Tuesday, 17 April 2018

In Praise of Solitude

We're having a resurgence of winter here in eastern Ontario, indeed in most of Canada, it seems. Snow and sleet and freezing rain. And high winds. Yesterday, I ensconced myself by the gas stove in my sun room, and read. And napped. Most of the windows looking out onto the river were frosted from the freezing rain. I could just make out the ice covered tree tops lashing about, and hear the wind blowing the ice off the branches and up against the windows. It was a day good for nothing but lounging about with one's book. 

Painting of girl reading by Harold Knight
Girl Reading. Harold Knight. 1932    source

I need a day like that every once in a while. A few hours of solitude, of desultory reading, and thinking. When I worked I took my solitude where and when I could find it. During term time, on Saturday mornings, while the first load of laundry chugged away downstairs, I'd settle in with my tea and book for an hour. Sometimes Hubby would come out to the sun room and sit across from me with his own cup of tea, until I closed my book, and just looked at him. Balefully, no doubt. Not in the extreme sense of that word, not menacing or anything. Well, okay, maybe a little. Then, he'd sigh and go away. 

On the Christmas holidays, after the rush of shopping, and partying, and baking, and eating, and visiting was over, Boxing Day was my day of doing nothing. I remember one year the weather was perfect for skiing, so Hubby set off, and I settled beside the Christmas tree with a cup of tea and a book. The usual. I remember I read the whole of Richard Wright's Clara Callan that afternoon. I love that book. And in the summer, I'd spend a whole morning while Hubby was out golfing or gardening, just reading. I still do that actually. But back when I was teaching, I needed those solitary hours free from the clamour of students, and administrators, and colleagues, and the pile of marking that never seemed to go away. 

Painting of a woman reading by a window by Julius Garibaldi Melchers
Woman Reading by a Window. Julius Garibaldi (Gari) Melchers. 1905   source
I read a lovely article in The Paris Review the other day, I Have Wasted My Life, by Patricia Hampl, in which she explores the idea of being alone, and "being let alone." In our world of information overload and constant connectivity, even when we're alone, we're rarely "let alone." Hampl has had a lifelong fascination with the idea of solitude. She says: "When we are swept up by the demands of family or a job -- whatever it is that outlaws solitude -- perhaps it is especially then that we are most in love with what solitude seems to provide, what it promises. It promises freedom." 

In her article Hampl goes on to ponder the meaning of a favourite James Wright poem, in which the narrator of the poem lies in a hammock, describes his bucolic surroundings, and then ends with the somewhat surprising and enigmatic line: "I have wasted my life." Hampl says that she has pondered that line for years, changing several times her interpretation of Wright's meaning. 

In her closing she reflects on the wise words of her husband, who in the last week of his life unwittingly handed her the key to understanding the poem. Maybe the narrator regrets he has known too little solitude in his life, that "to be alone in this way is not to be insular but to open finally, fully to the inrushing reality of the world."  

It's a beautiful article, thoughtful, and poignant. And so refreshing to read in this world of cyber-silliness. Especially when I consider that my connection to The Paris Review is through Facebook. Ha. How ironic that Facebook, time-waster extraordinaire, and the very bane of the idea of privacy, delivers such jewels as Hampl's article to my screen. 


Painting of old woman reading a book by Rembrandt.
Old Woman Reading. Rembrandt. 1655  source
The idea of women who are alone, or who want to be alone, is a theme in literature that has fascinated me for years. Hence my interest in Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner whose characters are often spinsters. But it was three books which I read years ago which sparked my interest in the idea of women alone, of women needing to be alone. The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe, Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, and Abra by Joan Barfoot.  I've written about these books before on the blog, in a post on spinsters, and one on being alone, so this time I've just included the links if you're interested. What fascinates me about these books is the courage of the characters, or maybe the desperation, that moves these women to set aside their lives, and start again from scratch on their own. For the characters in these books solitude, as Hampl says, "promises freedom." 

My mum says she remembers when she was growing up her mother, my grandmother, used to retire to her upstairs bedroom with the door shut every once in a while. Sometimes for a day, sometimes longer. Mum says that Grammy never said if she were ill or not. She just closed her door. I imagine her in her room, lying on the bed, napping and reading, and maybe sighing a little at the luxury of a few hours of privacy. In her house the possibility of privacy was slight, what with three daughters, five sons, my grandfather, two hired men who worked with Grampy and boarded with my grandparents, plus the odd visiting relative from "up country," or maybe a cousin who came to Fredericton and needed a place to stay while they found work, or even one girl cousin of my Mum's who lived there while she attended school. I imagine my grandmother losing herself in her books, and maybe dreaming of escape, like the characters in the books I've read. But she settled for her few hours, the small portion of solitude she could manage in her busy life, and then she came downstairs again. 

