I am a work-out-of-home mother. This necessitates some sacrifice in the amount of time I can spend with my daughter, and that can be difficult. My employer is reasonably flexible, allowing regular work from home which means maximising before and after school time. Despite various weekend commitments we all try to make sure there’s at least one weekend day where we don’t do too much and get a few hours to veg on the sofa. I try to use my holiday time judiciously to both reduce the eye-watering amount I spend on summer clubs and actually get a continual run of solid family time from which we can all recharge and remember why we like each other.
So this summer I did the sensible thing and took two weeks off, in the middle of which I ran away for a long weekend on my own.
This is, I think, something that can be hard to understand. If time with my daughter – and, for that matter, my freelancing, round-the-clock-working husband – is at a premium, it seems exceedingly selfish to run off in the middle of it to be by myself. It is selfish. And like many selfish things it turns out to be extremely good for you.
This is not going to be a piece about how much I missed them and how much it made me appreciate family time more because yes I do appreciate family time even more but actually I didn’t spend my time pining or – crucially – feeling guilty. Now, that might have been partly down to the venue in question, Gladstone’s Library. An actual, honest-to-God residential library, it’s a madly wonderful place in a tiny village in North Wales that I had no idea existed until my friend Jen visited and revealed the secret. A plan was made; rooms were booked. Before I knew it I’d shelled out around £150 of my hard-earned cash to stay three nights in what seemed to me to be a thing from a dream: a place where I could be completely quiet, completely focussed and – meal times and evenings aside – completely alone.
I’ve forgotten how to be quiet. I do not know how to be still. I love the cinema because I’ve always loved the cinema but also because there are rules that require me to turn my phone off, concentrate and not talk – except when I’m telling my husband that no, he’s not ever allowed to clap at the jokes in a film again. (Sorry, people sitting next to us for Spider-Man: Homecoming; the Bueller thing was too much for him.) I pass Quaker meeting rooms and think about going in and learning how to sit still but it is unthinkable; I haven’t seen a fully single-screened television programme for at least two years. All of this means that the writing that is living in my head very rarely happens, because above all writing – good writing, writing another person might at some point want to read – requires concentration, even if you only do it four sentences at a time.
And, honestly, I think in paragraphs. I think in chapters. I have never seen a film without writing a review of it in my head – cautiously, and with edits. I have mentally drafted at least 200 blog posts you have never read: some because I thought better of them, some out of fear but most – say, 175 – because I simply never got round to writing them down and then the moment had passed. I did actually draft a book and even did some work on rewriting it but then this new idea started to take an unnerving shape in my head and I have been percolating it ever since.
Now, I do believe good ideas need time to bed in. You need to nest in them like a cat on a fresh washing pile; ideas have to be given a bit of a pressing and tried on for size in several different positions and at least once upside down. But there is a point at which the unfeasibly bendy stretch must happen and you must leap off in search of the meat of the matter. If you don’t, creativity, like diseases, arrives at only two outcomes: cure or death. Either the peg on which you wanted to hang your story will be curiously missing, forcing you to go seeking another, or you’ll throw out the hatstand and all the coats on it, too. Dear God, I seem to have wandered into a metaphor swamp. And I thought I was doing so well.
At Gladstone’s I checked into a room rather like a modern monastic cell, in such a good way. A reasonably comfy single bed with a warm duvet. A desk, a small cupboard concealing a hairdryer and a tray full of tea things. Many power points. Around the way a shiny little eaves bathroom with Velux windows that had no blinds and probably wasn’t overlooked. I had come forewarned with comfy trousers and comforting cardigans; next time I’ll take slippers, too. I unpacked my books – knee deep in Joanne M. Harris and her runes, a notebook my friend Alex gave me for my birthday which I haven’t dared to defile with stupid notions yet – and folded my clothes into the cupboard, quite unlike at home. Alright, it overlooked the graveyard next door and I felt I needed to be slightly drunk to sleep there alone every night but Gladstone’s can’t be blamed for my imagination.
When you check in, your room key is also your pass to the library and your room number can be used to charge the simple, school canteen meals to your account. Jen met me there and ushered me into the library, beaming and with the sleepy-eyed joy that can only come from having written yourself into another place. In through the door to the Theology Room and you would know in an instant you were in a library even if the only sense that remained to you was smell: dry paper, much-polished wood, cracked leather. Add sound and you add the soft percussion of laptop keys and gentle rustle of paper, carefully shuffled footsteps, creaks of tiny spiral staircase (maybe a whisper). The library is not large but it still feels capacious with its two floors and high, beamed ceilings and vast leaded glass windows.
Because of the warmth of the place – both the actual summer glow of sun through the windows and the almost tactile loveliness of the staff – I didn’t notice the silence at first. I would hardly be surprised at quiet in a library; I knew what I was there for. That wasn’t the silence that I hadn’t known I needed.
