ON SOLITUDE, STILLNESS
& the unpoetic reality of
A short essay from a sojourn of self-imposed solitude in coastal Maine
After my job quit me, there was a brief flurry of activity that involved me moving from Italy to Spain to England to America in less than a fortnight. I had taken a breath late April of this year, and it felt as though I didn’t fully exhale until October 19th; the morning I woke up in Maine.
I had arrived in my favourite way; at night, exhausted, with no capacity to do anything except crawl into bed, so that when I woke up the following morning - the rich, golden light of sunrise warming the kitchen and revealing my new surroundings - everything was novel; ready to be absorbed by fresh eyes.
It was quiet. Still. Undisturbed. I could see scattered islands, sea, and woodland, but I could also see pick-up tucks, lobster ports, and fishing boats. I was alone, yet not lonely. This, is what I had come for.
I had longed for solitude in the way that I’m sure a lot of people do — for many of the same reasons. Apart from physically healing a work-related injury, I also had some emotional healing to “do.” I wasn’t exactly sure what this would entail, but I had the strongest suspicion that if I ignored the need for this solitude - if I forced myself to move swiftly into the next (and more easily definable) chapter — I was likely to reinforce existing damage to myself, whilst simultaneously inflicting it on those I cherish the most.
I wanted to unveil what had been covered up in layers designed to protect from the brazen invasions of the world. I wanted to slow down and reconnect with who I am, without an oversaturation of outside influence. I wanted to immerse in this time away, and then return to my people as an honest, whole, version of myself. Someone I could understand fully, and therefore share without disparity.
And isn’t this what solitude is supposed to provide? Doesn’t this contemplative time of being alone-but-not-lonely, amidst the quiet stillness of country life, automatically induce profound epiphanies and recognizable personal improvements?
One month in, I can tell you: time in solitude is — in some ways — the same as regular life. By that I mean that the moments of lightness, discovery, and understanding are often scattered among long periods of confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty. The thing is, when those “Ahh… yes, of course!” moments do come, like an English summer they immediately seduce me into forgetting the winter it took to get there. But perhaps this is the point. Perhaps we are not supposed to live every moment in “Aha!”-epiphany clarity. Perhaps, we are supposed to learn that those moments are a result of accumulated, unrecognized, unimpressive, subtle, sad, challenging, tedious, (even boring) moments that seem to us at the time completely unglamorous and irrelevant, but are in fact the invisible fuel for our journey.
Perhaps those moments we dither awkwardly in the kitchen thinking, “Am I going to make some coffee, or am I going to go for a run?” or crumble in the bathroom in tears over — seemingly — nothing, or walk down the street smelling the fresh scent of fir trees whilst wondering if we look happy to people driving by? Or if — horror! — we look like a miserable and/or snooty loner, perhaps, these are the moments that are the building blocks — the foundation — of our “Aha!” moments.
Lao Tze put forward the idea that it’s not the ‘stuff’ that really makes up our lives. Of course we use the stuff — the wood, the metal, the clay — to construct solid containers within which we can live, drink, eat, dance, and sleep. The stuff (or the ‘being’) makes the shape, but the empty space (the ‘non-being’) is where we act out our experience.
In a similar way, solitude and empty time might sometimes feel as though we are doing or achieving nothing, but what we’re really doing is creating a reliable vessel in which we can carry our future experiences, conversations, and relationships. And it can be, at times, uncomfortable as hell.
As a society, and hence as individuals, we don’t tend to appraise what isn’t tangible. Accomplishment is of little value unless we can see it, label it, photograph it, or put a medal on it. And so it makes sense that we are typically driven to spend our most important commodity — time — on the pursuit of recognisable achievement. It takes a certain amount of courage to step out of that trajectory, even for an afternoon, and give ourselves the opportunity to see what happens when we aren’t acting on purpose. The truth is, we usually have no one to answer to but ourselves, yet even so, we frequently choose to stay busy rather than sit still.
But in my experience, sitting still on a regular basis is crucial in determining the quality of my contiguous busy-ness. And the challenge of making this a regular practice lies in the unattractive, unpoetic reality that sometimes it will feel like nothing. Sometimes it won’t actually feel like we’ve come closer to our true nature, or found that magic remedy for exonerating a past assailant. Sometimes it will feel ambiguous, vague, uncertain, uninspired, or unrelated to the urgent matters of our lives that demand immediate tending to. And as we know, development that can’t be seen doesn’t often feel like development at all.
But if we can trust in this ‘nothingness,’ if we can accept that we don’t always know where our learning is coming from or how it will eventually express itself, we can give ourselves the chance to be transformed by our present experience — even if we can’t recognise immediate results.
Maybe my solitude will not provide a movie moment of clarity. Maybe what I’ve come for is not a singular moment at all. Maybe it’s a string of tiny, subtle experiences that, if given adequate space, can contribute to a life of deep meaning and attentive presence; for me, and for those I love.
“And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and static moment when our future comes upon us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and accidental point when it happens to us as if from the outside […] And when one day in the future [our fate] ‘takes place’ […] we shall feel related and close to it in our inmost hearts.
And that is necessary.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet