“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company”
Not as you might think a quotation from some guru during the recent weeks of lockdown, but words from one of the letters of the political adviser and philosopher Seneca, written in the first century AD.
Generalisations are always false (including this one) but it seems to me that whilst many younger people mostly feel constrained by the lockdown and long for it to end so we can “get back to normal” – (whatever that will be), a lot of older people are thoroughly enjoying it. I can remember when I was young feeling strange if I did not go out all day, even if it were only to the corner shop; now not going out seems normal, and if it were not for the demands of Poppy for the sniffing and poo-ing opportunities the wider world offers (and a slight guilt about becoming a coach potato) I often would not have taken up my daily exercise allowance.
For fifteen years following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe I travelled a lot for work; perhaps twenty trips to Russia, flying to Northern Macedonia every month for early three years, and lots of other teaching visits and a few flights for pleasure. As a consequence when I retired from academic life in 2009 I was sick of travel and particularly sick of airports. Since then I have flown only once, to Rome – and that only because bizarrely there is no other sensible way of getting there from the South of France.
When I was a student equipped with a Eurail pass I travelled overnight from Paris, down the Rhone valley and woke up on the coast where the Alps meet the Mediterranean and Italy meets France and arrived in Rome at tea-time. It took 20 hours and was hot and sticky, but it was possible. Now in the age of the TGV this service no longer exists and the train journey involves three changes which would have been too much for Yvan’s mother, so we flew from Lyon.
Apart from that the only major trips I have made have been by bicycle – Arles to Compostella in 2012 and Cape Wrath to Broadstairs in 2014. That and shuttling between Canterbury and Avignon by train or car has provided all the variety of place I felt in need of.
Lockdown for me has therefore just accelerated a process which was already going on – journeying not around the world but into the rich world which can be reached without moving from home. By this I don’t mean internet substitutes for travel; Zoom conversations or travel documentaries, fun though those can be, but the exploration of the worlds of ideas and activities which can be done without going outside one’s front door.
The phrase “Travelling in” is sometimes used for spiritual exploration, as in Monica Furlong’s book of that name. Teresa of Avilla uses the same idea in her image of exploring the interior castle, whilst from a different branch of the Christian tradition John Bunyan sees life as a journey through time to the Eternal City, whether one moves in space or not.
This may well be part of it, but whilst medieval anchoresses may have been able to spend three quarters of their day in prayer I do not have the spiritual stamina for that. For me the travel of the mind is exploring new areas of the immensity of human knowledge; learning about the history of Rome, Byzantium China and Japan through podcasts; discovering or rediscovering authors like Rose Macaulay and Alexander McCall Smith, whose use of language and exploration of human relationships is a tremendous delight (and perhaps a contribution to spiritual growth in a sense broader than Lady Loretta or Teresa of Avilla might have seen it). Being cut off from libraries and charity book shops, where I have always enjoyed wasting time, I was forced to explore the unread or forgotten riches of my own book collection which has borne great fruits. I have even gradually developed the courage to tackle some of the weightier works of theology and philosophy which reflect the triumph of aspiration over experience which so often motivates our book buying habits.
But travelling in does not have to be intellectual – or even mental, in the sense that reading or listening to PG Wodehouse or Agatha Christie is mental but can hardly be considered intellectual. Practising (in both senses) manual skills is an important element in the mix, both because they are intriguing and satisfying and because variety is important for interior as for exterior travel (as anyone who has endured the endless unchanging landscapes of the American mid-West or Western Australia will understand). I am not a manually skilled person ( I was advised against a future in surgery very early in my career) but I have found knitting,pottery and marquetry and pottery immensely satisfying worlds to explore.
Through marquetry one learns to look seriously at wood, feel its texture, experience its smell and the fine details of its colour and pattern, as well as develop the (harder than it might appear) skill of cutting it precisely where you want it to be cut. Pottery similarly draws one into shapes, substances and manual skills – though it is not practical in lockdown as it can’t really be done at home as you need too much equipment and varied materials.
I recently started to learn to knit. So far I can only do scarves, but have found it very restful and relaxing – somewhat like needlepoint which I had done before, but with more practical products. It makes a very good accompaniment to listening to music – another interior continent to visit, with familiar lovely landscapes as well as huge unexplored forests. My lockdown project is to work through the Bach cantatas – an extraordinary collection of over 200 works, mostly rarely performed and little known but some of them including music just as good as the familiar Passions and Christmas Oratiorio.
So perhaps Seneca is right – lockdown is giving us a chance to order our minds and learn to stay where we are.