Solitude: Not a Love Story

Over the past year, I have developed a keen interest in literature that speaks to the topic of solitude. Being married to an archaeologist and also being an introvert has given me ample space for quiet contemplation. Summer 2011 was spent exploring much of the northern half of Arizona, often in an attempt to escape the 115 degree summer days Phoenix so nefariously offers. Since my schedule was spent managing various contracts, I found myself with odd patches of mid-week travel time when companions couldn’t join me in my travels. Suffice all of this to say, I was alone often.

If you have read any of the trendy solitude books and themed blogs, you will find that they – for the most part – present solitude in two phases. The first is the comedic realization of solitude ( ie the city to country transition, the odd encounters with new places and people, the wilderness snafus or wildlife bandits, etc.) and the second, and perhaps conclusion to the former, is the phase that I am going to focus on which presently has me stumped, the grand, sweeping, Muir moments of divine connection to self and place. And, to dredge up show tunes, how they present themselves “in the most delightful way”.

I would like to think, in my own bumbling, flawed manner,  I, too, shall one day be singing show tunes and having Muir visit me in epiphanies in cabins on mountaintops. But my foray with solitude has been anything but pretty. Powerful? Yes. Challenging? Yes. But not necessarily peaceful in its starts and stops. And not ideal in process or results.

Each excursion into the forests and canyons has been met with mental la brugas: the mean medicine, fairy tales, nightmares, and – perhaps an adult’s biggest enemy – memories. Never the quiet easement into aloneness, my journeys have felt like  immediate emotional landslides, long tumbles into the crevice of habit and heartbreak where skeletons bang around the edges of experience, demanding, always demanding…

The fact is: solitude includes time with me, myself, the awful “I”. No people are needed. These aspects of self crowd in and gaze, point, cry, scream and sometimes sit silently, waiting for me to get comfortable with some space or sense, then emerge strong, demanding… They are, in fact, the crowds I thought I was escaping by leaving known territory and venturing into solitude.

Where was the beautiful transition into peace?

Where were the epiphanies with Muir and Thoreau singing in my ear, those buddies in isolation and nature?

Rather than finding a voice or having a creative experience, I simply witnessed the beauty around me, moved a lot, and avoided the internal dialogue and chaos as much as possible. The more chaotic, the more demanding the internal became, in fact, the more determined I was to drown it out. “I am here to be HERE, dammit! Go away!” But the internal crowding continued, despite intense hiking, a six-pack, or thunderstorm, the demands kept coming until I was so exhausted from my own company, I had to get away from myself.

To the city. Ah, the city… where so many distractions simply overwhelmed that damn internal group of hangers-on. To the city, where I pretended my solitude experiences were meaningful in some way. Until now.

What occurs to me most about solitude and experiencing solitude is that there is a vast difference between selective solitude – often taken in timely chunks – and imposed or accidental solitude, often not intentional or purposeful but more sustained and sincere. Creating solitude is theatre. Imposed solitude is truly where the proverbial rubber meets the road. In its extreme form, we might imagine jail time or a POW camp. Thankfully, I have not experienced either of those forms of solitude where solitude is but one of many concerns. Solitude might include months of work abroad, or moving to a new place without a companion. This was how my less-than-intentional isolation came into being.

Recently I relocated to a small town in the far southwest corner of Colorado, near Mesa Verde (a beautiful area of canyons, high desert, green pastures and mountains). I was offered a stellar job with a wonderful small business. I accepted. I knew, given the fact that both my husband John and I have careers and a home in Phoenix, there would be an extended period of separation until he found a job and a tenant or buyer (whichever came first, and neither particularly easy). I arrived in Colorado as a baby bird out of the nest, meeting the ground with a hard thud… a little gnarly and featherless, but ready to move on. Somehow I held hope that – magic thinking, mind you – John would arrive soon after. Both John and I have been wanting out of Phoenix for a while now, so the move was what we envisioned for the future, but certainly not seemless in its execution.

As a wanderer, I have had experiences with solo travel and even moving to new lands. However, I don’t think I had emotionally prepared for being a stranger in a strange land again, and no longer in my fearless twenties.  I have one of those personalities that make me shy with those I should feel most comfortable, and comfortable with total strangers, ramblers like me. It didn’t take me long to make conversation with the eccentric locals, but at day’s end I was quick to crawl back into my den and ponder the fact that my husband would be away for weeks and no friends were near enough to fill my time. Every little household problem became monstrous (funny, how one gets used to having another to share household trouble-shooting with) and the nights loomed long and quiet.

So here I sat in a new house. In a new town. With no identity other than the one I claim and believe exists.

Enter in the host of goblins, the mischief makers of memory and habit… My idea of solitude always included the space and creative energy for writing, painting… you know, all of the things we try to make room for but cannot because we work like crazy Americans. So when I am gifted temporary solitude (not of my choosing entirely), what happens? I clean. I worry. I make lists of tedious tedium only the most compulsive among us would appreciate, let alone enjoy. Out come the jerks of my own creation: anxiety, what if scenarios, paranoid ideas about the things that could happen. An awful word: could.

Yes, I longed for those romantic evening writing fests, the wind softly blowing and the moon glowing through the cracked curtains, or philosophizing at a clear lake with a journal and the sound of owls in the distance. Yes, I longed for creativity to sieve itself out of my heart, brain or soul, depending on one’s definition, and work its magic.