Now that I'm retired, and the demands of a busy job are a thing of the past, I don't have to stake out any particular day as mine to do as I please. Because every day is mine. Pretty much. I have the luxury of solitude when I want it. So, I let the weather, or circumstances, dictate which days. It might be a day when I'm at home, and Hubby is busy elsewhere, running errands, or out skiing or golfing with friends, and I have the house to myself. Or a day like yesterday, when neither of us was going anywhere, snow and sleet were pelting the house, and out of frustration and boredom Hubby had two naps. 

And me? I sighed, and put the kettle on. And proceeded to occupy the couch in the sun room. I listened to the geese trying to land on the river in the wind, and to the ice pelting against the windows, and shushing off the roof... "open fully," as Hampl puts it, "to the inrushing reality of the world." 

Sometimes I even glanced at my book. 





What about you, my friends? Any thoughts on solitude? On women being alone? Or needing to be alone? On books? Snow in April??







42 comments:

  1. Agreed-I crave solitude. Was an only but never lonely child. In retirement, I purposely consolidate appointments, errands, etc. into as few days a week as possible to free up time to do what I please. I do not mind winter-a nice fire, cup of coffee and good book is my idea of heaven, Enjoy!!!

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    1. I do that too, space my days of activity out with days of walking, or reading, or just puttering at home.

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  2. I've never minded solitude. I've travelled for years on my own and have lived alone for the last two years while my husband lives and works in Hong Kong. My husband has always travelled for work so I had grown accustomed to long periods without him. I must admit though that there are some days when I wish all my family and friends weren't a world away. Just being able to meet someone and get out of the house (when there is no ice storm of course) is a healthy habit. I suppose what I'm saying is that right now I'd give up some solitude for a bit of companionship that doesn't happen through a computer screen.

    Suzanne

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    1. I agree, Suzanne. I have to schedule something social each week. Having said that I hate a week that's crammed with social activity... then I can't enjoy it and at times just want to be home reading or blogging. Guess balance is the key.

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  3. Synchronicity! Just before I read this, I posted a photo (on Instagram) of the book I'm currently reading, the place to myself all day. Woman alone, reading. . . .there will not be a portrait, no onlooker for me to be conscious of. . .
    I remember Abra quite distinctly although it's probably 25 years since, already a "mature student" I wrote a paper on it for a Canadian Literature course. . . .I just finished Irish writer Sara Baume's A Line Made By Walking which also features a woman in solitude.
    Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go back to share my solitude with Sgt. Havers. . .

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    1. What did you think of Abra? I remember the character going through somewhat of a breakdown after a time of being alone, before she settled in. At least that's the way I remember it.
      I am waiting to read the new Elizabeth George on my i-pad when we're camping.

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  4. I love the artwork you included in your post. In my youth, it was my father who always had a book on the go. He sat in a wooden rocking chair, cat on lap, book in hand. -Jenn

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    1. That first painting is one of my favourites. I'd love to have a print of it. I first saw it as a book cover for the novel The Last September, by Elizabeth Bowen. I love that image of your father. Wish I still had a cat to sit in my lap while I read.

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  5. Every word you say. I have always enjoyed solitude and realise how fortunate I am now to have plenty of opportunities just to be by myself, though it takes practise to stop thinking I should be doing something else. Wednesday evening is my regular slot to be completely by myself and I relish it. People are great, just not all the time. Silence is excellent.

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    1. If only I could persuade my husband to golf in the afternoon... but he loves to be on the course by 6 A.M. which means if I want my solitude I have to get up earlier than I like. Ah well... he does cook, so mustn't grumble:) First world retired people's problem. Ha.

