Saturday, 27 September 2008

Mental Retreat

A year or so ago I finished a round of Jungian analysis, which was an interesting and valuable experience. One part of the process was the constant focusing on and interrogation of my fantasies, as revealed through dreams and day-dreams.

Ever since I was a very small child, one of my fantasies was to have a little house in the forest, essentially little more than a hut, and to live there alone, surrounded by the sigh of the woods and the rustlings of the wild creatures. I imagined this life in great detail, having a Thoreau-esque moment before I'd ever heard of Thoreau. It's still a powerful dream, and animates my longing to have a retreat centre somewhere in the west country or Wales. (This, also, I have imagined in great detail.)

I'm sure everyone has these little self-sustaining fantasies. They're ever so useful when trapped in social situations of intense tedium. I tend to switch the front of my mind to autopilot, and retire to the book-lined study at the back of my consciousness to read T S Eliot, whilst the front of my mind operates my mouth and makes conversation about property prices/I'm a Celebrity/Madeleine McCann.
Another example of why it is so wonderfully useful to have poetry memorised, is that. In fact, Ted Hughes brought out an anthology called 'By Heart' about fifteen years ago, which is full of learnable gems, ideal for just this purpose.

My fantasised retreat has changed over the years, at times becoming larger and more book- and painting-filled, at others becoming more austere and monastic. Sometimes it's almost a country house, hidden amongst gardens and thickets of young trees planted by my own hands, with wayfaring bush and quicken-saplings thrusting through the hedges. At the moment, however, it's a single bare room, the walls frescoed from floor to ceiling with lifesize icons, built on hoops of stacked slates over a tiny stream in a wild mid-Wales landscape. A tiny stone hearth, pallet bed, candles, incense, and a little samovar simmering in the corner complete the merry picture.

I realise these images are rather selfish, or at least extremely introverted. But, that said, I've never understood how deliberate self-isolation for the purposes of prayer and spirituality is selfish as such (see Vickie Mackenzie's luminous 'A Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo's Quest for Enlightenment', about an Englishwoman-turned-Tibetan-Nun's ten-year solitary retreat in a Himalayan cave.)
But a degree of selfishness is surely allowed: these are personal fantasies after all, and I'm sure you have your own (about which I'd love to hear.)

My own Cave in the Snow - or stone and wood hut in the pale-washed air of Powys - has been doing sterling service recently, as Britain descends into the yearly horror that is the Christmas season. I loathe Christmas, and whilst it would be wrong to say that I could not love someone who adores it (once past the age of ten), a dislike of Christmas ensures my instant respect. It's like being trapped in some seventh-circle branch of Woolworths for an entire month. 'I wish it could be Christmas every day-ay!', as the endlessly-repeated, deranging jingle goes, which gains a Dante-esque horror in my ears as November and December wear on. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate! Ugh.

Well. Only Jeanette Winterson seems to get Christmas right, as far as I'm concerned. Spiritually, for me, it's a deeply 'Lenten' period - the darkest, dankest, saddest time of the year, best negotiated in a spirit of penitent austerity. And the more misanthopic I get, the more frugal, bare and primal my imagined retreat becomes. And as this so-called Season of Goodwill tends to make me feel frankly murderous, comes December the 24th I will no doubt be mentally sheltering under some weathered and windswept dolmen, contemplating the vanity of human wishes whilst feeding a brood of weasels on gouts of my own blood.

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