To get to the island of Iona, it’s a long way. First you have to drive to Oban (about two hours from Glasgow). You have to wait for a ferry. They go every two hours – if you need to kill time you can eat some oysters while you wait. Then you get the ferry to Mull – 45 minutes. Then you drive the length of the island, through glens with no traffic at all and not a house for miles, perhaps pausing because the road is blocked by ducks. Then you get to Fionnphort, and you wait for another ferry while having a cup of tea and a Twix in the little cafe looking out on the sea. You get on it, if you can manage this without your feet being soaked by the waves coming in over the gangway, and if it’s not cancelled because of the ‘swell’ (this is a thing). Ten minutes later you’ll be on Iona, all one mile wide of it.
You won’t have mobile reception or 3G for much of this. There won’t be many shops or petrol stations on the way, especially if you (sensibly) go in February. It’s hard to believe sometimes that you’re in the same country, especially when Radio 2 disappears. Things will be…quiet. Everyone goes to bed at nine. Eating your dinner at 8 is a shockingly late and decadent thing to do (on Mull anyway).
I think there is a lot to be said for turning the volume down on life in this way. Not to go full Wordsworth and start rhapsodising about waterfalls and mountains (they didn’t have Netflix in those days), but in the course of my everyday life I often feel deafened. By tweets, by emails, by news stories I need to keep up with, by hot takes I need to have, by the scramble to always SAY something. Document what I’m up to. Elbow my way to the front of the internet and put my opinion across. Shout about my books and my other activities and worry that I’m not being heard in the din.
When it’s quiet and I’m not online much several things happen. I can hear what it is I actually want over the roar of what other people want (fine for them but maybe not something I’ll ever have or need). I don’t wake up and reach for my iPad or scroll through it last thing at night, finding things to worry about or imagining I might have offended people or feeling jealous of things that I don’t have. I enjoy the things I do have, because I’m living my actual life as it unfolds, even the bits where you’re just waiting on a ferry or eating a piece of tablet (more tablet, less (electronic) tablet seems to be the key to tranquility). I can see my life like you see a distant island on a clear day, and I can hear what it is I do and don’t need in it. And I affirm, every time, that what I need and what I want is just to keep writing. (And eat tons of haggis and shortbread and fish and also drink whiskey please thank you).
I’m writing this online, of course, and I hope people will read it, so I don’t want to be too hypocritical, and I doubt I’d ever go offline entirely. It’s just too useful a way to keep up with friends and it’s expected for writers now. But if you feel overwhelmed by anxiety, and too heavy with pictures and gifs and opinions to do any writing yourself, and if bits of information about the lives of others are sticking into you like splinters, you could try just muting everything. Even for a few days.
Hear that? It’s silence. But it’s also the sound of your own thoughts, not online, not in the world, not recycled, but roaring between your own two ears and no one else’s.