Two years ago, in 2018, my husband became serious about walking. I hadn’t seen this coming. At first I assumed Ben’s enthusiasm would be fleeting, that it would quickly pass or evolve into some other pursuit—that’s always been his pattern with physical activity. But this time, I was wrong. He kept it up day after day, month after month. Ten thousand steps gradually increased to the point where he now completes an average of sixteen thousand steps per day. About twelve kilometres. Forever in competition with himself, Ben has, in his words, surrendered his will to his Fitbit.
What’s interesting about Ben’s walking is that he rarely leaves the house. In fact, as I write this, I hear him walking in the basement, back and forth, back and forth. The sound of him walking—a sort of fast, whooshing sound—has become a standard house noise, as familiar as the fridge buzzing or the furnace kicking in. Like a model on a catwalk, Ben always walks in a straight line. When he reaches the end of the line (a wall, a door, a window), he spins around and retraces his steps. Unlike a model, he is usually wearing a simple plaid shirt. And his hair does not fly out as he spins.
I am inspired by Ben’s walking. I am proud that he’s kept it up. But there is also something a bit disconcerting about it. His brisk, non-purposeful stride feels out of place in a house. It’s not how people usually move around indoors. Often he’s lost in thought as he walks. Sometimes he reads a book or eats a bowl of cereal. Because he walks the same line over and over, he says he doesn’t need to worry about paying attention. That’s true enough, but I do worry about him choking. One time I went into the basement at night, and as I descended the last few steps, a white form whooshed past me. It gave me quite a fright. I didn’t realize Ben was down there, walking in the dark. He’d taken his shirt off because he was feeling overheated.
I grew up in a family that loved the outdoors: camping, hiking, and fishing, cottages and summer camps. Ben grew up in a family that loved books and quiet times at home. Ben started collecting books and comics at a young age, and he spent his adolescence embroiled in a long, arduous love affair with the television.
Early on in our relationship, whenever Ben and I went for a walk together, we focused on entirely different things. For Ben, walking was a vehicle for working through some problem in his head. The moment we left the apartment, he would start to ruminate about some project or some difficult email he needed to write. He would verbally process all of this out loud as we passed a blooming lilac or a maple ablaze in fall colour. For me, walking was a vehicle to stop ruminating, a way to get outside of my head. Confronted with a scarlet maple, my mind would slow down, at least for a moment, and I would feel relief. During our excursions, Ben talked a great deal while I tended toward monk-like silence.
At first, Ben’s apparent lack of curiosity about the outside world, the natural world, irritated me, but eventually I came to a place of acceptance about it. The fact that Ben “knew neither his flora nor his fauna” even became a source of humour between us. One time, we were raking leaves at my father’s cottage, and Ben rushed toward me excitedly. “Look, Jake! Look what I found!” he said. “A butterfly cocoon!”
In his hand, he was holding a pinecone.
To this day, he maintains he was joking.
In January, Ben and I spent a week in Quebec City. Ben’s sister has lived there for years, with her family, and Ben’s mother has recently relocated there from a nearby city. When Ben told his mother and his sister that we would be visiting in January, they thought we were crazy. “No one comes to Quebec City in January,” they said. “The weather is awful. There’s nothing to do. Carnival hasn’t even started yet.” Perfect, we thought. We’ve always preferred visiting places in the off-season.
We spent the first few days with Ben’s mother, at her apartment in a newly constructed retirement home in Cap-Rouge. She had been one of the first tenants to move in, and many of the units were still empty. When we arrived, she was very happy to see us. She also said, “What are we going to do for three days?”
We quickly settled into a routine. We played many games of cards and Skip-Bo. Ben’s sister came for a visit along with her family. I read from cover to cover a large coffee table book about the young Prince Charles and Lady Diana called Invitation to a Royal Wedding. With all the benefits of hindsight, the book was a fascinating though tragic read. The weather was indeed awful, but one day it cleared enough for us to take a brief, bone-chilling excursion along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, where giant slabs of ice had been heaped up into haphazard piles.
Ben kept up his routine of walking indoors, and I decided to join him. Reminiscent of a monastic cloister, the retirement home consisted of four wings surrounding a large courtyard. The courtyard was closed for the season. Two or three times a day, Ben and I walked every single hall. We worked our way up all the floors, then down again. Walking at a brisk pace, we took about forty minutes to complete our route. And we weren’t the only people on this particular mission. There were always other tenants going for a stroll. Sometimes we passed the same person or couple multiple times on different floors, and Ben would make some funny quip to them in French, like “Fancy seeing you again!”
