The mnemonics of words on the Isle of Lewis
Traveling to the Perilous Realm

Silence and stillness on the Isle of Skye

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. "In Silence there is eloquence," wrote the great Persian poet Jalāl ad-DīnRumi. "Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves."

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened.

Describing the last days of her time on Skye, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Light, north Devon

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor. 'He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.'

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," she concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

It was interesting reading Maitland's fine book while I was confined to bed with health problems. With Tilly snuggled close beside me, I was not entirely alone -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, not to have them come at the most disruptive of times, not to have them overshadowed by pain and fear. But there is a gift in the journey of illness: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness. A gift that's increasingly precious and rare in our fast-paced society.

And, if we are prepared to except them, there are these further gifts as well: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

Tilly and the magic quilt

Pictures: Tilly on our Devon coast (not so wild as Skye, but just as beautiful),  and at the bedroom window. The magical "Healing Quilt" is by Karen Meisner. Words: The passage above is from A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland (Granta, 2009); all rights reserved by the author. 

Comments

Skye is such a special place. When royalty cheques weren't quite so ludicrously small, myself and Clare would visit on a regular basis. It's 'other worldliness' is undeniable. An archaeologist friend of mine had both a ghostly and and angelic experience while digging there. The ghostly one involved an intense feeling of menace when sitting in a beautiful valley and, as he put it, 'being chased' from the area by banks of clouds that rolled over the small loch he was sitting beside. It was only when having a reviving whisky in a pub afterwards that he was told that the valley was known locally for being haunted. His angelic experience happened when he followed a path that led up a cliff face. It was only when the path petered out and he looked over his shoulder that he realised he had somehow manoeuvered himself onto a sheer cliff face many feet above rocks and crashing waves. He then said retracing his steps was impossible, and though the top of the cliff seemed reachable he'd frozen in sheer terror. Being a good Catholic boy, he prayed for help and he swears that a sudden sense of peace descended on him, and that a 'force' of some sort moved his hands and feet to safe holds that enabled him to climb. Then when he finally reached the top and collapsed into a heap of quivering relief, the sense of presence slowly withdrew. He insists he was helped by an angel, but I'm sure the sceptics among us would have a different opinion.

I am moved by you sharing your thoughts on illness today. You gifted me with a different perspective on a day I felt to be a struggle and a lonely journey through the dark woods of illness.

I am "on the spectrum" and peace and solitude is a physical need for me. I cannot function without my sanctuary, my retreat, my home, where peace and solitude reigns.

Several years ago, a friend of mine, fluent in French, told me that she was "full of jouissance" over something or other. Not knowing a word of French, I misheard her, and thought she said she was "full of joy sauce." Once she explained to me its French meaning, we both agreed that I had not "misheard" her at all. Ever since, I have often enjoyed the feeling of having joy sauce poured all over me.

I so enjoyed your post today, Terri. Illness and recouping times are as regular as the Moon Times for me. Like you, today I felt reborn to life; from the depth of reexamining everything including my impatience with Nature and cycles. I'd like to rush right back but will heed my star watcher who suggests a tempered pace ... at least for a little bit. Doing a good day of writing was almost as good as what Meliss Bunce describes.

And to Meliss Bunce:
"Full of joy sauce poured all over me"... thank you for that added delightful and delicious dessert. That would be decadent!!:)

If it were in the stars for me and my man, we would visit this Isle of Skye. It sounds exquisite, and being Island-born anyway, going to the other end of the Earth to experience the Skye would be ... heavenly:)

Loved your ramble Stuart, as ever you can always always make me smile if not outright roar with laughter. Thanks for this!

Wandering in the nether world of illness and recovery is illuminating. I was ill late in December and through the next three months had no energy for commerce, needed frequent naps and had no choice but to be kind and respond to those needs. When I crawled out in mid April, I was awash in gratitude and joy. Silence was a key, but compassion for my aged fragility was the primary ingredient. Slow is my pace and it suits me fine. Sending love.

Everyday is Earthday

Imagine an opportunity when
earth tilts to meet the horizon
revealing our sun is still there.

