Before the onset of this bout of acedia, I’d had an idyllic week at Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water, in a ‘self-arranged’ writers’ retreat. Highly recommended, that: find some writing buddies, rent a beautiful place and enjoy a week or more of total immersion. Perhaps the acedia was the result of returning home to normal life (and distractions), for when the light is bright, the shadows deepen. Anyway… While at Brantwood, staying in the lodge, I became reacquainted with John Ruskin whose house this was and whose spirit is everywhere.
I first met JR in my post-hippy, PreRaphaelite days, as the man behind the Brotherhood who had suggested their name, the art critic who was awakening public appreciation of what we now call the early Renaissance. Anything before Raphael was good; anything after – JR found it wanting, saying that from the high Renaissance to his own time, art had relied more on pictorial convention than observation of nature, until the advent of Turner. So, in fact, I owe all my novels thus far to Ruskin. Back in 1971 I was deep in what was at the time diagnosed as agoraphobia (this I now doubt), but a light came on the moment I wondered what ‘Pre Raphael’ might mean. That led immediately to reading everything I could lay my hands on about Botticelli; then my reading about Florence in the 15th century and the Medici; then writing what would turn out to be four novels. I had been found in the darkness by a Muse with a torch! And my Muse – perhaps his name was Ruskin.
I realise now that my life has been dogged by acedia, manifesting mostly in my ability to become bored. So quickly and easily do I become bored that I tend to carry an activity bag with me whenever I travel: a kindle, a notepad, perhaps some knitting, anything to guard against unexpected free time. I have deluded myself all along that this had something to do with the protestant work ethic, that every moment should be usefully spent and productive. Pish. I was just terrified of boredom. So imagine my horror when I went out the day before yesterday to meet a friend in a park and ride, setting off early to beat traffic jams, promising myself a good reading session should I get there early, only to realise half way there that I’d forgotten to bring anything to read. I actually broke out in a sweat! And then laughed as I recognised and accepted the challenge I was being offered. Could I sit for half an hour in a car park with nothing to do? DD had bought me a notebook for my birthday, too small and pretty for practical use, but I’m using it anyway, and it’s so small it fits any pocket, so I happened to have it with me. The car found a place in front of a hedge and for half an hour I looked at bramble leaves and how they spray from the stem, at rose leaves, at hawthorn leaves, at the viscious barbs that are rose thorns and the gentle pricks that are hawthorn, and I made miniature drawings in my tiny book and, know what? I was as happy as the proverbial Larry.
Intrigued by Ruskin during my stay at Brantwood, reading the quotes set up here and there in the gardens that rise above the house, and dipping into the anthology that, like Gideon’s bible, is to be found in every guest room, I decided to find out more about him and, when I was asked to give a talk at Art in Action, I proposed one on Ruskin, ‘Writer, Artist and Seer’. Nothing quite like a public talk to give a study some focus. That study turned out to be the path through the bog with long, spindly Ruskin striding ahead saying, ‘Come along, come along, let me teach you how to see! Have you not been diagnosed with macular degeneration? You need to learn now to use your eyes before it is too late.’ My Muse!
And so I spent the spring and early summer, learning how to rest the attention on natural forms, to see something and say what I saw plainly. I’ll write more on this anon. For now it is enough to say that ATTENTION is the cure for acedia, and those ancient monks knew it, enjoining each other to put some zeal into mundane tasks.
‘If I could but lie down in Coniston Water,’ Ruskin said, suffering from his own demons, ‘I should be well.’ DD, seeing how well I was on my return from the Lakes in February, intimated that he would quite like to take the cure himself, and so we went to Coniston in June, hiring a cottage at the south end. And we were both healed. I remember one moment, sitting at the jetty below Brantwood and feeling a sensation that I described to myself as ‘opening of the heart’ but which is not that. Not in reality. What happens is that one’s limits disappear and the sense of the individual is lost in the sense of the whole. Happiness! And as the feeling lapped my being as the waters of Coniston lap against the harbour that Ruskin built himself, I saw the demon face to face, that mean-spirited horrid sprite who says, ‘Don’t be happy! You’ll die!’ How true that turns out to be! For in happiness the bored, crabby, dismissive me does indeed perish.
Life now consists in keeping up the practices and bringing Coniston home which, as my experience in the car park proves, can indeed be done.
I finally freed the trapped butterfly using the glass-jar-and-card trick that works on spiders. I took it outside and set it free over the flower bed. It had surprising strength left in those torn wings; it circled the flower bed, circled the garden, fluttered over next door, circled their tree, not stopping to eat at all; fluttering in joy and freedom it flew until it was just a dot and then disappeared from view.