Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A year of solitude and contemplation: a halfway mark

"Take rest. A field that has rested gives a beautiful crop." Ovid

Fallow Fields by Ellen Anderson

As Christmas and the year's end approach, I continue on in my year of solitude and contemplation. This period of retreat started after the spring semester ended, when I realized I would take a year from teaching. 

It took me a few months to understand that my enterprise encompassed more than merely taking time "off. " I recognized after four months had passed that my period of "not teaching"  has been a spiritual journey of quieting and focusing. I felt, according to Adrienne Rich, what the poet Muriel Rukeyer calls an "intolerable hunger." Clayton Eshleman calls it "the desire, the need, for a more profound and ensouled world."

Moving, if ever slightly, from getting and spending is a quietly subversive activity.  Rich notes that "humanity" is 

time and space for love, for sleep and dreaming, time to create art, time for both solitude and communal life, time to explore the idea of an expanding universe of freedom.

This year's Christmas tree. It is a five foot tree I purchased last year at IKEA.

 I should mention I am not entirely in solitude as I have my husband and a son at home, and a small round of social events and travel. But I do experience more solitude, which carries with it the risk of melancholia. I take solace in Rilke words for his Letters to a Young Poet

Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working on you?

It is difficult to put the last months into words as externally little has changed. I have felt less harried. I have had time to journal, to do some water color painting, to read, to think, all this amid the paid work I still do, my Quaker volunteer work,  and the everyday tasks that fill a life. 

From Forster's A Room with a View, the following describes my experience or perhaps my aspirations:

Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.

 I appreciate the image of pulling buried or packed up thoughts out of oneself and spreading them in the sun as one might the jumble of trash and treasure in an attic or basement. 

This excavation of thought, this "work of soul," in Rilke's words, undergirds my outward activities. I have two writing projects. I will spend a month in Malta from mid-February to mid-March for the experience of warmer weather and an older culture, with a stay at the end in Chawton to visit Jane Austen's home. I know a month long trip abroad would not have been possible were I teaching in the spring.  I think of the trip as pilgrimage rather than vacation. 

As I have cast back through memories  in response to an internet meme about the books that most influenced me, I have been trying to be honest rather than posturing about this and also to recover more of my emotional reading self: the self that allows me to respond with deep feeling to a text; this is the way we begin reading as children if we fall in love with literature. 

Because of my extra bits of free time, I have been able to embark too on a focused project of reading Woolf and about Woolf. I have had more time to work on a project on "l'ecriture humanine" or humane writing, with a focus lately on the treatment of single woman in literature and life. 

My life has been rich and varied since May, if quiet. Since I began my year of retreat and contemplation, I have had the chance to visit my daughter in Austin, who is getting married next November, (and also visit with her partner and fiance, Ben). I took a quiet trip in October to see the lovely blue waters of Maine with my friend Jane. 

Like Woolf, I dream:
I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts. 
But at the same time,  I never forget--especially in the midst of the politics we are living through these days, which reflect a world uncomfortably like that of  Chekov's Russia--that: 

one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children die of starvation. . . . And such a state of things is obviously what we want; apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible. 

That doesn't fall from my mind. I don't do enough to alleviate it, and that weighs on me. I remember Rich's question: "With whom do you believe your lot is cast?" 

I think too of  Rich’s image, taken from a painting she saw of an arm breaking out of a canvas to describe the way she was determined, at the end of her life, to live apart from the ethos of  our current time, and instead, harken back to a time that seemed to her to be lost, a time when a certain set of values—of public values—were allowable. I try to do that too,  a particularly Quixotic endeavor, and I take heart from the Talmud:

 The highest form of wisdom is kindness.


  1. Finally blogs as a genre never escape being autobiographies ... journals to a self-selected public .... As I recall the first books people wrote about solitude explicitly and as an idea for contemplation and self-renewal not religious in perspective was the 18th century in western Europe -- French texts first.

  2. Yes, this is largely autobiographical--the most personal blogs I find are the hardest to write.