After our visit with Ben’s mother, we spent a few days in Old Quebec. We stayed at a hotel that is, in fact, part of a functioning Augustinian monastery. While hundreds of nuns once called the monastery home, their numbers have declined sharply since the Quiet Revolution, and a few years ago, a portion of the monastery was converted into a hotel and wellness centre. Perched on the edge of the escarpment that divides Old Quebec from Basse-Ville and the port, the monastery is exposed and windswept. The complex consists of many interconnected buildings—in addition to the hotel, there is a church, a museum, a hospital, a restaurant, and a gift shop that sells essential oils and other aromatherapy products. Some parts of the monastery date from the seventeenth century, while other areas feature stunning contemporary steel-and-glass architecture.
When we checked into the hotel, a guide offered to show us to our room. We were entirely at his mercy, as he led us through a baffling maze of corridors and crooked stairwells, up elevators that serviced certain floors while bypassing others. The walls displayed early Canadian religious art. On the main floor, the corridors featured large photographs depicting the monastery’s history. One photograph, likely taken in the fifties or sixties, showed a large group of sisters picnicking on the monastery grounds. Another featured a group of them seated at a table playing a game of cards. This photograph surprised me; for some reason, I had always assumed that nuns weren’t allowed any sort of frivolity.
When we opened the door to our room, we were greeted by a mossy, coniferous scent. We soon realized that this was a signature scent, found everywhere in the hotel. Our room was in the attic of one of the former monastic buildings. We faced north, toward the Laurentians. Our dormer windows had wooden shutters instead of curtains. There was a sign attached to the shutters, asking guests to handle them with care as they were hundreds of years old.
That night, Ben and I planned to walk around the city and have dinner at a bistro we’d visited about fifteen years earlier, when our relationship was still in its infancy. On our way out of the hotel complex, we passed the doorway into the church. The guide had told us that the sisters gathered in the church to sing matins and vespers each day and that hotel guests were welcome to attend. The vespers service was just about to start, so Ben and I walked into the church and sat down. The sisters processed in slowly, eight in total. Seven appeared to be over the age of seventy—a few were quite frail—and one nun appeared to be in her thirties or forties. They sat opposite to us, filling just a small fraction of the seats that made up the choir. Ben found a small book that contained the liturgy, and we followed along as they sang the evening service. Many of the sisters had beautiful voices, but because there were so few of them, their voices didn’t blend together. Each voice rang out clearly.
Our three days in Old Quebec were dream-like. During the days we scaled icy streets and staircases and explored endless nooks and crannies, always wondering—Where does this little street go? What’s on the other side of that archway? Workers attached to safety ropes cleared snow from the steep roofs. Signs warned pedestrians to watch for falling ice. There were no tourists to speak of, except for a couple of American school groups. Hardly any of the main tourist sites were open, but we didn’t care. Restaurants and patisseries were open—that’s all that mattered. The restaurants were empty and candlelit and served winter fare. Wild game tourtières. Rich, savoury stews.
Each evening after dinner we’d head back to the monastery and become hopelessly lost trying to find our room. Even with practice, it never got much easier—we always took a wrong turn or went up a wrong staircase. When we finally found it, Ben would grab a book and head to the common room, and I’d take a long, hot bath in the soaker tub, in a bathroom that smelled like a cedar forest after a heavy rain. Each night, fierce winds blew from the north. The windows and shutters kept rattling and pulling us out of sleep.
On our final day at the monastery, we decided to visit the museum. Our tour guide showed us a wooden, cylindrical device that had once been located at the main entrance. It could be opened and shut, accessed from outside and inside the monastery. Its circular base could be spun around like a large Lazy Susan. The guide explained that the device was used to receive donations from the public. Usually people left food or money. Sometimes they left orphaned or unwanted babies. An unwed mother or an overburdened widower could open the little door, place the infant inside the device, and swivel it around. A nun would collect the infant on the other side. Apparently, over a thousand babies had been left at the monastery.
The guide led us through the former refectory and through another large room full of relics. The room was bisected by a huge metal screen. Our guide explained that until Vatican II, in the 1960s, the Augustinian sisters had been cloistered. Once they took their final vows, they were unable to leave the monastery under any circumstances. Family members could come to the monastery, but during visits nuns would be separated from their loved ones by the screen. The guide brought us into the church and explained that it had an L-shaped design for a reason. For Mass, the sisters would gather in one wing of the church, hidden from view, while the public would gather in the other wing. The officiant would stand where the two wings joined, in the corner of the L, allowing him to administer Mass to the sisters and to the public simultaneously.
The guide told us that when a nun took her final vows, she’d lie down on the floor of the church with her arms outstretched. She’d form her body into the shape of a cross and a death shroud would be placed over her. In essence, her old self would die. When the shroud was removed, she’d be reborn—a new woman with a new name and a new identity. A Bride of Christ.
