Solitude is a saint and a monster.
There’s a little collection of books by Thomas Merton on my shelf. I like having them there, as if they bring the man’s presence, his Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat to my life.
But I don’t read them. I often start to read a chapter called “Learn To Be Alone.” “Yeah, yeah,” I think, “that’s what I need right now.” A beautiful purity and clarity envelops me. Around me rise the stones of an ancient monastery. But only for a paragraph or two. Then I’m feeling sorry for old Tom. He could have been dancing in the streets.
And then there’s the monster. He lives alone in a dark cave, in one of my fairy tales, where he gnaws on himself and wails about his ugliness. If he feels love, there is resentment built-in: he suspects his essential loathsomeness will be exposed and abandonment will follow.
When I read the tale to a housemate, she said, “That sounds like a lot of people I know.” I wrote it about myself.
I love that monster. Sure, his self-concept stinks. But there’s a richness about him there in the darkness, dragging himself through the mud, the primal ooze, the detritus of himself. He lives in his own compost. Important things happen in compost piles.
And the saint. I love him too. It isn’t just the glow of candles in his church. I love the edge in his monkhood: his independence, his originality, his perspective from the periphery of the habit-formed world. And yet I’m aware of his penchant for murdering monsters, or trying to.
“But how,” asks the therapist within, “do you really feel about being alone?” I stop, tune inside, feel the bundle of vague emotion in my gut. I don’t like it. I’m lonely. I want someone at my side soothing and caressing the monster, never leaving me alone in my cave. A companion.
So I find someone. And who then appears on the scene? The monk, like a bandit with fire in his eyes. I love the life I’ve made for myself. Sweet independence! Solitude gives full space for my guardian spirits to bring in their bright and dark inspirations.
I look at a picture of St. George fighting the dragon, and realize I’m rooting for both sides.
A huge, recurring dream used to invade my sleep when I was very young. There were no people, landscapes, or houses. I was a speck, a tiny dot against some vast unending sea with no horizon. Crowded by so much space, I sometimes floated, always believing that I, the dot, would prevail. The feeling of detachment was placid and lonely. Solitude left me weak and suspended and open to danger. The danger here was space, the huge openness where I dangled. The separation from all I knew as mine in the daytime world led to a dual feeling of self, severed only by morning with its burst of new life. The anxiety of being alone alternated with rapturous feelings of power. I once even tried to crawl back onto the earth!
Eventually, of course, I grew older and began to see life more clearly as change. Kindergarten widened and opened my world. The old dream and its sense of isolation disappeared, somewhat like a glittering star spending itself out of existence. My self as lonely star in space never returned to my dreams. Since then, in moments of reflection, I have tried to recall those early sensations, only to find a lingering memory of some nascent state, perhaps an atom in its uncombined condition, most active in the split second of its liberation from a compound.
This early, young dream, transporting me haphazardly through space and away from people and earth, carried a singular remoteness that remains the deepest solitude I’ve ever known.
Marie H. Baldwin
I am one of those women who probably never should have had children. I’ve wondered many times about the rejection my son has suffered because of my need for solitude. The shock to me that children need so much, all the time, caused a severe schism in my naive psyche, one sensed by my son and suffered in silence because he had no choice.
It is hereditary, I believe, this need for solitude. My mother detached herself mentally from me. Her mother did the same through religion and her mother before her through constant physical illness. Maybe I have learned it. Maybe it has been given to me like so many fish in a net, along with the Nordic Ragnarok which descends from time to time like a black tornado and sucks me away in its dark fatalistic sense of doom.
But how do children understand these things? It is easy and satisfying for them to condemn and hold on to their condemning well past childhood, even while offering condolences. I see the resentment in my son’s eyes and it looks like the same eagle gaze from my brother which I also saw in all of my uncles as a child. And when my son can see past that resentment, when his stare has softened somewhat and it might be safe to assume he will understand, do I ask his forgiveness — thank him for his love and understanding in spite of my apparent lack of caring — or stand back in my grinding old age and tolerate his need for solitude, because he will never hear me say what a good boy he is to want to take care of me?
My childhood was filled with activity and people. I can barely remember a time without my brother and sister making life alternately miserable or joyful. The neighborhood overflowed with playmates, offspring of the baby boom. Youth brimmed with school, clubs, summer camps, trips and an all-consuming concern with relationships. University years were spent living with friends in dormitories or apartments. I doubt that I spent more than an hour or two by myself for the first twenty-five years of my life; I had no inkling of solitude’s existence. When I moved to North Carolina, the flurry of constant action and involvement came to an abrupt halt. Solitude and I were thrown together.
