Update from Italy: My Inner Abbess

My inner Abbess definitely rides a bike. Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

I have seen posts on social media from friends and people in my network who feel that quarantine has made them realize that they are more social than they thought. Previous 4s and 5s have said they are, in fact, a 9 or 10. These casual yet plaintive posts set me to thinking.

Before the quarantine began, if you’d asked me how social I was, I would have put myself a solid 9 or 10. (But this extrovert goes to 11!) I might have said that sometimes people exhaust me, but in general, I am always up for a chat or an impromptu gathering or apéro. I might have said that a certain personality type wore on me -for example, the type of sunburnt person who will order a bucket of Corona longnecks and then take first place in the bellyflop contest in the pool on the top deck of a cruise ship. I have never been good at small talk, particularly when the crowd is tough going. I hate working a crowd. At any social gathering, I usually find one interesting person to joke with for an extended period of time. I have never liked the Basic Questionnaire (who are you, where are you from, what do you do) mostly because I can only reluctantly offer half-baked, complicated answers that don’t lend themselves well to short conversations. I attach myself to trustworthy souls.

Now, on day whatever it is of the great Italian isolation, I think I am closer to a 5. Maybe a 6. I had no idea I had such a capacity to put on my headphones and disappear into my own world. I have reconnected with my inner bookworm, who was never very far away anyway. The days and weeks are really starting to fly by. How attached was I to this idea of myself as a super social person?

Some corner of my mind, back where the worry mice gnaw, knew this long ago. In my early twenties, I often felt as though I were leaking and spilling energy everywhere into throwaway social fripperies. An ill-fated response chapter led to the Introversion Campaign, in which I set about to correct my people-loving deficiencies, to remake myself into the introvert that everyone could relate to. That proved itself a certifiable disaster as I wound up living a lonely life I hated. I had always been surrounded by introverts, for the most part, and my tendencies seemed weird and frivolous to them. I have always had a broody contemplative side that thrilled to a silent retreat. As a challenge. As a goal. A sort of self-abnegation, given to spiritual discipline. I could give it all up. And more, and more, and more. I have actually considered taking monastic vows in my life. (Don’t worry, Jason, it’s no longer appealing.) But I can see why widows and grandmothers went into convents at the threshold of older age back in what Victor calls super-horsey times.

A loose conviction of the transmigration of souls has led me to muse, from time to time, if I was not perhaps a Benedictine abbess in a past life. It’s sort of like the Office Manager and Spiritual Director component of Farm Wife, who’s running the monastery kitchen and could use a confessor, and Miss Anxiety, the earnest novitiate, who seeks reassurance and guidance. All the time in Quarantine is providing ample space to consider these archetypes in light of changing social demands and new restrictions. My Inner Abbess sounds like a social 5 on the scale. She cares for her charges and is a skillful companion to almost all temperaments, but also values the time in her study adjacent to her cell, reading and writing, setting side time aside for contemplation. I have felt so connected to this inner Abbess that she prompted my confidence to draft my first (unfinished) novel, which was firmly rooted in Benedictine culture. In any case, she has been a useful companion here in Quarantine as she counsels patience, transformation, and the relinquishment of control. And busy hands. And a reasonable bedtime. Red wine in moderation. A treat from time to time out of the kitchen bolsters the spirits of young novitiates and aimless tertiaries.

I don’t know if I’ll ever consider myself a social 9 or 10 again. Probably not. And for this, my inner Abbess heaves a sigh of relief.