But what I got was paralyzing self-examination and litanies of fear statements. When my brain got tired of these, I was left with an exhaustion so enormous I could have slept for days. Sometimes I did. And, then, the remarkable part: something transpired that makes me feel OK… safe, even. And then, a little more… until – yes, yes – there it is! I am a bit happy. I find my feet. I find others. I leave solitude behind in its eternal cancer ward. I return to the previous state of movement and occupied mental state – the interruptions, the calls, the family responsibilities – but a little more appreciative, self-aware, and … determined to forgo the need to push out the world to know what lies within.

I have always known I have tremendous strength. I have felt and used my tenacity many times in horrible places, where isolation was no option of my choosing. I don’t need Muir to point out the strength of spirit that is possible. What I did lack, however, was the awareness that happiness cannot be found chasing solitary confinement in some literary fantasy of such. No. Happiness is a product of familiarity, something I never would have wanted to believe, but continue to find its truth. Solitude is simply a byproduct of being alive. We endure it, we may even harness its energy at times, but to be happy is to leave the goblins of what ifs of our own internal drama and to remove our gaze from navel – to gaze deeply into the world.

Following Deer

“to the seeds,
to the beginnings; to one clear word for which
there is no disguise and no alternative.”
~Brackenbury

I have grown accustomed to mourning and rejoicing in tandem. It seems throughout my life some of the most profoundly joyful moments, good news, and inconspicuous but thrilling arrivals have found their way to me in the footsteps of sadness, change, and difficult times. If there is a lesson in this trend, I am still learning, growing with every new turn and opportunity to respond and adapt.

Just as I was accepting a job offer and entirely new course in life – including a major residential move – a friend lapsed into serious condition, then left this old, dusty world just a day beyond my acceptance of this new path. I was watching deer move delicately across a green meadow, the new morning sweet and endless, as my friend struggled for breath and held the hands of friends and family too numerous to name. Just as I stumbled up a mountain path, where a small doe stood sniffing the air, my family – back in Indiana – dealt with struggles of their own, how to honor an aging loved one’s wishes while serious health issues pressed against good conscience. And all the while my own conflicts provided sullen backdrops against the abundant beauty around me.

 Is it right to be happy when others are not?

How do we fully live while grieving for those who are dying or have gone on?

I grapple with my need to move quickly in the midst of so much emotion. By nature, I am a mover. To remain still, coming from my history and character, welcomes potential peril. I move on, even when my heart is broken and everyone around me lingers, catatonic in hurt. I move with the clouds. I say goodbye as the wind pushes memory and time over ridges, against the horizon. I carry stories. I speak them, and speak through them. I move, too, in the gray space, as everyone naturally moves away from our grasp. Friends, lovers and family circle the wheel, just as I. 

There’s ache in my heart for the many losses faced over the years, for the pains and sicknesses that have plagued those I love, and for the reality that, yes, our limited, linear life becomes ever more apparent as loved ones fly off into hereafter. Childhood, for those fortunate enough to be awarded this innocent time, is short. For many, childhood is merely a time to fight for survival. Fair or unfair, the wheel turns. We mourn. We move on.

As I reflect upon my time in Colorado and the deer that greeted me on my morning walks, I am reminded of a moment of holiness and complexity in my twenties. Holy is a word I choose intentionally. I was facing a devastating loss, dealing with the inevitable end to an ugly situation. I was very alone – not in the physical sense – but the dejected sense of being alone, when surrounded by people who could not or would not understand or acknowledge who I am or the obvious circumstances around us. I was about to walk into a hotel, when I saw a couple of young does rush across the busy county road. The first made it in a daring leap between automobiles. The second was not so lucky. Just as she made it into the first lane, a truck hit her hind legs… and without the slightest pause, continued to drive away. The doe stumbled twice but managed to cross into the National Forest land just beyond.

Without thinking, I left my stunned companion and darted across the road and scrambled under the barbed wire fence. Looking back, my companion simply walked into the hotel and closed the door – a final impasse. I keenly remember an urge to find the doe. I knew she must be in bad shape, if even alive, and I couldn’t stop my legs from moving into the thick green tangle of late summer foliage. I must have walked for an hour before reluctantly turning around to head back. That’s when I saw her. She was on her side, just beyond a thick stand of trees, lying on ferns. I neared and met her eyes. I could tell she was dying. I leaned down and placed a hand on her side as she took her last few breaths.

There was something in the acknowledgment of that final moment of life that was comforting. Sad, yes, but… the truth of being fully there, present and with this transition, soothed my mind. And, something tells me my being there soothed her also.

It is what it is…

Deer vision is unlike our own. They see in the context of movement. What doesn’t move isn’t there or isn’t framed in their visual landscape. Every movement is new. Every motion is a beginning. There’s no need to worry about things that are not felt and perceived. Life and death happen at the most basic visceral level of movement in moment.

From the accounts of my friend’s last moments on earth, he was surrounded by dozens of friends and family. My own family struggles with tough decisions, but they are together – witnessing, acknowledging each other’s feelings. Grief and sadness stand near our moments of happiness – inches away, at times. But these are all feelings that come and go, enter and leave. What remains are those moments of simply seeing each other – real in the music of being real – moving delicately off into fields, through the landscapes of dying and being born. We comfort and celebrate by being witness to the movement of each other – and again, by moving into those new spring meadows.