TRY interviewing a nun. All my journalistic tricks seemed to wash up against a breakwater of serenity and discretion when I sat down with the Benedictine Sisters of Malling Abbey, in Kent.
A couple of the nuns, who had grown up in New York City, had joined the community because, they informed me, there had been “no decent Protestant religious life in America”, but any further than that the two Americans would not be drawn. No amount of charm or ego massage would crack the Sisters open to talk about themselves, other than in relation to their life of prayer and contemplation.
Later that week, I had my first meeting with my new spiritual director: a member of the Grail Society, a lay community of single Roman Catholic women, who live in an old house, the Hermitage.
As she lit a candle and I began to babble in perhaps the least nun-like way possible, I felt, in comparison with all those tranquil women, like a faulty electrical appliance; like the dodgy, overheating laptop that I would return to later, to meet the looming deadlines for both copy and essays, with its constant warning: “Error: there is not enough space to complete this operation.”
IN PURSUIT of nun-like efficiency, I have resolved to streamline: to cut out some of the paraphernalia. While I can’t get rid of my own children (yet), I have excised other people’s by deleting all social media from my mobile phone.
My days feel far less cluttered without the stream of Instagram and Facebook images of toddlers in meadows, or toddlers on skis, or toddlers eating vegan snacks, and their accompanying parenting hashtags, such as #raisingagenius, #hegetsitfromhisdaddy, and #ididn’tgetabluepeterbadgefornothing. I think it was #firstpoointhepotty which finally pushed me over the edge.
ANOTHER resolution is to achieve what I can in the time I’ve got. So, when my six-year-old son rejected the spider costume that I had lovingly made for the school’s “Insect dress-up day”, rather than sweat the hours it took me to stuff all those old tights with newspaper, I simply cut them off and told him he could go as an ant.
I had volunteered to be a “mum helper” for the insect-themed activities, which required trawling through a 1000-word risk assessment of a field before leading a group of children, armed with spades and Petri dishes, on a mini-beast hunt. I was optimistically charged with trying to limit damage to habitats and wildlife.
We returned with two centipedes, a glut of woodlice, and a “sleeping” slug — which I quietly buried, out of sight of the rather severe-looking conservationist.
Question of perspective
OVER the half-term holiday, the children and I drove to Suffolk to stay with my parents, who, in search of a slower pace of life, have recently moved from our former family home in south London to a crumbling old house on the edge of a sheep farm.
It was ironic, then, that my dad should spend most of the week haranguing BT customer services about the lack of internet connection: he couldn’t watch the sport on the TV; the kids couldn’t watch their favourite cartoons; we couldn’t even check the forecast to plan our day because, heaven forbid, we would have to take both cagoules and sun cream on our days out.
It was apt, however, in such a quiet and restful place, that the lectionary text for the sermon that I had to prepare was on the theme of sabbath. I was forced to write the whole thing without plagiarising Google’s supply of theological commentators: just me, and my newly acquired ordinand skills of exegesis; a Bible; and one other book that I’d happened to bring, This Sunrise of Wonder.
It is a collection of letters by the late former Dean of Westmister Michael Mayne, who retreated to a chalet in the Swiss Alps with the specific purpose of writing to his grandchildren, Adam and Anna, about what he called the art of “giving attention, learning to see” the world in which we have been born, “whose potential is breathtaking, whose beauty has an unchanging validity”.
This seemed very inspiring between licks of ice cream on Southwold beach, but was a less accessible perspective once back home, in the hundredth reboot of my near-combusting laptop, or the race to get my second son to wipe his own bottom before he starts school in September, or the sprint to Tesco when — yet again — I’ve forgotten to get cash out to pay the babysitter.
Streams of renewal
ONE of the ways in which I attempt to pursue the sense of wonder which Mayne describes is through my love of open-water swimming.
The River Itchen, one of Hampshire’s ice-cold chalk streams, runs right past our house, and I regularly dip in the spot at the end of my garden which the local schoolchildren call “the rapids”, where you can swim upstream on one side, hop across, and then whoosh downstream in the strong current (being careful to get your feet down before the mill wheel).
Last week, however, my river bathing was scuppered when I noticed a police officer wildly gesturing at me from the bridge. “I don’t want to alarm you, Madam,” he shouted, “but please don’t enter the water — there’s a bomb in the river.”
Sure enough, a red flag twitched ominously in the current a couple of metres away, marking the spot where an old Second World War shell had been found by a fisherman.
Within an hour, the whole area had been cordoned off, my children and I had been evacuated to the leisure centre, and the bomb-disposal team were on the scene, forestalling any explosion. I wondered whether they might take a look at my laptop — and its owner — at the same time.
Jemima Thackray is a freelance journalist and part-time ordinand.