I thought this essay would be about the pursuit of solitude. But in the past week, we’ve gone from life-as-usual to hermit-like existences. Unlike most hermits, though, we didn’t choose this new pattern of life.
Most of us are in shock and a little bit afraid as we “shelter in place” and “flatten the curve.” We spend these endless homebound days sliding back and forth along the spectrum of grief like beads on an abacus — life adding up one second and splayed out, fractional, the next.
While many of us may be alone, or socially distanced, or quarantined right now, we are not necessarily experiencing solitude in the redemptive or pure sense. Solitude, even in a time of pandemic, must be sought.
The solitary is defined not by self-focus but by generosity.
In Fenton Johnson’s book At the Center of All Beauty, he suggests that the solitary is defined not by self-focus but by generosity. The solitary approaches the world as a repository for the gifts she has to give rather than a marketplace for her to pick through and consume for the sake of her own feeling of fullness. In her needs to be alone, to muse, to wander away in thought or along a mountain path, she seeks to discover the fresh potential of these gifts like an artist cleaning her paintbrush between sessions — thorough, careful, with gratitude for what came before, expectation for what will come, and peace right now, when the paint is yet to dry from today’s painting, and tomorrow’s is hardly a vision.
I’m not entirely sure what it looks like to seek generous solitude right now, particularly as a pandemic races through this country, but I know that since my children’s schools closed and a new life began, I have tried to spend five minutes per day in solitude practicing silence. I have failed more often than I have succeeded, but this is still more success than if I weren’t trying at all, or so I tell myself. I close my eyes and cup my hands upward, as though I am giving or receiving or both at once.
For five minutes, until my alarm chimes, I breathe slowly and deeply. I try to release the idea that I am trapped and receive as spacious the places to which my feet have been restricted. I grow distracted with fear or worry or the fact that I have suddenly become a homeschool mom or that I am a freelancer whose career could implode at any moment, and I try to remember what I learned from Brian Volck in a Silence and Solitude seminar at the Glen Workshop last summer, which feels like it was one hundred years ago.
“Throw a steak to the dogs of your brain,” he said, or at least that’s how I remember it. “When your mind begins to wander, give it a phrase to think on.”
So I internally repeat, “I am my beloved’s and He is mine,” until I find something that feels like quietude again, and that lasts for a few seconds, and then I am churning, and then I am repeating, and then I am quiet, and then the alarm chimes and it is over and nothing magical has happened. I might feel more peaceful and I might not. If I do, the peace may last for hours, defining my day. Or, it may last for 30 seconds, until my sons tackle each other yet again.
Seeking solitude and silence, I am finding, is not a self-help strategy. It’s not designed to function like a pill — altering my state of mind or body. If anything, solitude reminds me of how little I know and how little strength I have. I do not know how long COVID-19 will govern our lives. I do not know when my children will get to go back to school. I am not able to render myself immune to a virus. I am not able, ultimately, to protect my loved ones from infection.
Those five minutes of sinking into my humanity, of lowering down instead of powering through, tell the truth.
This is what silence and solitude reminds me of, which, when I read it back now, seems like a list of reasons to avoid ever practicing solitude again. But those five minutes of sinking into my humanity, of lowering down instead of powering through, tell the truth. In a time when I’m increasingly aware of my limitations, when I seem to find barriers to focus, to accomplishment, to understanding what’s going on in the world everywhere I turn, those five minutes offer a brief taste of that elusive acceptance phase of grief. This solitude is generous because it is honest, and in it I am my true self, giving and receiving at once.
I am limited. I am quiet. I am still.