of the symptoms.
“When (accidie) besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s bretheren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off…” (Oh yes. Scorn for bretheren. Check.)
“Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert.” (Check. How I relish her use of the word lair. My office is my lair!) “...it induces lassitude of body and a craving for food such as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey…” (Testify, my sister!)
Her description is both uncannily precise and comforting because it means I am not failing the test of lockdown. Instead, I’m getting a taste of the hidden pitfalls of the solitary life, the trials experienced by ascetics through the ages. Who knew? I always thought being a monk was about silence, austerity and proximity to the divine. I never imagined that could make you lazy and pissy, but so it seems.
So what can I do about my accidie? The desert fathers have a simple answer to that: make handicrafts. For instance, the abbot Paul, who lived alone in a cave for years, fended off the demon of noontide by weaving mats out of palm leaves. He had no use for these mats and no way to sell them, yet he wove them every day, like it was his main job. And then: “…when his cave would be filled with the work of a whole year, he would set fire to it and burn each year the work so carefully wrought…”
As lockdown comes to a tentative end in the UK, I look forward to shaking off my accidie and returning to normal. Stimulation will rid me of the noontide demon, and I will not miss him. There still remains the question of what to do with all these palm mats filling my cave. Pardon me while I go to look for some matches.
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