When I was first raising small children, now nearly 30 years ago, was when I first realized that solitude does, indeed, have at least a couple of different meanings. While it does mean, generically, the state of being alone, separate from other people, we may experience this either as a welcome freedom or an unhappy loneliness.
Anton Chekov, the Russian playwright, wrote: “If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.” And, certainly, in those young years and in that too-young first marriage, I often felt lonely — forlorn, abandoned — whether or not my then-husband and I were in the same house, even the same room, or whether I was alone/together with those two babies in a rented house in an empty workday neighborhood.
With few people to talk to, and fewer still to confess my pain to — and the folly of this coupling I had gotten myself into, barely out of my teens — I would have found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with, perhaps, the most often quoted poem about solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox — laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone. For the sad old earth must borrow it’s mirth, but has trouble enough of its own… sing, and the hills will answer; sigh, it’s lost on the air. The echoes bound on to a joyful sound, but shrink from voicing care…
It was not my choice, of course, to co-exist in a state of brooding silences, and it took nearly a decade for me to decide to end this honorable but deeply unhappy contract. But even then, there were times, regular times, even, when I could will myself to the second kind of solitude.
The kind we enter into by choice, the deliberate alone-ness that, even when uncomfortable, is intentional and therefore ultimately meaning-making.
So, when the children were napping, and in those years, they napped whether they chose to or not, I seized my solitude. I closed the door to their room at 2 o’clock and I quieted myself, and when I wasn’t so exhausted that I had to sleep, myself, I read and mused and sometimes even wrote. The things I read in those days, as, in fact, I do now, were personal accounts of journeys of solitude, written by women, mostly, but also some men.
People who could just take off and be by themselves, not just for a little while.
Who could, like the late Unitarian Universalist poet and memoirist May Sarton, create a haven of silence and solitude in a small New England town, which she portrayed in many of her books of creative non-fiction, including her much read Journal of Solitude. Sarton’s world, or so she described it, was filled with perfectly arranged, home-grown and hand-picked flowers, and perfectly polished floors, and hours upon hours of open and alone time to revel in nature and her love of solitude.
In it, this best-selling book, she wrote of both her inner and outer worlds — her garden, the seasons and daily life in New Hampshire, and, as one reviewer noted, throughout everything, her spiritual journey… as she grappled with her faults, fears, sadness, and disappoints. Like many journeys inward, valiant, sometimes violent, sometimes warm and wise.
Sarton was not always holed up in her place of retreat; in fact, she also craved, and was demanded in, the spotlight of book tours and guest lectures, including quite a few appearances in UU pulpits. She traveled a lot, including trips back to her native Belgium.
She had many friends, and many lovers and liaisons, and her journals reflected that, as well.
In fact, she began the Journal of Solitude by telling us I am here alone for the first time in weeks… to take up my “real life” again at last. That is what is strange — that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life, unless there is time alone to explore what is happening or what has happened.
I hope, she wrote, to break through into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.
In those years, of course, I envied her, her huge empty silences, since mine were so terribly brief, an hour, maybe two, when I had the stamina to stay awake alone.
Living my solitude mostly vicariously, through the words and lives of others like her or another childless female, Alice Koller, whose much less known An Unknown Woman, I also read and relished, her story about fleeing to Nantucket off-season with a German shepherd puppy as her sole companion, and for three winter months walking the beaches, recording the interior markers of what she came to also write of as stations of solitude.
Koller began by confessing that she did not consider herself religious in any sense of the word. Being religious, she wrote, requires a certain temperament, and she said she did not possess that temperament to any degree. No subject, she admitted, was too sacred for her to inquire into, and she asked too many questions. I never could consider just “Believe” to be an adequate reply. (A UU without knowing it, of course.)
So her stations of solitude in no way or shape, she emphasized, imitated Jesus’ Stations of the Cross, his journey of suffering on the way to his crucifixion. She said that while the route of the historical Jesus began on a specific date, followed a certain line of travel, and ended a number of hours later, the only real similarities, she said, are that the stations of solitude, like those of the cross, mark out a journey that is a repeatable line of travel and anyone can choose to take it.
