Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Days of Solitude

The Maoris of New Zealand had their young boys prove their worthiness to enter manhood by spending a year alone in the wilderness, surviving all natural dangers and the challenge of solitude. The rite of passage determined whether the boy was “fit” to live with the tribe. I wonder what those Maoris boys were thinking before they set out to begin their year separated from all others. Were they scared? Exhilarated? Did they return in tears of gratitude or did some resent having to return at all after a year alone? How did they change over that year? How did they adjust when they joined their friends and family after so long a stretch? Would I have been able to do that?

I have long had this dream of living alone at camp on the lake through each of the four seasons. Of course, my parents’ camp isn’t heated and with the unpaved and unplowed roads, getting to town to pick up groceries in the winter months would be tough. Still, I love the idea of being there until the last days of summer, long after all the tourists have left the area, feeling the first of autumn’s crisp air and seeing the trees painted in bright colors. I long to watch the first snowstorm move across the lake, see the mountain bold and beautiful on a cold sunny winter day, and hear only the crackling of wood in the Franklin stove. I want to see the green first return to the trees, smell the scent of spring, hear the birds return singing their songs.

In my dream I am alone. I am sure my husband and children would take offense to this and I do not mean to suggest I want to live without them, it’s just that in my dream I am experiencing complete solitude. I imagine the strangeness of the first few days by myself, the letting go of one set of responsibilities for another, the celebration of having complete freedom. I then imagine working to overcome loneliness and fear in the absence of company, of discovering my inner voice that focuses upon the hunger I feel for things once deemed important and now denied. I imagine the shift to acceptance and an embrace of self-discovery, a rigorous lesson in self-discipline as I set myself a schedule or at least a pattern of activities to keep myself purposeful and sustained. I hear myself turning to God with an intense fervor that I always knew I had inside. I feel a great calm wash over me and then there is peace.

There would be an order to my days. Doris Grumbach in her book Fifty Days of Solitude writes that “order, sequence, is a secret of being alone. Rising at the same time every day, making and eating breakfast while reading Morning Prayer, showering and dressing, making the bed and straightening the rooms...it’s all essential”. I imagine myself doing just that--getting up, making my bed, straightening the rooms, making breakfast and eating at Gram’s table overlooking the mountain as I decided whether to do the outdoor chores before or after I sit down to write, to read, or to paint. At home I try and carve out time for these things but I cannot settle my brain unless I’ve had several days off, several days away from work and time away from the responsibilities and needs of my children and spouse. But in my dream I have nothing but time.

This dream might make for an interesting psychoanalysis of myself if someone wanted to do that. “She’s overworked. She’s tired. She’s stressed”, one might think after reading the above. And that is all definitely true. But my dream would not be complete without two additional scenes. In the first, I have met a man on the camp road while out on my daily walk. He’s an old man, and after chatting with him very briefly each day for a few weeks, I invite him back to camp for some tea. He takes me up on my offer and we spend time talking about his life. He tells me of his younger years and of raising a family with his wife. He tells me of the struggles he faced after retirement as he became elderly and he sheds a tear as he describes the final year of his wife’s life. He explains that his children come by once a month to visit with him and that they bring the grandchildren, but that he wishes they lived next door. That’s when I know my time alone at the lake is almost over.

The last scene I have in my dream is of packing my things. I zip up my suitcase and I grab my bag of books. I lock up the windows to the camp and after taking one last look around, I head to the door. I stop and take one final look at the sanctuary where I have rediscovered myself. It’s been a good experience these days of solitude. But I’m ready to return...

I like to be alone and craving some quiet tonight, I said goodnight to everyone and headed off to bed an hour earlier than usual. The puppy followed me, ensuring she got the best spot near my pillow. I took time to write, to dream, and to imagine. And then, each in turn, my children came upstairs. They each came into my bedroom and kissed me goodnight. It appears I am not going to need this dream after all. My own year of solitude can come at some point in my life, but it need not come now. I don’t want to miss a day of my kids’ lives and this marriage of mine is worth savoring too. Someday I just might be that old one who spends days of contentment alone at the lake, but for now, an hour alone upstairs before bedtime is all I need for that inner peace and tranquility I must have in my life. Of this I am sure.

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