Solitude is not something you hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present, you will never find it.  –Thomas Merton

At first, I dismissed Merton’s quote. Yeah, yeah. Tell me something I don’t know, I thought.

But Marvin’s comment on an earlier post has me thinking about solitude. I thought of Brother Casey, who seeks out solitary places in which to pursue his spiritual practice. Solitude and prayer have seeped into his bones. While every bit a frail human being, yet he seems remarkably free of anxiety and remarkably full of peace.

Br. Casey

In these months of travel, I’ve spent time in solitary places. Blair Valley comes to mind, where the light from the only other camper in the valley twinkled at night like a distant star. I’ve also been in campgrounds full of people—generations of families, young adults on party break, assorted odd ducks, like myself. The experience is certainly different, but I bring the same inner core to each. Were I practicing solitude in the sense that Merton describes it, I should be able to find solitude in either place.

A rig waaay across the valley

“Are you ever lonely?” my daughter asked.

Her question made me pause.

When I first started traveling, I was gripped by what I can only describe as intense existential angst, and then I felt very alone. Once, I thought about making popcorn in my trailer, and suddenly the memory of Friday nights after work when I would hunker down with a movie and a bowl of popcorn gripped me like a pit bull with an intense sense of loss. The simple thought of popcorn, I realized, represented security and contentment, which I was feeling precious little of at the time. (I’ve since enjoyed popcorn in the trailer, sans movie, and without the emotional sucker punch.)

“No. I’m not lonely,” I told my daughter. Not anymore. Sometimes I’m self-conscious and shy. And sometimes I’m aware of being different and alone, but I’m okay with that.

Solitude has a different quality than merely being content to be alone. There’s a spirit in it. There’s stillness. And something alert. A place like Blair Valley may be conducive to solitude; “a place apart” may provide a nourishing environment, but I think solitude has more to do with what I bring to a place than what the place brings to me.

What I’ve become more aware of during these months which I’ve often spent in solitary places is my own inner hubbub—that nonsensical monologue that can trivialize the most grand and sacred space. I think this yammering (the Buddhists call it “monkey mind”) is all the more distracting and sharply focused because of the silence that so often surrounds me. I am the only noise around. I noticed that Brother Casey often carried his worry beads, and he used them to say the Jesus prayer—up to a thousand times a day. That would certainly squelch a lot of chatter.

So, I think Merton is right as far as it goes. Solitude is about attentive presence–and most of us spend our time inattentively not present. Solitude as an inner quality is as possible in Blair Valley as it is in a campground during spring break. It has to do with bringing a little piece of the desert with you no matter where you are.

Today is Good Friday, and I am looking for a church to celebrate Christianity’s high holy days. I’m looking forward to the Easter vigil, that painfully long and ancient liturgy at which the new fire is lit and spread among everyone present. As I leave the desert places in which I’ve spent these winter months, I’m hoping to retain their sense of solitude.

I’m just not sure how to do that. Any thoughts?

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16 Responses to Solitude

  1. kathy misak 26 April, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    A book you might enjoy is A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield I am 1/2 way through and it is speaking to me.

    • Kate 27 April, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

      Thanks, Kathy. I wrote it down, and I’ll order it when I get back to MI this summer.

  2. Marvin Bishop 24 April, 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    “…. No hay más diálogo verdadero que el diálogo que entablas contigo mismo, y este diálogo sólo puedes entablarlo estando a solas.” Miguel de Unamuno

    Language… has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone. ~Paul Johannes Tillich, The Eternal Now

    How poignant the analogy of the POPCORN: take a small kernel, and under the right conditions, it bursts into a beautiful, delectable treat (comfort food?!); ……….. or, perhaps, pertinent to this season:

    ” once planted, that one, tiny kernel when nurtured, watered and protected, has the capacity to evolve tenfold (or more) to spread it’s meaning and joy….”

    Kate, Please continue to write and share with us all, as we gather around that virtual campfire this spring and summer.

