Thanks to COVID-19, I have seen fewer people in the last six months than at any time in my life. Even for someone as naturally solitary as I am, this is a qualitative difference, the more so because it’s involuntary.
I used to be… well there’s an opening to a sentence that is occurring a little too often in my speech, as if who or what I was provides not just the context for who I am but something else… a plea of mitigation? An apology? A prideful sharing of a carefully curated experience to win points? I don’t know, and I live with me all the time.
Perhaps I start so often with ‘I used to be’ because I’m not sure how to finish a sentence that starts with ‘I am…’
Any way, once upon a time, I was a busy man. My days were full even though what they were full of was often frustrating – travel for work, endless meetings, pointless politics, more meals out in a week than an introvert is comfortable with.
What they were mostly filled with was people. My job was to listen and talk and get other people to listen and talk and with all this listening and talking to produce something new and better. It was sometimes exciting, sometimes frustrating, always tiring. When the day was over and I closed the door of the hotel room my job was storing me in this week, I could lock out all the people, close down all the discussions, forget all the complaints and slip silently into a book.
Even then, I read eighty to a hundred books a year. Reading then was a way of maintaining my sanity, a way of setting aside my reality, a way of being somewhere else.
Now, i’m not a busy man. My days only fill if I fill them. I meet very few people, even fewer people than I expected now that we’re living with social distance and the public spaces I might once have met people in no longer seem safe.
So my reading has changed. There’s more of it of course. I read maybe 50% more than I used to – still only about three books a week. Given how much extra time I have, I would have expected there to be more. But I’m not using books as an escape any more. I’m using them to have a conversation with myself and others. I think about what I read more than I used to. I try to write down what I think, not because it’s important to anyone else but because it helps with an internal conversation that I’m hoping will help me to start sentences that begin ‘I am…’ and know how to finish them.
I’m bastardising Descartes and going with ‘Scribo ergo sum’ ‘I write therefore I am.’
Perhaps my reading and writing are just an instance of nature abhorring a vacuum. The capacity for listening, talking and making stuff up that I developed over decades of work will find an outlet for itself if I don’t give it one. So now reading and writing are becoming the place where all that listening and talking and making stuff up goes.
Here’s an example:
I’m reading ‘The Sparrow’ by Mary Doria Russell. It’s a Science Fiction novel about first-contact with an alien race being made the Jesuits.
It’s an original, well-written story, yet I find that it’s triggering more in my head than ‘What does it mean?’ or ‘What happens next?’
I was raised as a Catholic but it’s been more than forty years since I walked away from that faith. Reading ‘The Sparrow’ brings back echoes of that past. It’s like returning after decades to a city that you once knew well. Each corner you turn refreshes your memory but also shows you what’s changed both in the city and yourself.
While I always had my doubts about Ignatius of Loyola and struggled to see a man like him as saintly, I used to like arguing with the few Jesuit I came into contact with. They were clever, usually patient men who also were always sure they were right.
In my reading today, I was reminded of the Jesuit motto: ‘ad majorem Dei gloriam‘, ‘to the greater glory of God’ and suddenly, instead of thinking about alien first-contact and why strange things had been done to the Jesuit missionary’s hands, I was wondering why I’d never challenged that motto. Why would an omniscient God need more glory? Why would it need glory at all? And isn’t it a supreme act of arrogance to assume that anything we humans, born to sin and dependent on grace for salvation, could do would add to God’s glory?
The odd thing about this is that I don’t believe in God. So why would I care about the motto, and what does it mean that I can still so quickly and passionately slip into the arguments that I know my Jesuit teachers would have enjoyed rebutting?
Maybe it’s just noise. Maybe there’s still a barb from a Jesuit hook in my mouth. Maybe I don’t have enough to do.
For a while, I chased these ideas like a Labrador chasing a rabbit it hopes it won’t catch and then felt the urge to write before I could read any more.
You see what I mean about nature abhorring a vacuum?
Anyway, with that out of my system, my question to you is: ‘What do you get our of reading and writing?’