“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.  To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating.  I love to be alone.  I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude . . . A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.  Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows.  The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis in the desert.  The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed . . .”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Patron at the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle

When my mind is engaged, I am so engrossed that I don’t have time to be lonely or bored.  I believe that Thoreau felt the same way.  Because my job at the library is to provide customer service, my paid work requires that I interact with people.  Perhaps that is why I am drawn to solitary pursuits in my free time — reading, taking photographs, writing blog posts, painting, quilting, jogging . . .  My most satisfying work is accomplished when I am alone.

Is it even possible for an artist to create in anything but a solitary environment?  It makes sense, then, that we should be fostering more opportunities for solitude in our children and in ourselves.

Studying alone at a university library

“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius . . .”
— Edward Gibbon


In the midst of gentle rain . . . I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.  Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Pine needles with rain drops

Pine tree reflected in rain puddle

“I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Here is Thoreau again espousing the appeal of solitude.  Relationships can be problematic.  Family, co-workers, friends, and loved ones let you down, make you angry, bring you to despair.  Life with people is a roller coaster of disappointments.

But the opposite is also true.  Relationships can bring joy, intimacy, and connection.

The conventional wisdom is that you need relationships to have a meaningful life.  Certainly hermits and recluses are viewed askance, as if there were something not quite right about them.  Those of us with monk-ish tendencies are apt to feel like misfits.

Anthony Storr, in Solitude: A Return to the Self, argues that one can indeed have a meaningful life and happiness without having any very close relationships:  “. . . interests in which imagination plays a part are, in many individuals, as important as interpersonal relationships in giving meaning to their lives.”  And he reminds us that, “Even those who have the happiest relationships with others need something other than those relationships to complete their fulfillment.”

Thoreau had an immense capacity for finding solace in nature and looking inward.  Nature provided him with much richness for his mind and imagination.  He reminds us that the gifts of nature are there for anyone who takes the time to enjoy them.

A Quiet, Sunlit Corner

January 29, 2011

A quiet, sunlit corner on a winter afternoon

 “Stay, stay at home,
my heart and rest,
homekeeping hearts are
happiest.”
     — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you. . . In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.”
     — Ruth Stout

Sand dunes at sunrise, Sossusvlei, Namibia (2007)

“This period of unprecedented distractions and overstimulation constitutes a fierce antagonist to the accomplishments of the spirit.  Whatever is worth discovery in one’s heart and mind can only rise to the surface among quiet conditions, in which one thought grows beside another and one has time to compare and reflect.  Periods of bleak thinking and austere feeling, that kind that cuts to the bone, are imperative.”
     — N.C. Wyeth

Oh, to make use of the bleak winter as a time for introspection and reflection. . .

“Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude and good company.”
     — Lord Byron

Writing to my sister at the coffee shop

The coffee shop is a perfect place for letter writing.  You share in the companionable hum of the neighborhood, but are alone enough to concentrate on writing your private thoughts onto the page.  Solitude and companionship packaged into one present.

A winter afternoon at Zoka's, my neighborhood coffee shop

A grace note -- a beautifully presented cup of coffee

Letter writing at the local coffee shop

And someone else cleans up!

Silence and Solitude

July 25, 2010

White daisies

“When from our better selves we have too long been parted by the hurrying world, and droop, sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, how gracious, how benign, is solitude.”
     — William Wordsworth

“In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence, the second listening, the third remembering, the fourth practicing, the fifth teaching others.”
     — Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol

Winter Reading

January 23, 2010

My stack of books for winter reading

The landscape of my mind, as reflected in the books I’m currently reading, seems to mirror the winter outside.  For me, it’s a time for introspection. I seem drawn to books about people living in solitude and silence.

I especially enjoyed Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence about her experiences living apart in the country.  She speaks to a growing need for silence and solitude in her life as she ages.  I found the book quite fascinating.  I may have some hermit tendencies myself.