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  6. You evoke the wintry wastes of Canada very well , even if the calendar says it is spring . Love the artwork you’ve used too & hope I never get to needing a magnifying glass to read . I guess busy women have often struggled for a little freedom . It seems the intrepid Victorian women explorers who set off into the wild with a few ‘ native bearers ‘ were seeking their own freedom , freedom from the restricted middle/ upper class lives mapped out for them . Easier for us just to bury ourselves in a book .Loved Clara Callan which I read on your recommendation . Growing up with three sisters , I often hid myself away with my books & resented being found & pulled away to play . I haven’t changed much .
    Wendy in York

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    1. I chose that photo of the old woman reading, because a friend whose mum was an avid reader, in her old age had to resort to using a magnifying device that enlarged only small portions of the page. My friend says her mum found it annoying but better than giving up reading.
      Funny about sister relationships isn't it? I was the younger sister who traipsed after my older sisters. I'm sure they wanted to hide:)

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  7. Hi Sue
    Solitude...I love it! I found in my retirement years that I relish my time alone. My husband is similar. Of course we love our time with friends too.
    In my working years, I would stay up waiting for my teenagers to return home usually reading. They would return home find me in the same position reading....loved it. As soon as I retired I couldn't sit to read...it felt guilty or a waste of time. It really took a while to allow myself relax or allow myself to read. Now my books must be lite in nature, an easy read.
    Our weather is ....interesting and always a source of conversation. Spring arrives next week! Promise!
    Robin

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    1. I know... once I retired and didn't have to search for the time to myself, I felt guilty taking the time to sit and read. I'm over that now:)

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  8. I deal with solitude well, for about 2-3 days.... but somewhere amidst the third day I start pulling my hair out and need to GET OUT and go somewhere. Cabin fever!! Happy to hear you know how to survive it. I guess if I'm really honest with myself, I don't deal with solitude well at all. LOL

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    1. When I was working I always thought I was an extrovert... now I'm not so sure. But I do need to talk the leg off someone every few days!

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  9. My mother has always escaped into books, and I guess I’ve inherited that habit. Growing up in a large family and then having 3 of my own, I have led a busy life and treasured solitude. And as I age, I seem to treasure it more. I just completed a three day silent retreat with seven other women, and we all agreed on the last (talking) day that we, to a person, crave time alone and in silence.

    This endless winter, though, is another story. Sigh.

    —Laurel

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    1. I wonder how I would be on a silent retreat. I think that might take more discipline that I have.

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  10. I absolutely love this post! I adore solitude. On weekends, I am awake much earlier than my husband, and I treasure the few hours that are all mine. Fortunately even when we are together, my husband likes his solitude as well, so we don't always have to be doing something as a couple.

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    1. Stu and I are the same. Even when we're travelling we each need our time alone, or to do separate things.

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  11. I adore my solitary life. I do get lonely sometimes, especially throughout our long, cold, white winters. But when that happens, I turn up the heat and the music, make myself an indulgent drink of exotic coffee, chocolate or gin, close my eyes and dance. Mind you, being alone is still a fairly new concept with me; but I'm doubting that I'll grow tired of it!

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    1. Music and chocolate sound like really great coping mechanisms:)

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  12. My idea of heaven on earth is time spent alone especially if a lovely cup of steaming tea and a good book await...my soul craves 'alone time' and I become a little more than cranky if the days are too filled with activities and social engagements. I enjoy being with my hubbie and with good friends but those times must be balanced with time for reflection and quiet solitude...gardening is an activity that I am looking forward to as being with nature is a privilege and a welcome escape from the demands that technology sometimes places on us. Hope the ice storm has moved on and you didn't lose power! Cheers, Alayne

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    1. I need that balance too, Alayne, days filled with activity interspersed with days of reading, writing, and no socializing. We didn't lose power, and I hear we may even have double digit temperatures by the weekend. Yah!

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  13. Interesting musings on solitude. Thanks to you, Susan, and all who commented. I have lived in Ecuador for almost 3 years. Here the concept of solitude is a puzzle. That anyone, especially an older woman, would live alone by preference and enjoy it, baffles people. By now, most people whom I know have figured out I am happy and live a full life with lots of projects going. The days fly by and I am content. I was an only child of a working mom so early in life I learned how valuable time alone can be. So, I enjoy a nice blend of time with friends, doing valuable volunteer work, and being at home in a comfortable place with time to reflect. My husband passed away 12 years ago today on our 46th anniversary. We had a very happy marriage—a life packed with in-depth communication, lots of fun, and mutual respect for our personal need of solitude. It was a good blend.

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    1. I need that time at home as well. I love a day of puttering at home... not every day, then I'd go a bit stir crazy, I think. I wonder what lead you to move to Ecuador and if you plan to live there permanently.

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  14. I am so content when alone, or alone with a book. I love it, always have. Regarding your grandparents; I’ve never known anyone else who called them Grammy and Grampy, too! ��
    XO Donna

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    1. Grammy and Grampy are common usage where I'm from on the east coast. Do you use those names too?