I woke up every morning and tried out a sequence from a Dana Falsetti set of yoga videos I’ve got on that Cody App thing because my back has been quite bad this year and I need to do something to address that. I love Dana – that’s a post for another time. Then I had a shower in my own bathroom; maybe they could see me from across the way but I suspect that was more traumatic for them than me. I wore no make-up – the books don’t care – and swaddled myself in layers since I’m always cold, even in a sun-kissed library. I met Jen and Caitlin for breakfast; for me boiled eggs, toast and butter – on one day, porridge – and for the others perhaps cereal (no, Caitlin, milky muesli never is nice) or toast and jam. It’s included, but maybe splash out a little extra for cooked breakfast on the last morning.
Then: writing. No, I’m not ready to talk about the idea. For one, I’ve hit that sticky part where it will either come together a beautiful pliant dough, ready for kneading, or it’ll stick to my palms in desperate globby lumps that I’ll be picking out from under my nails for weeks. But I think it might be a good one, if only I can work out how to be a little more nuanced and bring all the different bits I want together (or honest enough to dump the things that won’t work). Jen favours the History section, which gets locked at 5pm (as a resident, you can get a key); I can see why – there are just six desks and some wonderful old tomes. My favourite desk is an unusual one in the main room – set back from the main balcony in front of a window, rather than side on to it. But you can hardly sit in a bad place; it’s impossible.
Lunchtime is stews and bakes, quiche and carbs with a side order of huge chunks of lightly boiled veg (I hope you like carrots). There are Sunday roasts on the appropriate day and ice cream or a stodgy pudding. Onto the room tab.
More writing. I ran into a brick wall on day two, but I anticipated that and brought my sketch book for my Secret Squirrel project and did some designing instead; the tap-tap-tap was replaced by the scritch-scritch-scritch of my pencil and sharpener and that sudden table rattle you get from angrily applying an eraser. I sipped at my water and cursed the thoroughly justifiable rule that there can be nothing else but a bottle of water in the library; I have never so desperately wanted a cup of tea. I had fantasies of sneaking in Thermos flasks, and then horrified imaginings of spilling my imaginary contraband caffeine on the crisp pages of some historic volume. Curse my rule-abiding personality.
Night, and there’s more school dinners in the dining hall, but only if you want to be served within a specific half hour. Across the road to the Fox and Grapes and their hearty burger and more wine than I had expected to drink and some deep laughs. The silence has continued, but I haven’t noticed it yet.
Rinse, repeat. On the Sunday afternoon, Jen and Caitlin give hugs and go; I write a little longer, eat the oddest enchilada I’ve ever eaten in the dining hall and take to the common room and its honesty bar for whisky and more Harris runes – though for the first time I’m distracted by my phone a little. I chat with a friendly stranger about how great The Power is. I am, indeed, slightly drunk when I return to my room alone and pointedly don’t look at the graveyard through the window.
More writing after a last breakfast and then a walk – up and down the tiny high street, into the lovely church which seems to be in at least four different styles on the inside, and over the road to the castle grounds. I get in a long conversation with a very strange man about his very troubled (and thankfully preoccupied) dog, and then start to worry when he twists the strap of the lead round and round his hands like a movie serial killer and run off to get my train. (I would totally have haunted my bedroom, though.)
Did you know that it is silence that makes you an adult? It is what we do in the silence. I didn’t. I have a really lovely daughter. I do; she’s the best person I’ve ever met and certainly the best person I’ve ever made. I also have this astonishingly supportive husband; I’m sorry that he’s more feminist and lovely and kind and sweet than yours but he also farts and burps so we can’t have everything. There is a specific and precious kind of recharging that comes with just being with them; when we got away for a few days to a wedding in Finland it was just wonderful. Our weekends on the sofa? Superb. Can’t beat it. But I had not in perhaps 10 years experienced what it was like to have no demands on me whatsoever. Not work, not motherhood, not being a partner and wife, or being a daughter or sister.
I had not been away under my own steam, to my own choice of venue, to do my own thing (largely in silence)… ever maybe? I can’t remember it. I couldn’t remember the last time I could make choices without having to explain them, negotiate or check in. I just was. For three days. Entirely in my own world. And it turns out that I am an independent adult after all. I knew… but I didn’t know. It took the silence to show it to me. It took the absence of any adult responsibilities to understand my own adulthood – and honestly, the responsibilities seem lighter because of it. My privileges seem more awesome. My family more precious. My creativity more valid, and certainly more deserving of my time and attention.
At the beginning of the year I talked about giving things a chance. One of the things I gave myself a chance to do this year was be alone. I started going to the cinema by myself on purpose. I have had meals out alone, over a book, and enjoyed them. My chance, as it turned out, was to get to know myself and try not to be frightened, nervous, bored, uninspired or lazy. When I met myself halfway, it turned out that I was a person worth knowing. Three days in a library didn’t turn everything around, but it did provide a significant milestone and permission to pursue this wonderful relationship with myself openly and with greater joy.
I haven’t written any more of the book yet. But I will. And now I know where I keep the silence in my head, I’ll be able to visit a lot more often.