    • Kate 27 April, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

      Marvin, You inspired this post, and I think you should have written it. Such lovely thoughts. I was also intrigued by the distinction in Spanish between soledad and solitud.
      Do you remember the woman we met on the trail in Costa Rica? What was her comment when you asked if she was traveling sola? Something about conmigo mismo, no?

  3. Chris 24 April, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    Robert DeNiro grapples with this same issue in the movie HEAT by pointing out “I’m not lonely. I’m alone.” Of course his philosophy was hard won after a life of robbing banks across the country and then having to skedaddle every few weeks…hmmmmm?

    Happy Easter Kate and safe travels.

    • Kate 27 April, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

      Thanks, Chris. I’m glad my enjoyment of being alone wasn’t quite so hard-won. Or was it? 😉

  4. Gail Brown 24 April, 2011 at 11:14 am #

    Happy Easter-Kate
    Hope you found you a church to attend today! And have a good Easter dinner!
    I think you are just sad leaving the desert. It is such a beautiful place!
    I don’t think you are different I think you are amazing woman!

    • Kate 27 April, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

      I found an incredible church to attend–a mass on the red rocks at the Valley of Fire state park in NV. What a blessed experience.
      The desert is incredible, and each region is different.

      Hey! Have you reopened the coffeehouse? Can I stop by for a cuppa joe?

      • Gail Brown 30 April, 2011 at 9:53 am #

        Sorry I’m a little slow. I’m open Thursday – Sunday for now.
        It’s still really slow and I’m still not 100% well.
        Looking forware to then end of May, when school is out.
        And yes, I would love to see you walk in my door again.
        Take care!
        God Bless You!

  5. Justin 23 April, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    Happy Easter , Kate.. Spend some quiet time with the Lord !

  6. Deanna 23 April, 2011 at 1:32 am #

    I wrote a poem about the difference between solitude and loneliness. I was 15 at the time. It should amuse you. I’ll have to dig deep in my boxes of poetry to find it but I will. Some other time when I do not have Claudia in my lap. (Yes, still breastfeeding.) I bet the suspense will keep you up at night.

    We had winterization through 5 cap for the house this week. They sprayed a whole bunch of insulation up there in the attic and did a bunch of other invasive things to the house. Like track mud on the carpet and hardwood. I tried not to freak out too much. They changed a lot of the bulbs to those CFL ones. I like that they are better for the environment or whatever but I feel . . . . like I should be wearing a lab coat. I left soft lights in the bathroom. I think if I saw my wrinkles and acne in that light I might do myself in. I don’t want to know what I look like in the lights at Walmart. lol. Ignorance is bliss. The most traumatizing thing of the whole experience has been them hovering around for two days and not being able to fart in my own home during the whole time. I could have used some solitude then, I tell you.
    Hopefully the house will be warmer now. Every little bit counts, I guess.

  7. LBK 22 April, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    This is such a delicately written, thoughtful piece. Thank you for sharing it. I just read the following quote in the A.Word.A.Day daily message, and your essay reminded me of it: “No one imagines that symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.” -Alan Watts, philosopher, writer, and speaker (1915-1973)
    It’s that being present thing again, isn’t it? So many of us struggle to organize the clutter rattling around our brains.

    • Kate 27 April, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

      YES! This present moment. So ephemeral, and yet all we have. Maybe I just need to stop trying so hard. As another FB friend reminded me–it’s just that noisy left brain.
      Thanks for the quote. Good stuff.

  8. Kate 22 April, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    Maybe part of the challenge is to recognize where we are in the journey, i.e. not present, grateful, or *actualized.* It’s disappointing and frustrating, but I guess that’s better than being oblivious.
    (and, might I remind you, that you are indeed grateful, if being generally joyful about life counts. I remember that comment in your email.)

  9. Lois 22 April, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    It’s so hard! This is not on the same level, exactly, but I remember wanting to use my brain-surgery experience to “reset” my life. Within six months I realized the only “change” I’d held on to was daily moisturizing. So much for resetting priorities, being in the moment, gratitude… So when you figure it out, I hope you share, as you’ve shared this journey!


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