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Solitude: A Reprieve from the Noise of Doing

“Solitude is the soul’s holiday, an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead.”

There comes a moment.

You love your life and the precious people in it. Yet, suddenly, the very intimacy you cherish feels like a burden you can no longer carry. You want to see yourself as a person who is competent and sturdy and kind. But today you are able to be none of these things.

You can’t plan one more meal or push the cart through the frigid produce aisles one more time or carry one more bag of groceries in from the car. You can’t cook another balanced dinner or sit at the table and have one more meaningful conversation. You can’t anticipate or meet one more need or set one more thing to rights.

You want to sleep alone in a narrow, clean bed and wake up in silence and let things go their own way. You want to take a vacation from worrying and fretting and fixing. You want to have breakfast at ten and skip lunch and eat salad from the serving bowl for dinner, with your book propped in front of you. You want to take a walk at your own pace, slowly. You long for a conversation in which the only one you have to listen to is the small quiet voice inside, the voice that speaks without words.

You imagine what a relief it would be to spend a whole day without talking. Without cleaning or washing or weeding or folding anything. Without makeup, without good cheer, without a to-do list, without getting in the car, without reaching for your wallet or your phone or the dog leash or the sponge.

You wonder if anyone else hits this wall. The wall of too much. The hard, unforgiving place of feeling crowded and tired and overwhelmed. Of knowing you simply cannot accomplish all that needs to be done, or make good on all the promises you’ve made to others. Or live up to the expectations you’ve set for yourself.

You find yourself imagining solitude, craving it. The dark quiet cave of aloneness beckons.

Image by Wayne Lo/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

And you think about where you might go, just for a little while, to privately fall apart and put yourself back together again, without causing anyone you love too much fuss or inconvenience. You email a friend who has a cabin on a country road, the place you went once before to grieve the loss of a friend, and to write the first, halting chapter of a book you weren’t sure you’d be able to finish. Yes, she responds moments later. Yes. Go.

You tell your husband, who knows better than anyone how frayed and fragile you are. Who worried when you burst into tears after breakfast for no reason, but whose hugs and rational words of advice just made you cry harder. Go, he says. I hope it’s what you need.

You undo some plans, cancel this and that, make a pot of soup to leave behind, water the houseplants, throw some things in a bag and drive. At the market you’ve never been to before, the items in your green plastic basket tell the story: cherries, an avocado, yogurt, kale, raspberries, blueberries, and M&Ms. The food choices of a person who is not intending to feed anyone else.

You arrive at dusk in a downpour and lug your things up the twisty path. The cabin door is sticky but unlocked, like a magic place in a fairy tale. Everything you brought with you is soaked but it doesn’t matter. The rain has washed away some outer layer you were ready to shed anyway. Arriving drenched, with your hair plastered to your head and your feet squishing in your sandals, feels like a beginning. Already you are inhabiting your body in a different way — curious and raw, defenseless, hopeful.

Inside, the damp, musky scent of old wood, old seasons, summers past, gives rise to sharp childhood memories: a cabin rented long ago, the familiar textures of leisurely afternoons spent reading and dozing under old quilts while waves lapped a nearby shore. Solitude has always been your home territory. A daddy long legs skitters across the floor. The rain pounds the roof. You open windows, put clothes on a shelf, line up your wet shoes. As darkness falls you feel lighter. Peaceful. Better.

In the morning, without any sort of plan, you walk up the road, going nowhere. Focus on today, you remind yourself. All is well, you say, to no one. And it is. With every step you are clearing a space, coming closer to a self you almost forgot you knew. The good news is, that self hasn’t abandoned you. She has been here all along, waiting patiently for you to turn away from all your busy comings and goings, to recognize her, greet her, and welcome her home.

Image by Justin Meissen/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

The sun is shining and you are sweating and your legs are moving. You listen to the sounds of a summer day. Kids playing soccer at the boys’ camp on the lake. The encouraging shouts of counselors and the wild ruckus of competition. Further on, from a shed in a field: the sounds of an orchestra tuning up for rehearsal. A solo flute traveling up and down the scales. The breeze rustling leaves in the dense canopy of maples overhead. A lawnmower churning back and forth across a expanse of green. The drone of bees in a jumbled roadside garden, colorful as a piñata. Everything has its wonders. You are here to pay attention.

Alone, your life begins to feel like a choice again. You find yourself drawn into harmony with the sweet, easy flow of the day, unfolding according to its own rhythm. Slowly, something that was stuck deep inside begins to move. You ride the gentle currents of sadness, regret, joy, longing, acceptance. Surprised by tears, you lift your face to the sky and allow the sun to dry them.

There is the necessary, satisfying work of serving others in all the places where you are loved and needed. But there is also this: the soul’s work, which you ignore at your peril. And so, for today, anyway, you commit yourself to it fully: The journey inward to find your own truth. The stillness of your mind behind the noise of your doing. The willingness to see the beauty inside yourself, and to honor that. You are a little rusty and awkward in your quest. The privilege of solitude is also a skill that requires practice.

At the far end of a field, a granite bench awaits under the shade of a tree. The words “Sit a while” are in engraved across the top. You do. And you take in the view, the gentle, slumbering hills, the drifting veil of clouds. This, too, is a kind of compassion — resting, listening, waiting in the silence of your heart to feel the next step. There is a new energy moving in you. A reverence. You can do this. You can dive down, naked, into the sacred quiet. You can learn to be at ease here. To be grateful for these hidden treasures. In this secret, spacious place, you remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build.

Image by Rowena Waack/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

In a little while, you will walk the long road back. You will return home tomorrow a little different, still holding the hand of your wilder self, having touched for just a moment your own infinity.

The grace of God means something like:
Here is your life.
You might never have been, but you are,
because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.
Here is the world.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don’t be afraid.
I am with you.

— Frederick Buechner

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