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  15. What a beautiful essay Patricia Hampl has written. It touched me especially, as you can imagine, because of my husband's recent death and because the solitude I now have came at such a high price.

    However, solitude is necessary for the kind of revelations she describes. Also necessary for those revelations, I think, is achieving a certain age when it becomes easier to lay down the lifelong burdens Hampl listed -- our ambition, pride, shame, grudges and regrets.

    Thank you so much for this poem, the essay and your thoughts.

    Ann in Missouri

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    1. She's a wonderful write I think. I may look for her book The Art of the Wasted Day. I'm glad you enjoyed the article and the post, Ann. I thought if you when I was reading about Hampl's husband.

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  16. I was an only child so learnt about alone time early on and have always loved reading so yes I like solitude too and there is nothing better than a good book and a cup of tea, especially when the weather outside does not encourage one to go outside! It has taken some time since retirement to learn though that's it OK not to be busy and just sit with that book but I still like the days when I go out and meet with like-minded friends to pursue hobbies.

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    1. I agree. After retirement it was harder to sit with a book. Maybe with fewer demands on my time, I felt a little useless, as if I hadn't deserved my alone time.

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  17. I love this post (and still have the article to read)! You found beautiful photos to go with the post
    Here's another only child with love for books and silence :-)
    My life was/is a mixture of loving (a lot) the socializing with family and friends and the need for solitude to regenerate ( italian "solitudine" is such a wonderful world,no?)
    There were times when it was extremely difficult to find some "me" time,but free time with a good book is something I like best and always look forward to.
    It is better now,I have more time,although there are still hectic days and I find them very tiring
    Dottoressa

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    1. Thanks, Dottoressa. One thing I miss from my working life is the easy socializing, the casual conversations and laughs that just happen because we all worked in the same building. Retirement means I have to plan those, deliberately or else they don't happen.

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  18. Relaxing, reading and taking a nap by the fire ... sound blissful. �� As much as I love company and conversation, I’m very content with solitude and my own company.
    It’s lovely to be the first awake in the morning and to relax quietly with a coffee before the activities of the day begin! My family would laugh at this because I am also the bright and chatty one in the morning as well!
    I haven’t travelled alone for any length of time but should the opportunity arise when we are travelling I enjoy exploring a new area alone ... doing just what I want to, only myself to consider! �� I also enjoy eating alone or enjoying a coffee or wine sitting at a pavement cafe bar.
    Another great topic and choice of art work Sue ... I definitely identify with the first picture!
    Rosie ( commenting as anonymous again! ��)

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    1. I am sooo late replying to this. Sorry, Rosie. I haven't travelled on my own except for a couple of days in Toronto. Or flying home to the east coast. But I think I'd like to try it. Not sure why. I'd like to be an observer, I guess.

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  19. Hi Sue, I read your comments left at Mater's blog and wants to comment here, but I have this tendency to go off on a tangent. Always regretted doing that after hitting publish.
    Just putting in my 2 cents worth or pennies... I've always been a solitary person, never bored in my own company (maybe boring to others). My love of reading, home and hearth also play a big part in it. If I have a theme song, I'll take the title from Hardy's book "Far from the Maddening Crowd". I haven't missed the Maddening Crowd yet after three years of retirement. This of course would have been a different scenario if my grandkids live close to me and their papa (grandpa). I enjoy the article by Patricia Hampl. Great food for thoughts. Thanks. ~Amelia

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  20. I loved your post. I entered a second marriage in my mid forties after nearing 20 years on my own (with children!) I love my husband.. He's easy and wonderful... but I will always crave and treasure solitude. There is nothing like it for knowing yourself. Your post really opens up my mind to being able to better tap into some of those feelings of space when one can retire. It's a few years out but on the horizon. 🙄

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    1. I actually enjoyed my last few years teaching...I was still loving my job, but I knew that retirement, and those "feelings of space" as you put it, were not too far off.

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  21. I enjoyed your blog post. However, please note that the lovely painting "Old Woman Reading" is NOT a work by Rembrandt. It was painted by Harry Clifford Pilsbury in 1915 and is owned by the McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Greenock, Inverclyde, Scotland. Source: https://artuk.org. In my experience, works of art are often (too often) misattributed on Pinterest, and one must be extremely vigilant.

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    1. Ah, shoot. I do try to be diligent. Thanks for correcting me. We are travelling at present, but when I can I will make that correction.

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.