Eleven hours of every day were spent in complete isolation amidst 1500 acres of uninhabited mountain top land. I soon began to know myself. It seemed as though my previous experiences had been a constant blur of going/doing/seeking/interacting. Now, for the first time, I had space and silence to develop into creations which were completely my own, a rare gift I imagined. My only responsibility was to myself. I grew to recognize birds’ songs as they woke me each morning. I spent hours walking, writing, reading, sewing, crocheting, cooking, and gardening. Evenings I did yoga, meditated, watched sunsets. On unique occasions I could merge entirely with the environment; there was no longer a “me” separate from nature. This opportunity for intimacy with solitude was, indeed, a blessing — as long as I was assured that someone was coming home to share life at the end of my day.
As in all relationships, the blissful beginnings soon grew into the harsh realities. I came to realize that solitude was not sharing its gentle familiarity unconditionally. It was also capable of inflicting devastating pain. Intermittently, since our first fling, we have come to know the dark as well as the light of one another. I have gained a profound respect for solitude as a devoted source of support, and then as a depth of loneliness and despair. I am learning to love it with balance and moderation.
Solitude is a great solace in its proper perspective. The true substance of my life, though, comes from sharing experience with those I love, without which life seems pointless. Solitude is no rival to love’s truth.
Taylorsville, North Carolina
I turn my car on to the highway taking me further from the franchised cities and grey webs of interchanges. I have chosen to put space between myself and civilization for awhile, to spend three days alone in the backcountry of a national forest. Why would anyone choose this over a long weekend of fun and sun? I think of all the work I could be accomplishing at home, the 237 procrastinations I’ve been saving up. How the mind spins! I put those phantoms behind me and look ahead, ethereal blue hills rising on the horizon.
I exit to a state highway. It’s slower and friendlier. Less straight with more surprises. People still live along this road and wave (is it hello or good-bye?) as I drive past. The rolling farmlands give way to mounded fields, the trees get thicker. Finally I begin the steep ascent that takes me up the west side of the mountain. The air smells less of man now, fresher and yet ancient. Poplars and pines line the road as the afternoon sun pierces the thick green tunnel here and there. I’m past the halfway point now, no longer moving away but toward something. Paved road turns to gravel under my wheels. I follow it for a mile or so along a ridgetop until it deadends near a footpath. My car, my last connecting reminder of civilization, has taken me as far as its limits allow. Now I am on my own.
Hoisting my backpack onto my shoulders, I wonder why this forest is so magnetic? Why the strong lure to my sense of solitude? Is it just some quirk of my eccentricity? It’s ironic that in a culture which values independence and freedom so highly, solitude is usually regarded as a waste of time. The desire to spend time alone is seen as evidence of a personality flaw. One is thought to be snobbish or withdrawn. In contrast, most Eastern cultures hold solitude in high esteem, essential to the proper development of character. Our culture and the media that nurtures it set us apart as independent consumers and feed off our growing loneliness. We are surrounded and swallowed as individuals. We grasp on to a group, a media image, or a nation with a frantic need to belong that masks a hollowed out fear of being alone. Society has conditioned us to believe that we have no function as separate persons.
Solitude. The most prized possession of the sages. A possession that has become rare. I wonder if I have become too attached to it. Am I hoarding my private stash of peace and quiet against a crowded world of apartment complexes, shopping malls, and the faces on the Evening Blues that seem intent on blowing us all into the arms of Armageddon? It’s a hard balance to strike — your onlyness and your collectiveness, your holiness and your secular entanglements.
But there’s more to the picture than just culture, other levels to probe here. Solitude. The image of the enigmatic lone wolf, the secluded artistic genius, the mystic in his mountain cave with his solitary contentment beckoning like some strange foghorn in a language unfathomable. It is the dark creative from which all our singularities spring, the person behind the morning mirror, the dark space under our beds where we are afraid to look by ourselves. So elusive. What is it that really pulls us away to these weekend soul siestas, to these long days in little rooms in search of the Buddha’s magic tree? When there’s no one there but yourself, who’s there? Are we turning our backs on the world or turning our faces toward something more substantial? This is solitude with no restaurants or movies for entertainment. Solitude with no lovers and no words. Solitude that either drives you crazy or makes you strong. Don Juan’s first enemy is faced here — fear, silent and deadly. The battle isn’t fought on some Mexican mesa but right between your ears. It is a cleansing, a healing from a sickness that keeps your head too busy to remember that it’s sick. It is a discipline that makes you unshakeable. And finally, it is a harmony of oneness that sings from your marrow out to your fingertips. Leaving behind the noise and lights of the crowded dance floor, we slip through the doorway out under the night sky, looking up in awe at the universe that is ourselves after all.