Sometimes, as a thought experiment, I like to imagine what my life would have been like if I’d been born in a different time and place, not as some random person, but as me. Same body. Same genetics. Same personality traits. What would my life have been like if I’d lived in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century? In Russia in the eighteenth century? Probably, my life would have been short. In all likelihood, I would have succumbed to disease, famine, or war before I reached middle age. But I like to ask myself: faced with very limited options, what sort of life might I have been drawn to?
I think I would have been destined for monastic life. I’m not physically robust enough to be a farmer. I’m not brave or vicious enough to be a warrior. In my fifteenth-century family, my parents would have looked at me—the quiet, studious one with the nice singing voice—alongside my twelve or thirteen scrappier brothers and said, “Ah yes, of course, he’s the one we give to the Church.” And I would have been happy with it. No sexual relations with women? No problem. Living in community, for the rest of my life, with a bunch of men, at least some of them attractive? Score!
In my actual life, I’ve found the idea of being cloistered appealing, not so much as a religious calling but as a means of staying in one place, following the same routine, day after day. Matins and vespers, chores and meals, periods of silence and periods of study—all scheduled in advance. In my mind, being cloistered entails freedom from the tyranny of endless choices, not just the major life choices but also the small, day-to-day ones that can become so tedious. What should I cook for dinner tonight? When should I paint the room? What colour? I have two hours—should I get some exercise or call my friend?
About eight years ago, as Ben and I were in the midst of planning our wedding, we spent Christmas with Ben’s mother, who was still living in her house at the time. The guest bedroom was, under regular circumstances, my mother-in-law’s “puzzle room.” In the corner, there was a large table with a bright lamp that was exclusively for puzzling. The closet was stacked full of jigsaws, with stickers indicating the date of completion and any additional comments. During blustery winter days, my mother-in-law sat at the puzzle table for hours. She liked to listen to classical music as she worked. And she was discerning about puzzles. There were huge differences in quality, she said. Ravensburger was the most reliable. One time, she had purchased a cheap puzzle from another company and had come to regret it. In the end, it was missing a couple of pieces, and she wrote a scathing letter to the manufacturer.
The months leading up to our wedding were among the most stressful of my life. A perfect storm of family stress, work stress, and wedding stress brought me to my knees on many occasions. One morning, I started crying hysterically as I listed off everything we urgently needed to get done that day. One afternoon, a couple of weeks later, Ben came home from work to find me on the living room floor, surrounded by the shredded remains of an entire phone book. I had read somewhere that ripping paper could be cathartic. (It wasn’t.) During these months I often thought about my mother-in-law’s puzzle room. I don’t even particularly like puzzles, but as we were agonizing over the rehearsal dinner, the seating plan, and the reception program, my mind kept wandering to that room. It became a place of refuge. I wanted a room just like that. A quiet room to spend a few hours alone. I wanted to be in a place where the weather was so bad that all I could do was hunker down inside and work on a puzzle.
One month after our wedding, I bought a thousand-piece Ravensburger puzzle and drove on my own to a retreat centre an hour away from where we live. The retreat centre had clearly seen better days. The buildings were in various stages of decay and infested with boxelder bugs. The riverside grounds were beautiful but unkempt. It had been a spring of unprecedented drought, but it rained most of the time I was there. I was glad the weather had turned. For two days, I sat in my forest hermitage and worked on my puzzle—a picture of fishing huts on the coast of Norway. I glanced out the window at the glistening forest. I listened to the rain pinging on the metal roof. Then I left the hermitage and life carried on as usual.
Three months after our trip to Quebec City, Ben and I find ourselves cloistered—in circumstances we never expected. We’ve become a non-celibate monastic community of two. We leave our house once a week to pick up groceries. Like the pre-Vatican II Augustinian sisters, we communicate with our loved ones through a screen.
I realize that being cloistered is more complicated than I thought. Some days it feels like freedom, like a sort of respite or retreat. Other days it feels like house arrest minus the ankle bracelets. When he’s not working, Ben walks the floors as usual. I sit in front of my computer for so long each day that my neck and shoulders seize. Sometimes, when we can’t handle being in the house one more second, we jump in the car and go for long drives. I’m irrationally afraid of leaving the city—I imagine checkpoints at the city limits, guarded by vigilantes—so instead we meander through the city with no particular destination in mind. It’s non-purposeful driving, kind of like Ben’s walking, except there’s no exercise involved and we’re not driving back and forth down the same street. We discover neighbourhoods we’ve never seen before— they aren’t all that interesting. The streets are far too empty and it weirds us out. We don’t get out of the car. We listen to our favourite music and pretend that things are normal.
My mother-in-law is not allowed to leave her retirement home. The parking garage exit has been locked. Ben’s sister visits her frequently. She stands on the road below my mother-in-law’s balcony, and they talk for a while. They call it “playing Romeo and Juliet.” Sometimes, Ben’s sister hoists care packages up to their mother, containing items meant to alleviate boredom: magazines, Sudoku books, and of course new puzzles.
