Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What Can Monks Teach Us about Creativity?

I'm back from Mepkin Abbey. It was a wonderful time, although it was freakishly cold. I scraped ice off the windshield yesterday! Well, that's not exactly true. I started the car, turned on the defrosters, let the car run while I loaded it with all my stuff (really, I pack as if there's going to be a nuclear war, and I won't be able to make it back to civilization to scavenge!). Still, it's never been this cold when we've been at Mepkin.

My English major friends and I were talking about how people react when we say we're going to an monastery. Some people are curious, but most react as if you've just mentioned you're headed off to the one remaining leper colony in North America. Or at least the first time you tell people they react that way. By now, most of my friends and colleagues seem to unsurprised that I'm headed out. I suspect that they think that one day I might not come back. Except, of course, that I'm female, Lutheran, and married--a woman of many commitments, like that marriage, and a mortgage.

I plan to write a series of posts over at my theology blog about the different ways the monks can instruct us. But they have lessons for us that aren't just spiritual. I'm always amazed at how much more I get done at the Abbey. The schedule is pretty full: 6-7 worship services (all of them at least a half hour long) with lots of walking back and forth to the chapel. Mepkin Abbey is a sprawling property, so we walk 10 to 20 miles a day. Yet I still get more reading and writing there than anywhere else.

It's not because I'm neglecting my friends. We have long conversations, the wonderful kind where we talk about our lives' trajectories and what we think about them. Even in this time of political turmoil, we didn't spend much time talking about the elections. We did talk a bit about how hard these economic times are, even though we're all lucky enough to have safe jobs.

Safe for now. We're all in higher education, which begins to feel to me a bit like the newspaper industry of the 90's. I feel like the institution is under threat, and we just don't even perceive it yet. More on that in a later post perhaps.

Mepkin Abbey is in a fairly remote location by the Cooper River in South Carolina. It's near Charleston, but I can't get a cell phone signal and there's no Internet. I get a lot done when I can't log on.

Now I'm not one of those anti-technology people. I love being able to look something up instantly. I used to keep a list of things to look up the next time I was at a library. It's wonderful to have so much information available. I love the community that I feel online. I often go to one poet's blog and find myself inspired to write poems I wouldn't have written without their blog postings. I feel more connected to old friends because of Facebook--it works better for most people than writing letters or e-mails did.

But I am not as careful as I need to be about not letting the Internet suck away all my free time. My time at the monastery reminds me of how much I can get done when the Internet is not available. Last year I assembled not one, but several manuscripts. This year, I made lots of notes on a variety of projects and wrote pages and pages in my journal.

The other thing I realize when I visit the monastery is how much time I spend staring at a screen. Monks have a variety of beautiful vistas, both natural and human-made. Monks surround themselves with art of all kinds. Perhaps I feel more inspired at Mepkin because the Abbey has been purposefully constructed to offer inspiration. I could do that on a smaller scale in my life: more walks by the ocean, for example, more seasonal displays on my mantel or tables to remind me of the passage of time, more sounds that aren't NPR, changing the art that surrounds me--these are just a few of the possibilities.

As we enter into the hectic pace that often comes between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I want to do more to hang onto my introspective, meditative state.


Sandy Longhorn said...

K., I spent a wonderful week at the Abbey of St. Walburga in Boulder, CO when I was a senior in college. The nuns there were cloistered, so the silence was amazing. I was working on my senior creative writing thesis (a book-length work of three genres) and the time there was rejuvenating. I'm not catholic and most people thought that I'd suffered some kind of horrible event or crisis of faith.

Kristin said...

Sandy, how interesting! Thanks for sharing your experience.