by Michael Angerer
So here we go – after months of staying at home, staying alert, and preferably both, we’re back. Back in our little term-time homes away from home. For some, the change will be less jarring than for others. After all, lockdown is excellent training for the monastic lifestyle that characterises the modern pandemic hermit, especially for those who cannot usually stroll out into a few acres of garden when the walls are closing in. All the same, not everyone is cut out for the cloister. As we move back to university, we must remember that we will need a comfortable home where, even in our government-mandated seclusion, we can weather the pressures of academic life. If the last pandemic-ridden six months have shown us anything (apart from the utter incompetence of human beings), it’s how important our home is to our general wellbeing and sanity.
We have returned – home sweet home! – and our first challenge will be to make sure that it is indeed sweet enough to help us live through another term. At least, in a medieval monastery, the monks and nuns would have been able to move between their cells, the church, the refectory, the scriptorium, the herb garden and whatnot. But with most forms of social contact proscribed, our access to halls and libraries is severely restricted, and any outdoor walks depend heavily on clement autumn weather. So one of the first things to do is to make sure the place where we live and work does not turn sour on us. In practice, this might mean keeping some separation even in the limited space our homes offer – one place for work, one place for rest and sleep. It’s a fairly simple start to not going mad.
In the same way, while our home may be our COVID-secure castle, what’s important is not that we pull up the drawbridge, let down the portcullis, and hope that the virus soon abandons the siege. The key thing is to make it a castle in which we can withstand any siege. Enough lighting, photos and personal objects, comfortable places to sit, ample snack provision, and the occasional shrubbery can do wonders. And if all of this does not work, there is no shame at all in asking others for help, either in person or online. Now, of all times, is the moment to create a friendly environment that will support us regardless of the physical limitations of our locked-down existence.
In short, home is where the heart is. (The Home Office, of course, did not get the memo.) Ultimately, it’s not even so much a question of creating a comfortable home for ourselves – it’s above all a question of being comfortable in our mind, the one place we can never truly leave. Professional advice on this comes from the 11th-century Book of Encouragement by the monk Goscelin of Saint-Bertin: ‘“My cell is so narrow”, you may say, but oh, how wide is the sky!’ The art of the hermit, we might infer, is to never forget to keep an eye on the sky. And so, as the proverb says, there’s no place like home. Home is a state of mind. In these trying times, make sure that your mind is a place where you can stay alert, stay safe, and stay sane.