I mentioned previously that when I was little, we would often visit my Tia Paca, who was cloistered in a convent in Toledo, Spain. I’ve always had a fascination with convents- they seemed to be very mysterious places, full of old, secret corners where I might find lost parts of myself if I looked close enough. As a child, the idea of retreating into solitude made sense, and this probably had something to do with early experiences of visiting Toledo. Now I choose to do things like ten-day silent meditation retreats, pyjama days and solitary walks. These are the places i go to find refuge and to find my way back to the world.
Tia Paca had her “spiritual awakening” at around the age of 26. She was a wild girl, and the story goes that running in the field one day, she tripped over and fell, presumably unconscious, awakening with the certainty that she had received a message from God~ to dedicate her life to “him”. A choice emerging from no choice? It is a lovely story, a mystical story, but that is all it ever was, a story. You see, the Tia Paca I last saw a few years ago had turned into a mean-spirited old cow. Nasty and bitter, an old lemon left out under the burning sun for too long…. Dedicating her life to God was a bum choice, but at least it was her choice.
At Santa Catalina I stroll, as per instructions, always to the left to avoid getting lost in the maze of streets, rooms and secret corners in this city of saintliness, this vestigial factory of virtue. As I walk, I find myself wading through a layer-cake of sound. On one level, the lightest, most superficial level, tourists’ footsteps, camera clicks and murmurs of light conversation. Underneath this, the sounds of piped music, angelic voices wafting from concealed speakers. Finally, a dense, pulsing beat of silence that I gratefully jump on, allowing it to take me back in time. In one room, I sit down on the bed and open myself up to the emptiness. What I feel is the cold stone closing in on me, trapping the beautiful silence and force-feeding it to me through my pores, aggressively pushing it deep down inside. I want to get up and run away. The music and the strategically placed pot plants, are all designed to elevate the visitor into a state of meditation and closeness to nature and god, which I suppose is meant to reflect the earnest “virtue” of the women who were once cloistered here. But these are window dressings, masking something darker. As I sit, coasting that wave of silence, I wonder about the 500 women cloistered here, and what it must have been like for them. I walk in and out of their living spaces, bedrooms and kitchens. Did they have a choice to leave? Or were they just offered up to God as some kind of divine tax? Underneath the pretty music, the illusion, there were lives, movement, production, sacrifices, laughter, tears. Did they say yes?
with their feet
themselves as women
through the eyes of men,
bead after bead…
step after step…