The trail descends slightly and suddenly there’s a sharp whirr of wings over to my right in a stand of beech trees. Pheasant. This immediately reminds me that my solitude will be only from people. The forest accepts you just as you are. It’s fair and only requires that you learn to see it for what it is, to take a balanced view somewhere between Walt Disney and James Watt. Otherwise you end up fighting it and/or yourself and usually blaming something else. Ignoring storm clouds because you don’t want it to rain can provide an excellent lesson in cause and effect, as well as honesty. There’s no second guessing fifteen foot boulders or a wet shoe.
So far I am the only one on this trail. Silence surrounds me like a snowfall. The air turns cooler and I notice a lot of new moss covering the dark stones and tree barks. Moss seems so subtle compared to the ostentatious greenness of the rest of the forest. I begin to listen to the changes in the wind.
The essential part of myself emerges like a timid animal. There is space here. Enough space for silence between sounds, for living between moments. Dynamic space that whittles away at the social shells of my common block. You gradually run out of mind movies, adapting your systems to those of the forest, noticing more. Taking on its changes of light and sound, moving with its rhythms. Coming together in a silent dialogue of mutual recognition.
I start to notice rhododendron along the trail now, its five-pointed flowers standing out like tiny pink pyramids. The air begins to smell wet; I will be at the creek soon. I have made sure no bad weather is ahead before choosing low ground tonight. Midnight in a wet tent is enough to test the solitude of even the most avid hermit. The roar of water gets louder as I descend for the last time, turn left beside a huge hemlock, and see the creek come into view. I slip off my pack and sit down for a breather. The fact that one can take everything necessary for three days of living and carry it for miles on one’s back still manages to both surprise me and give a sense of self-sufficient freedom. I must look like some strange species of turtle to these creatures. Living on a crash diet of essential belongings contrasts with my usual clutter of physical possessions just as solitude contrasts with my normal daily social life. There is definitely a correlation between the amount of stuff you believe essential enough to pack and the degree of freedom with which you are able to enjoy nature. As the woods have taught me lessons of simplicity, I have learned to see within simple things an infinite complexity. These are Whitman’s leaves, Thoreau’s ants. The common tasks of gathering wood or washing your face in the creek take on new meanings as you begin to see them as events in themselves. Making a fire and cooking rice are important at that moment only to you, and the more you are able to focus on them, the more you can appreciate your relation to the event. Your actions become more essential, less hurried. You flow with the woods in a dance of single purpose.
I set up camp and go down to the creek to look for stove stones. The creek is so fast and full of light, I ask myself how anyone could feel alone next to it. Multicolored stones lie still on the bottom like smooth gems. I notice tiny fish circling over to my left near a fern. Suddenly I hear a familiar screech and look up. Above the bright poplars a hawk is also slowly circling. Macrocosm and microcosm both orbiting the moment. I see my reflection in the currents and begin to remember why I have come here, why being here alone has held so much over the years. The woods reflect back to me exactly what I have put out, unpainted and unbiased. You don’t get by with much bullshit here. My normal life is seen at a distance with a new perspective that makes old worn-out habits rust and fall apart.
The creek is fed from a spring that begins further back in the brush. Dark wet stones lie heaped on both sides; cupped like hands they bring up this rushing life from the belly of the earth. Yes, here I can do something that ultimately must be done alone. Here I can find the real relationship between myself and the world. Not as a member of a particular culture or a social function but as a total individual. To act totally as a free human being, to realize my strengths and forgive my weaknesses without measuring them on a scale that is external to me. Sheltering and feeding myself in the forest for three days, I come into a direct give and take relation with the earth; I have a firm grip on one end of the cosmic rope. Each day my sensitivity extends itself a little further into the spontaneous connectedness that is always there just below the surface.
I watch the dark come knowing that this is a temporary retreat. I will have to return to my own kind soon enough, pulled by the electric umbilical cord of my culture. To re-emerge as a social being, hopefully with a little clearer picture of what my role is, of what work I can give my heart to. But for now, there is the jazz of the tree frogs and the moon songs of the whippoorwill.