The line of travel is the process of shaping a human being, and the stations are the stopping places in the process.
Koller, like Sarton, was able to literally retreat from her previous academic life by boarding a ferry in Boston and traveling 30 miles out to sea, south of Cape Cod, in the Atlantic Ocean. She could stay as long as she chose and return as often as she chose, as long as her money and sanity held out.
She spent two decades in solitary life, joining a long line of mostly childless women and men who have managed somehow to be alone, as she describes it, elementally. For that, she believed, no “here” will do. Only, she wrote, to be away from everything familiar: every person, every relationship, every circumstance.
To be unbound.
What she describes is the path or journey into solitude that is the classic one. To remove ourselves completely from the familiar geography and culture of our lives.
In Jewish tradition, spiritual retreat to the mountains has been a practice from biblical times. Just prior to leaving Egypt for the promised land, in the Book of Exodus, we are told that Moses prepared himself — found the inner strength — for his very reluctant leadership by leading his flock to the farthest end of the wilderness and going to the Mountain of God where he stayed for a while.
It was in the mountains and wildernesses that young David, alone and in retreat, in flight from King Saul, found refuge. Elijah the prophet spent 40 days and 40 nights in the heart and heat of the desert, where he is said to have met God, not in the mighty wind, or earthquake, or fire, but alone, and in a gentle whisper.
During the Second Temple period and the Roman occupation of Israel, seekers, we are told, continued to go to the mountains and wildernesses to find God, to find themselves. Including the mystic Essenes, who formed spiritual communities in the mountainous desert regions around the Dead Sea.
Jesus himself, who many believe came out of the Essene group, in the Gospel stories of Christian scripture, is often described as needing solitude to be away from his followers and the pressures of his increasingly public and dangerous ministry.
Alone in prayer, or out in the desert, a distance from his disciples, as we read in a passage from the Gospel of Luke: Early the next morning, He went out into the desert. The crowds searched everywhere for Him, and when they finally found Him, they begged Him not to leave them, but to stay at Caperneum.
Over and over we hear stories of retreating into the wilderness to be alone, to fast, to pray, to commune in solitude. In Native American practice, it is the ritual “vision quest,” going out and away to seek spiritual guidance and “medicine,” or power. Many great native leaders and prophets — Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, and others — looked to these times for the guidance and sustenance of their people.
Among the Lakota Sioux, the “vision quest” called hanblecheya, meaning, literally, “to cry through the night,” is one of seven sacred rites taken on the verge of adulthood.
In other cultures and places, these retreats into voluntary and intentional solitude help us through other transitions from one life stage into another: marriage, midlife, the death of loved ones, and help us heal from stress, trauma, and personal loss. To seek mastery over fears, to clarify values and intention, or to empower ourselves in some way.
Phillip Yancy, in a wonderful piece in Christianity Today a few years back, wrote that he once thought of hermits as shaggy recluses, notable mainly, he wrote, for their self-obsession and death of public skills, people like the Unabomber, who lived in rural Idaho and plotted maiming and murder. He has now come to appreciate them as the irreverent and potentially wise seekers they can be.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton (whose works I also read in those years of second-hand solitude) corrected this misconception: To be really mad, you need other people, he explained. When you are by yourself, you soon get tired of your own craziness. It is too exhausting.
Merton was the best apologist for the life of solitude in the 20th century, some say. He viewed community, he admitted, as the real sacrifice, and longed to join those men, he wrote bluntly, on this miserable, noisy, cruel Earth, who tasted the marvelous joy of silence and solitude, who dwelt in forgotten mountain cells, in secluded monasteries, where news and desires and appetites and conflicts of the world no longer reached them.