Even in ordinary times, I’ve encountered a surprising number of people who barely ever leave their homes. Left to his own devices, Ben might easily become one of them. Each generation of his family has people of this persuasion, including an uncle in New England who has spent his golden years stockpiling non-perishable food and working on his family tree.
While this phenomenon is sometimes connected to mental health problems like depression, panic disorder, or agoraphobia, I’m convinced that most homebodies are perfectly healthy. They’re often highly sensible people, pragmatic and down-to-earth. If asked to justify their lifestyle, they might respond, “Why would I want to leave? I’m comfortable here. I have plenty of things to keep me busy.” Many of these people do leave the house once in a while. They visit their elderly parents twice a week. They go to the grocery store. Maybe once in a blue moon, they go to Florida or to the Dominican Republic. But for the most part they live out their lives within relatively narrow constraints, and when they see the frenetic pace of other people’s lives, the constant coming and going, they don’t understand what the fuss is all about.
I find it odd that there’s a greater tendency to pathologize individuals who stay at home rather than individuals at the opposite extreme. Think back to pre-pandemic times and you’ll know whom I’m talking about. That cousin you could never keep track of— last you’d heard she was trekking in Nepal, or was it the Pacific Crest Trail? That friend with the state-of-the-art kitchen who was never actually at home long enough to use any of his gorgeous Miele appliances. That other friend who went to Amsterdam—for the weekend—in order to attend a bachelor party: “Dude, it was awesome. We flew down on the Friday, came back on the Sunday night. Honestly, the whole weekend was a bit of a blur, I was drunk the whole time, but holy shit what a party!” If there’s something strange about the person who never wishes to leave home, there’s something equally strange about the person who is driven by a constant need for escape, the person who finds staying in one place unbearable.
I am not someone who travels often. I am not driven by a constant need to escape. At the end of the day, I have a lot in common with my husband: I’m a homebody as well. I like my house. I like my garden. Faced with a week off, I’m more likely to choose a staycation than to embark on some grand adventure.
Yet, a part of me can sympathize with the frenetic traveller.
One of the hardest things to accept is the specificity of my life. That I should inhabit one body and one mind. That I should live in one place, at one time, with one family and with one partner (yes, we’re old school that way). I may fantasize about being a monk in fifteenth-century Europe, but time travel is not yet possible. I will never know what it’s like to be six feet tall, to have a full beard, to be a woman, to be Latin American, to be heterosexual.
Being cloistered is difficult because it forces us to confront this hard truth: that our lives exist within certain boundaries and that many of them are absolute. No amount of travel, no amount of moving, no amount of hooking up and breaking up will provide meaningful escape. Sexually, we may even choose to be polyamorous (if we’re liberal) or polygamous (if we’re conservative), but there’s something at the core of our lives that remains fundamentally monogamous. When I look in the mirror each morning, it’s always, without exception, the same boring person looking back at me.
Being cloistered is also an invitation to see the beauty and possibility that can exist within these constraints. A couple of weeks ago, I needed to pick a new book for my bedside table. I chose the complete poems of Emily Dickinson. The volume had sat untouched on my bookshelf for twelve years. At first I wasn’t sure why I was drawn to this particular book at this particular time, but as I began to read her poems, I remembered: Emily Dickinson was a homebody. For reasons not well understood, she spent much of her adult life confined to her home and property in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her poems are cryptic and highly personal, filled with strange imagery and archaic language—I can’t pretend to really understand what she’s saying half the time—but I believe her poetry speaks to the richness and depth that can exist, that can be available to us, in a circumscribed life.
Of course, we have not been dealt an equal hand in lockdown. Whether you feel a sense of freedom and richness or a sense of imprisonment depends on many factors. Have you kept your job? Are you in good health? Do you live in an apartment or a house or a long-term care facility? Do you have access to a yard? Are you with your kids all day? Are you alone?
And if you’re stuck at home all day, every day, with a partner, the most relevant question isn’t “Do you love them?” It’s “Do you like them?”
Ben walks the floors so much that certain floorboards have started to complain. Some squeak loudly. Others groan. In the bedroom, something has come loose underneath the floor, so that every time he passes over that spot, a mysterious clanging sound resonates throughout the entire house: the sound of metal hitting metal. I’ve started to worry that our home may not have been constructed to handle so much foot traffic. Ben walks and works and eats cereal and reads, and I sit and attend Zoom meetings. The faces on the screen freeze occasionally, and the effect can be either comical or demonic. I look at people, but they’re never quite looking back at me. When my eyes get tired I glance out at the street or at the garden. I watch the world change more slowly than I ever thought possible. I watch spring unfurl itself, leaf by leaf.