I was seeking solitude even before I knew what it was. As a child, I used to daydream about living in my closet. It was the only place in our crowded home my little sister wasn't interested in. I envisioned a tiny little bed with a tiny little dresser and a tiny little chair. In my mind, I piled our shoes into the corner and escaped into the quiet I was sure the closet would provide so I could read my books and draw pictures and eat cookies without having to share.
Several years ago, realizing I had outgrown the closet of my childhood daydream, I began to fantasize about owning a travel trailer. In this new fantasy, I quit my job and then get in my Winnebago... wait. I don't want to get out of sequence here. First, in this fantasy, I get my hair cut into one of those really short, care-free styles. Then I buy some traveling clothes; light brown pants with drawstrings at the waist and T-shirts in muted earth tone shades of rose, purple and blue. I slip into comfortable shoes. I take a couple of flannel shirts and boots and pack them in the storage compartment for my trips to cooler climates. I stock up on notebooks and pens, and I always take my trusty laptop so I can write while I'm on the road.
And then, early one morning, I get up and take off on my travels. I drive from one area of the country to another, criss-crossing America, up and down both coasts. The whole time I'm writing wonderful stories that editors are eager to receive. I stop occasionally and spend time with people, but mostly I'm writing and traveling, delightfully alone.
At first, this fantasy seemed geared to eliminate those things I felt stood in my way. I'm happily married to a man who, upon hearing just the beginning of this dream, quickly pointed out how much trouble I have backing the car out of the driveway. I love the time I have with my son, daughter-in-law and the two most beautiful grandchildren a woman could want. I knew my fantasies never considered this part of my life. On the surface, it looked like my need for solitude was at odds with life in general. I wondered if I was destined to satisfy this need only within the confines of my vivid imagination.
It was May Sarton who helped me understand this hermit-like part of my Self. In Journal of a Solitude she wrote: "It is hard not to be thrown by re-entry into solitude after a week away, for I am at once attacked by many needs; many different kinds of response are required, when all I long for is to have twenty-four hours in which to sort out what has happened to me." I pondered those words deeply the first time I saw them, and I have returned to them often.
I have come to understand that I crave solitude. It is not just a yearning for uninterrupted time but a call from the center of my soul. If I don't acknowledge this call, events pile on top of each other until they spill from me. The unexamined life leaves me hungry because it passes through me without time to draw nourishment. It is in the quiet moments when my life comes into focus. I can begin to process what is going on around me. As I look through the events of the past days, a pattern emerges. I follow the threads back in time, and the images are woven together. I travel inward to examine old feelings, thoughts and reflections. Then, as I honor this process with my devoted presence, a lesson often floats to the surface. My life is enriched as I release the old, reflect and contemplate, embrace the new; I am nourished, fed, filled. Knowing that life will not make a time of solitude readily available to me, I build my quiet time into my schedule. I journal daily, if only a few lines. Then, one weekend a month, I creep into a modified form of seclusion for the day. It is a schedule that frequently threatens to slip from my fingers, but I grasp at it, reminding myself that if I don't have time to myself I lose my Self in the clamor of the world around me.
This past year, I began to feel I needed more than a few hours of quiet, coupled with the need to leave my daily life behind during these times. I began to read about solitude and returning again and again to the concept of retreating - of going away from. This appealed to me on a deeper level. Retreats take a different kind of planning, typically requiring that I schedule them months ahead of time. Additionally, in order to retreat to a place other than my home, I had to plan a budget. Retreat centers are available, but not in my price range, so I contacted my best friend, Kristy, and because she felt the same need, together we began to come up with ways to make this happen.
Now, on a quarterly basis, I go into retreat. My first retreat involved driving several hours from home to join Kristy for a writing weekend. We took up separate hotel rooms, coming together for meals and to share what we had written. Next, I chose to be alone for two days, where I sat in a hotel room reading unchallenging fiction and eating junk food. For my October 2000 retreat, Kristy and I met at a cabin located in central Illinois. We prepared individually and together for two months before we stepped into two days of spiritual contemplation. The center point of the weekend was twelve hours of total silence, which turned out to be one of the most enriching aspects of the time away from the demands of our lives. No matter what the setting, lessons always emerge.
For example, I had no idea I was so space-sensitive until I stayed in a room on the main floor where I felt almost threatened by the traffic noises outside. This has made me very conscious of where I choose to stay. Other lessons have included a harsh reminder that I expect too much from myself, that I quickly become performance- driven even in the quiet, undemanding freedom of a hotel room. And I have learned that if I'm not watchful, I have the innate ability to plan the life out of the most spontaneous moment.
I now know finding ways to include solitude in my life isn't about isolating myself from others. In solitude I grow, and those I love and care for benefit from this growth. I have found myself missing the presence of others, but by staying in solitude on occasion, I come back into the presence of others refreshed and appreciative of their company. The lessons that touch me most deeply are those that open new areas of thought. In solitude, new touchstones form. These often lead to the first steps in a new stage of my journey. I acknowledge the retreat as a tool to prepare for transitions in my life, as well as to allow my Self to be restored.
Unlike my childhood closet, I don't imagine I'll outgrow my traveling daydream. It's no coincidence our new vehicle is a Jeep with a towing package. Besides, I know I have a lot yet to learn, and who's to say I couldn't learn it just as easily in a Winnebago.
Barbara Hampton is a long-time resident of a small town in southern Illinois where she has been wife and companion to David for 30 years. Her writing is driven by the variety of roles she finds herself in, including wife, companion, mother, grandmother, financial adviser, student, lay minister, inspirational speaker, group leader and expert on all things chocolate. Previously published in the John A. Logan Junior College literary magazine (Expressions) Barb is studying writing and literature at Norwich college and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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