He had, of course, real-life (vs. scriptural) models of other men who had staked out and then relished their solitude, including Saint Anthony of Egypt, a famous Desert Father, who went out into the Egyptian desert for 20 years, emerging, by his accounts, healthy, balanced, and full of sage advice.
And our own Henry David Thoreau and his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who developed whole theologies of solitude, which blended a love of nature with a fiercely independent self reliance. Thoreau once insisted, for example, that he never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. And he found himself a pond just far enough from Boston so he could commune with the chickadees, and just close enough so he could traipse back in for companionship and a little fame.
So what does all of this talk of 20 years in the desert, or in a Kentucky monastery, or even 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, or even several months off the coast of Cape Cod, mean to me, or any of the rest of us, whose lives are more fettered, because that is what has chosen us or we mostly have chosen? How does this, or does this, figure at all?
Truth is, those years with babies were islands of solitude for me compared to the years that followed, when you couldn’t banish them to bedrooms for mandatory time outs and rests, when the houses I have lived in have been filled with sound and sometimes fury on a very nearly 24-seven basis. When even now, I must compete for early morning alone time with a teenage son who rises earlier and earlier and earlier to prepare himself for his non-stop high school day. Or for the kind of deep silence I appreciate (or maybe a little classical music) with a beloved husband who needs music — lots of loud blues and world music, including the Barundi Drummers — most of the hours that he is awake and sharing an at-home working space with me. Forcing me, sometimes, I will admit, to use the upstairs house family phone to call his downstairs work phone to ask him, gently, I hope, to please, please turn his CD player down.
Making my frequent long car trips the time and place where solitude is most available to me somehow. Driving along in my own world, more often than not with the radio off, letting my mind go its babbling way, finding unexpected moments of free-flowing thought, even some insight and vision.
That’s why I so appreciated a reflection I read by Denise Roy, author of My Monastery is a Minivan, who drives her family around in an old Dodge Caravan with peeling blue paint and 111,000 miles, and has frequently felt spiritually disrespected.
She wrote that she’d always imagined spending her days meditating, writing, maybe even changing the world, and found, instead, that when she grew up, she drove a carpool. A seven-mile route, picking up children here, dropping them there.
After one too many laps around the carpool track, she was craving a few days when she wouldn’t drive anyone anywhere, and when a friend mentioned a silent retreat at a nearby monastery, she traded her car keys with her husband and went.
On the last day, she noticed when she was sitting in chapel that it had beautiful stained glass windows. My minivan has really beautiful stained glass windows, she observed.
Then the comparisons started flooding in — I meditate, she said, in my minivan, as I drive round and round each morning, each afternoon. I keep a rigid schedule in my daily life, in my minivan, just like the monks.
And then she read a passage in a book she had brought with her to this retreat into solitude, written by Zen teacher, poet, and father Gary Snyder:
All of us apprentice with the same teacher — reality. It is as hard to get children herded into the carpool as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha-hall on a cold morning.
One is not better than the other…
It was then she realized that her minivan might not be quite as good as a monastery in finding peace and quiet, but it was precisely the place she found herself more often than not, and where she found the face of God.
Spiritual guide Gerald May reminds us that all contemplative journeys are likely to include some aspects of three foundational dimensions of spiritual formation — Silence, which allows us to remember who we are and what our deepest yearnings are, whether the extended silence of a formal retreat or regular day-to-day times of quiet prayer and meditation. Solitude, freedom from the habitual restraints and compulsions of social interaction, freedom from concerns about how others see us, freedom to be fully who we are with that which we call holy.
And the third, Community. Thomas Merton once said that a true spiritual community exists to protect the solitude of its members, to hear and honor our individual stories of faith and desire, and to share the nourishing experience of solitude and silence with others.
In doing so, we use our loneliness, our aloneness, well. Which is not easy, which can be the hardest work of all.
Emily Dickinson, who certainly was a skilled practitioner of solitude, wrote:
There is a solitude of space
a solitude of sea
a solitude of death, but these Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site,
that polar privacy,
a soul admitted to itself,