Sara Maitland, Journeys and Words

After seeing Sara Maitland speak as part of Essex Book Festival, I’ve added her to my list of bad bitches. She is so fucking cool and inspiring and I wish we were friends. After hearing her speak, I wished it even more, but instead of saying that, I asked her to sign my book and then disappeared without saying goodbye. I’ve decided to think of it as a pause in the conversation, because I really want to speak with Sara again. I knew from the way she introduced herself, “James writes about trees, and I write about…hehe…random things” that we had more to talk about.

Sara is one of those people that lives by the beat of her own drum. For the first 40 years of her life, she lived a loud feminist life. Born into a family of six, then going off to Oxford University where she got involved in the feminist movement after going to see Germaine Greer speak with her pal Bill (Clinton). Yes, now I am only one person removed from being friends with Bill Clinton! She was married to a priest and lived in a loud house raising two children, until she decided she needed some silence. At 40, she divorced her husband and built a house near the Isle of Skye miles from anyone. A Book of Silence is part memoir, and part non-fiction – all about this experience and the role that silence plays in the Eastern and Western world. She believes, like I do, that people are avoiding silence.

We fill ourselves with distraction, headphones always plugged in that we can no longer hear the voice inside ourselves. Deserts are good for this, as Sara says, the desert is a

“huge force; it strips you down and makes you face your own smallness, fretfulness, and vulnerability. It is not about peace. It is about radical self-transformation – about grace, kenosis, beauty and awe.”

Sara is very interested in the influence that landscape has on the imagination, and wanted to know how the landscape affected Abraham’s thoughts on his journey when he founded monotheism, the moment of origin for Judaism, Christianity, and Islamism. As she says, “The only way to understand a landscape is to go there,” however, as a solo middle aged white woman given the political situation, this was not possible. She compromised, and decided to spend 40 days and 40 nights in the Sinai Desert. The way she described the Sinai Desert made me want to hop on a plane tomorrow, to walk on what was once the bottom of the sea. I wanted to see the stars, to hear the bizarre noise of camels.

She spoke about the damage caused by unfounded terrorism fears to the local economy – making it even more susceptible to terrorism. She spoke about how governments hate nomadism from the Roma to the Bedouin, because it’s so hard to tax them. Thus they bribe them with televisions and camel racing arenas.

Her time in the Sinai desert was also mostly in silence. When she found the hermit cave of her dreams, nothing around for 80 miles, she stopped for three days. She shared that no one lives in Sinai, “It makes the Western Highlands look like the London tube.”

This tradition of going into the desert into pure silence to make important decisions is in most cultures. It is also made fun of in Silicon Valley. I feel we should put this back into society. Instead of Stag and Hen dos, the bride and groom should go separately into the desert for 40 days, and only then, can they legally bind themselves for the rest of their lives. Or along with Grad Trips! That would have been really helpful when applying for jobs and deciding what to do with the rest of my life.

Sara leads a tour every year, with Wind, Sand, & Stars. It’s obviously not targeted at early career people, but gosh it sounds magical. It ended all too quickly, and I was too shy to ask my questions – as they didn’t really relate to the talk, more about what she thought about the present day, and why she had decided to be alone and was she still involved in the feminist movement? I wish she didn’t leave us to be alone, I wish she’d come back to London and help us organize and mentor the young leaders of our generation. I wanted to ask her, can I interview you, can I follow you around for a week? But as I said, my shyness came back, and all I could do was admire and respect her and add her to my list of Bad Bitches.

A dreamlike surrealness – role model, admiration, overwhelming admiration.

Find out more about Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence, her Adventure into Silence Tour.

Read more about Essex Book Festival 2019