When I was a young girl, I went through a period when I wanted to be a nun; not just any kind of nun, but one who was cloistered. Also referred to as enclosed, cloistered orders of nuns are those whose members strictly separate themselves from the affairs of the world. Separation can be literal as in walls and grilles, and figurative as in prioritizing spiritual life and prayer over economic or outreach activity. It is a monastic lifestyle, set apart from the world with limited access, that allows others to come in. Rarely, under certain circumstances, one gets permission to leave.
For the past year, I have mourned the death of my mother and, for the most part, cloistered myself in my new/old home. I’ve experienced the world as if I have been on one side of a monastery grille. A grille is a place of separation from the world yet it is also a place where the world is encountered but on ones terms; this space has allowed me to deeply reflect. Christmas Day will be one year since my mother’s spirit has rejoined the natural world. I feel her when I sit outside looking at the river. The busy birds remind me of her nervous energy as do the buzzing bees sipping on my herbs and flowers. During this time I am blessed with a new grandson, I experience Covid. I have a new kitchen and I plant an herb garden. During this time, I write and turn in a book. I am waiting for my editor’s feedback on this first draft as I write this.
I cease most economic activity save for some long-term social work commitments that will end this year. I’ve been smart about saving enough until I collect Social Security in June. “Accidental Icon” has also passed away, not me Lyn Slater, I am very much alive, but the persona and energy I was as the Icon no longer exists. No more sponsored posts, commercials, or fashion shoots. No permissions needed to leave my enclosure. I willingly decline all the events I am still invited to in New York City. Outreach on Instagram, even this blog, is sporadic. It’s no longer important to take frantic actions three times a day to increase my audience. If I am writing in a way that creates meaning and makes people feel something, makes them feel known, they will come on their own. I don’t have to entice them with videos and animated avatars. Much like the nuns who live together for a common purpose, I have found my community here on this blog and those who likewise respond with thoughtful comments and share vulnerabilities on my Instagram that no longer feature clothes or sell products. I feel like we are enough; ordinarily old but still quite interesting, as evidenced in the responses so generously shared in response to what I write.
Cloisters are not meant to be places where you escape, but where one contemplates the meaning of life. You are not closed; you are open. In the process of writing my book, during which I found it had a mind of its own, it has become more of a memoir with a subtle how to be old handbook take than I originally envisioned. My editor assures me this is often the case while writing a book; it has a rebellious nature much like me. Throughout, I move from childhood to adolescence, to middle age, to an older life that seems to begin as I contemplate turning 70 in 2023. In this book, I appear as a granddaughter, grandmother, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and partner. I am a social worker, a professor, and a social and cultural influencer. I write all the lives I have ever lived, all the roles I have played. In this, I have found new meanings in my life. The dream deferred moves from hazy outlines to sharp relief. The person who has always wanted to come out, but was sidetracked and shaped by the institutions, contexts, and experiences that continue to form me; the profession of social work, capitalism, academia, climate change, Catholicism, a pandemic, and the precarious perch of democracy, emerges.
Everything cloistered nuns do is a prayer. Cooking, writing, gardening, and housecleaning are all opportunities for deep reflection. The communities themselves are called contemplative. Contemplation is the action of looking at something thoughtfully for a long time. But as the cloistered nuns know, this is solitary work. While there may be times we turn to a therapist, perhaps a stand-in for a confessor, the greatest insights come unbidden when we are alone or occupied in a simple task like walking, showering, pulling weeds, or in that half awake state when we doze in our chair on a rainy afternoon.
Writing is like a prayer and I imagine all creative expressions can be that way. While praying in the best of times, we are at one with a being or an energy much greater than ourselves. We lose ourselves in the moment as we do during sex with a cherished partner, as I do now tethered to my grandson’s smile that splits open his face and offers me his heart. Mine disappears back into his rosebud mouth and is his forever. It happens when I am in the throes of writing, the kinds that pour out of you, not the kind where you write two sentences and edit them. When we truly soar outside of ourselves, chains are broken, unfettered by the narcissism, technology, the standards of youth, and beauty that take us away from being truly present and in our bodies, we are free.
During this time of ascetic pursuit and in my practice of writing, I have recovered my ability to discern; the ability to judge well. I have taken time in the decisions I make now. I use my head and my heart, all the while assessing the important values involved. Writing has always been a way for me to think, to feel, to contemplate, to develop the skill of discernment. It has been the mirror for my busy brain, my tortured soul. While I have not shared this more intimate writing until I started this blog, and even then not really being personal until the pandemic, I have kept journals for 57 years. I regret now I have not kept them all, being frightened of the secrets they held, the rawness, the aching vulnerability of them. I know now that I have the strength to absorb what they contained, and to forgive myself for being so very lost. When I wrote as an academic and even days on my blog until late, I maintained a distance between myself and the reader. But I wrote nonetheless. So I suppose I can say I have always written, it is not something I am starting now at 70. In this reinvention time, if I think about beginning something from scratch, it would make me feel frantic about the time left to do it, time to practice, and to live one’s deepest desires. So fraught, you may decide to not do it at all.
In the comments left here and on my Instagram, so many of us are finding the “artist” within during older life, the person put on the shelf during times of competing responsibilities and during periods of grueling work. Many of those approaching older life are in a state of anxiety and indecision, a state of not knowing. They want to reinvent themselves but do not know what to do, or how to go about it. They are afraid it is too late. I can attest it is not. I’d like to be a guide. We bring to this time of life a plethora of experiences, knowledges, and skills that can be used in the service of creating something new. We are never really starting anything from scratch because we have lived a life full of moments of everyday creativity. Have you ever changed an ingredient in a recipe, taken a different route to work, or go to a city you’ve never been to before? These are examples of things we do that add imagination to our everyday lives. That is what researchers call everyday creativity. It is a practice, one we will explore.
Whether I call it taking a sabbatical or entering a cloister, it is simply dedicating the time and opportunity to re-connecting with our deepest “you”.I am ready to move on, to leave the cloistered life. I, for one, enjoy that we are traveling this road together. I appreciate your companionship and company. While in the quote I leave you with from St. Augustine, he is talking about God, in a secular reading, it describes how I feel about reconnecting with my deepest “you”.
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
Who’s your deepest “you”?