The Lessons of Solitude

2nd Place Prizewinner in Susan Wittig Albert’s Life Writing Contest, September, 2020

March, 2020:

My first awareness of a global pandemic underway.

The world had suddenly grown quiet.

Shock. Denial. Fear.

April, 2020:

More shock and disbelief. How could this be happening to us? More varied reaction to what was happening in our country: increased levels of fear in many places; bravado and disregard of science in others.

May, 2020:

Summer was coming. Many people were tired of staying inside. They pushed through their fear and opened their doors.

A policeman in Minneapolis killed George Floyd over a minor offense. The noise exploded onto the streets. Black Lives Matter protests occurred all over the world. The upheaval in our government was still looming ahead. The rising oceans are threatening our habitable land and Bangladesh is drowning.

I grow weary from the news. I close my doors and remain inside. I look within.

An extraordinary time in history is upon us, and the whole world is struggling to survive.

The everyday noises of living—traffic on the highway, baseball stadiums full of shouting fans, plays and concerts in packed halls—have lessened or been put on hold outright. Activities have stopped if they involved close human contact. Fear prevails.

How was it when the world grew quiet? When factories ceased production and the clouds of pollution dissipated? When, as a result of this, the sun felt warmer on my head while I was gardening? When bars and restaurants closed, when the theater company ceased production and returned my tickets? When I was no longer able to sing at the nursing home?

Life as we had known it was on pause, and we needed to learn how to live differently for a while.

We’ve put all of our habits and customs and dependencies under a microscope. Almost overnight we have had to prioritize everything. With a dearth of outside stimulation, I’ve started talking to myself more. And listening to myself. Without the everyday noise of living in our busy and crowded world, I search for and listen to, with intention, a calming inner voice. Hearing it comes to me more easily. It is a compelling instructor, as I reap the rewards of solitude.

The loneliness that often accompanies being separated from friends and family might have unsettled me more years ago. But now, with such ease and delight, I’ve been learning how to be my own best friend. I don’t feel lonely. That is the paradox of solitude. Much of the pressure of living—of being around people and confronting all those mirrors—has scuttled off for the time being. When we are alone, life is simpler. I revel in those moments, briefly, for the windows they open to me.

I’ve always wanted to listen to an inner voice, a positive and centering force that would sustain me as I made my way through life.  Ann Morrow Lindbergh wrote about this beautifully in 1955 in Gift from the Sea. As she grappled with her busy life raising several children and coping with the demands of a famous husband, she sought, long before it was fashionable, a sense of peace and independence within herself. Her search resonated with so many other women, and I often reread her short book full of wisdom to gain new insights.

Eliminating the distractions of life is not so easy. Our telephones ring now more than ever. The digital world has supplanted close human contact. And I have found that it hasn’t always been the outside noises that prevented me from listening to my best self. Sometimes there are inner voices competing for attention. Those voices don’t always serve me well, and it takes a certain amount of self-awareness and fortitude to rid myself of them.

Like weeds in my garden.

The rhythms of living, of course, continue to undulate through our worlds, and I wonder how many of us live really solitary lives. I do not. I regularly invite the voices of friends and family into my days, more appreciative than ever as I’ve learned to cope with so much time under quarantine.

These recent months of deprivation have brought into focus much of what my busyness had allowed me to put aside. I’ve attended to correspondence I had been avoiding for too long. This continues to be a silver lining for me in the pandemic cloud. My garden, too, needed tending, and I’ve been grateful that the worst of the social restrictions have occurred in the midst of our spring and summer weather.

Most activities away from my homehave been put on hold:volunteer work that had been gratifying to me; and the physical closeness of friends and family that I had taken for granted.With so much more free time,  I’ve found myself looking within more, and listening to myself. Not the kind of self-absorption that crowds out the rest of the world; but rather the sort of curiosity that often leads to clarity and, feeling renewed and refreshed, a welcoming of happy distractions into my world.

Awareness starts at home, in our minds, and listening to our own voices. This is where we begin, to use Ms. Lindbergh’s metaphor, to redefine ourselves on the hub of the wheel. “Woman must come of age by herself—she must find her true center alone,” she has said. And whether or not that is true, it is a most comforting and empowering idea.

We truly can be the authors of our own lives.    

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