Thank you Mokihana. I wonder what your reaction to Skye would be if you did visit. In some areas it is beautiful and majestic in its bleakness, with huge swathes of treeless moorland. In fact, when I was there last, there was an attempt to replant a forest that had been felled many years before. But the island's myths and legends are in no need of 're-greening' they envelop the place in a wealth of wonder. I think I mentioned in another Myth and Moor post how I was driving down a particular road and faintly heard strange music winding itself over the surrounding land. There was no sign of any musicians, but later when reading a book about the myths of Skye I found a passage about the very road I'd been driving along and it told of how fairy music could sometimes be heard floating mysteriously over the air.

Just found this poem, written yonks ago. Seems to fit with some of today's theme.


WHEN THE WIND HOLDS ITS BREATH ON SKYE

When the wind
Holds its breath on Skye
The turning of the earth itself
Stutters to the static.

Quiet distils
To the pure spirit of silence,
The aural veil is drawn aside
And there, in the palm
Of the land’s open hand,
Is the essence
Of what everything was
And what everything is
And what everything
always will be.

I found Skye to be a deeply magical place...but not in any kind of cozy way. The magic was old, deep, and still reverberating with the sorrow of the clearances. I was suprised to feel strangely at home there, given how profoundly different it is to Devon.

I'm so very glad to hear that, Cath. I'm struggling myself at the moment, frustrated by weakness and weary of the feeling of letting people down when I can't give as much to various work commitments as I would be giving if health would allow. I want so badly to be able to live and work at my full potential...and don't want to accept that maybe this *is* my full potential.

But there are gifts in illness too, and I find it helps to acknowledge them as well as the frustrations.

Solidarity, sister.

I'm not on the spectrum myself, but have friends who are, so I do understand and completely sympathize with what you're saying.

I am, however, an introvert by nature. I'm not at all shy, and don't mind public situations -- but my need for regular periods of solitude is a deeply physical one. It's as though my inner computer battery goes flat and lifeless if I don't get it. Friends & family can tell when that's happening: I go silent and wan, unable to communicate, and need "alone time" to revive. It sometimes happens at the most inconvenient moments.....

I love that!

"Regular as Moon Times." I like that metaphor, and will remember it.

Our illnesses, and our rhythms, change so much as we age, don't they? This is still something I'm getting used to; I keep expecting to do things the same old way, and running up against the fact that I simply can't anymore. "Compassion for fragility" is a wonderful concept. I'm going to start working on that.

Oh my, I love this, Stuart. Thank you.

Yes, there's definitely a sense of old magic about the place and at times it can certainly be disquieting. Even so, it's beautiful and enduringly fascinating

Thank you, Terri.

Thank you so much for this post Terri. I've been in ill health for 24 months and am scheduled for surgery in two weeks. This morning I woke with anxiety about the surgery upcoming and then almost instantly, I heard a voice in my soul that said," Remember, you are brave!" It is true that I am brave, but being ill and ageing has made me forgetful of this. it was the voice of my beloved Mama, gone these 52 years that spoke to me this morning, I'm sure of it!

I love it too! Well done.

Terri, thank you so much for this post which I've just read again on a quiet morning in May. My family and I will be visiting the Isle of Skye for the first time this summer. I doubt that there will be much space for silence, traveling with two young children, but I know that there will be plenty of adventure, wonder, and joy. Your own words, at the end of this post, were absolutely gorgeous. Thank you for sharing them and your experiences with illness. You help us all weather the waves and winds of this world. Much love to you, Tilly, your family, and your wide circles of love and friendship.

Thank you, Edith. I envy your pending visit to Skye. Listen out for the Faery music and let the mystery of the place seep into your blood.

I will hold you in my thoughts, Ann. May the surgery go well, and recovery be swift. It is hard to remember our strength and bravery through the long months of a long illness, so I'm glad you've re-found yours.

You're going to Skye! Oh, I hope you love it every bit as much as I do. Thank you for your kind words, my dear. Your support means a lot to me.

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