Thursday 26 May 2011

Lament for a Convent

Two years ago I stumbled on a magnificent place to write - a convent. It was perfect. Quiet and clean, filled with dark hallways and surrounded by protected land, on an island by the St-Lawrence Seaway, great freighters floating by on their journey to Montreal. The rooms were small, with only a single bed, a reading chair, a desk and a sink. The low fee included three meals, buffet style.  And lots of coffee.

I made of point of going twice a year, in the spring and the fall, when I was just about to complete a manuscript. The true magic of the convent sprung from its gift of time and peace, of a place for you to exist with only your thoughts, your story, your characters.

I've learned to go for three nights. I try to arrive around supper time the first night, and then spend the evening planning my writing, word count and story chunks. I mark everything on sticky notes and post it on my wall, right in front of my desk. The laptop is plugged in, the words are ready to flow.

Utnu, during my first visit.  Yes, I bring candles.  Atmosphere!
Utnois, during my latest visit.  Hand cream is important, too.  Dry fingers move less quickly.  Greasy fingers slide on keys.  Choose your hand cream carefully.

But I don't start writing just yet. My body is still full of adrenaline from the day's rush and stress, my mind braced for more grind of multitasking. I go for a walk. I stare at the water and slow my thoughts. I let my hand slide on stone or flower, I listen to the call of the birds, I relish the scents of fresh cut grass.I awaken my senses.

Or, sometimes I stare outside my window, from the warmth of my room.  This was spring.  The snow had overstayed its welcome.  Yet again.
Then, when I don't feel like I should be doing twenty things at once and I've stopped twitching (internally, mostly),  I refocus my thoughts towards my story. And only my story. My characters come snuggle in my consciousness (poor characters), and settings erupt in colour. I get really, really excited. I break into a run. I run up this path:

And then I run up many stairs, including this set by the orchard:

And then I say hi to Giant Jesus:

That's an artsy shot, because the flowers were in bloom and I was running around the orchard.  I'm usually standing right below him.  He's very spiderweb heavy and lights up at night.  And yes, for those of you who've heard me tell the tale, it's *this* convent and *this* Giant Jesus. Good times.

I pace around Giant Jesus, rant and rave, discuss plot points, difficult scenes, frustrations and anticipated deaths. I tell him everything. He's an excellent listener. Sometimes pilgrims walk by and then turn away from Giant Jesus. I imagine they think: "She's very religious," or (closer to the mark) "She's insane."  It doesn't matter - I'm on a roll, I'm excited, that story is ready to explode out of me, and voicing my ideas helps solidify them.  

I'd be wondering if I were you, so I'll lay it down at the root of this pretty tree - I grew up Catholic, but I don't consider myself a Catholic.  It just doesn't work for me, but awesome if it works for you.  I'm best friends with atheists, pagans, fundamentalist Christians...  I love them all equally.  My friends all believe in personal responsibility, and the rest, for me, is just details. I studied religion and culture in university.  I love religion, I love religious symbols, and I love hymns.  They're so organized and rhythmic, it makes me bubbly.

When I'm done chatting with Giant Jesus and scaring pilgrims away, I usually go say hi to the nuns in the cemetery. I don't think they get many visits, and the Grey Nuns are awesome. Theirs is a small cemetery and each year another row is consolidated and new tombstones erected, bearing the names of three sisters instead of one. 

Stacking the nuns, counting the dead.

But now, like the great ships sailing into the sunset, my beloved retreat is at a crossroads.

See? Ship, sunset, and chair to witness the passing.
Due to a decline in the number of women taking up the veil, the order sold the convent to its host city, for better or for worse. Three nuns remain on-site, with a promised three years for winding down religious activities. Last weekend was my first visit to this newly secularized convent and the difference was palatable. The devil was in the details. No hymns woke me up in the morning, streaming from the chapel through the heating conduits. The only music was radio pumped through the cafeteria, some irritating radio station, to top it off. The nuns are no longer greeting guests to meals, but rather eat in peace in a sequestered area.

And nobody seemed to understand a quiet retreat. I'm a social being, but I'm not there to make friends. I'm there to blow ships up and emotionally scar individuals (in my book, mostly).  I've never had people speak to me before, no more than a "hello" and a smile.  I've never even had someone ask me why I wasn't going to mass and joining the throngs.  Yet this time, I had one person try to convert me to government work (ha!), another whine about the lumps in the potatoes until he made it as a character in my book that I blew up, and a third person speak about the postal system.  Seriously?  (I always thought the religious people would be broaching conversion, so the government thing was funny.)  

It was different.  An air of peace and serenity had been whisked away by bird watchers and government workers.

But I still love the convent now ex-convent. I still have my little room where I can draw the curtains to hide the sun when I'm meant to write. I love the lack of television, phones and Internet.  I'm not sure what will happen to my little corner of paradise, but I doubt a nun will ever again scratch my butt there (ah, the good times). Still, I've made my reservations for Labour Day Weekend, hoping it won't have changed so much that, upon leaving, I'll say a final goodbye to Giant Jesus. 

(He'll still be there.  No one would ever tear down Giant Jesus. He's too useful.  And big.)


  1. I'm a social being, but I'm not there to make friends. I'm there to blow ships up and emotionally scar individuals...

    *Looks back up to the boat in the picture* Nooooooooo!!!

    And then I say hi to Giant Jesus
    Hey, Jesus, hey!

    Hi five for growing up Catholic but not necessarily being religious! I wanted to take another World Religions course after highschool, but then I realized I was only really in it for the folklore/stories and mythical beings, deities and what not. After you take courses like that, you seem to notice that much more symbolism in everything!

    And I agree, nuns are flippin' awesome. I once ran into a flock of nuns at Denny's with my mom, it was strange because you don't get to see them around town that often, but they were the sweetest people ever! Another time I sold a nun a pair of pants. It was interesting.

    Ah~ Did you find out why they are changing the place? It seems so nice there. Petition, I say! *flails*

  2. Augh! Just goes to show - secular folks are BAD at retreats. You want decent silence and contemplation space, you gotta hang with the believers. The rest of us are too busy being uncomfortable with silence, and checking Twitter, and feeling odd and awkward about ritual.

    If the convent does go the way of the conference centre (*pout*) maybe there's a bunch of Buddhists around you can hook up with? There's a Zen Buddhist enclave in Sandy Hill. No, really. They might be able to hook you up with a spot. :-)

  3. Hi Marie:
    Just read about your exploits at the convent. Seems timely given the little joke I shared with you about nuns. Thanks for the great conversation at the CAF dinner. You truly are an interesting person. Your site clearly depicts your love for writing and telling stories. Keep on "doin what yer doin" (maritime speak) See you soon.

    Paul G.