I’ve been thinking about solitude. This is not a topic that comes naturally to me.In a most unusual set of circumstances, I returned from California to have just two days with my dear spouse before he left for his own guy-adventure vacation. For a couple of weeks I’d be on my own, with only Travis to help promote the illusion that I’m not really talking to myself. Here he is making sure I manage my bathroom routine without falling and cracking my skull – in which case he is fully prepared to run and fetch me an excellent squeaky toy.
As a youngest child, solitude is not a natural state for me and I never liked it. When I was little, being without my sister or a friend to play with left me bereft. I even felt better when someone was coloring the page beside mine in the open coloring book. It wasn’t until I became the typical brooding teenager that I ever sought out time on my own to indulge in daydreams and juvenile poetic efforts. Over the years I experimented with going to restaurants and movies alone, and then traveling unaccompanied. Even so, it would be a long time before I could honestly say I like being alone.
Now I can say it whole-heartedly, and gardening is partly responsible.
When I took up the gardening habit I discovered the depth and pleasure of its solitary aspects. I remember at my first house when my father came to visit he helped me plant some roses, and once when my back was a mess I asked my son to dig three good holes for some Rose of Sharon. These days Floyd is always so willing to help, I hesitate to ask him – was it just a year ago that I decided our landscape was really short of rocks?
But for the most part, I garden alone. I imagine most people do. There are always willing helpers when it comes to putting seeds in little holes in nicely prepared soil, and it can be quite difficult to wrestle a tree into a hole and set it truly plumb alone. However, not that many family members will abandon their current activities to run out and help you pull weeds, deadhead flowering plants, remove sod, fold compost into lifeless soil with a pitchfork, or coax twelve zillion dead leaves into containers for pick-up. It’s really helpful to enjoy doing at least some of these tasks on your own, lest gardening change from something you love to just one more detestable chore.
For some reason, perhaps having read Sarton on the topic, I associate solitude with a quiet, tranquil, or at least well-ordered mind – something I never expected to possess. At the very least, I figured, when the world is too much with you, seek solitude and after a brief period of adjustment the universe will fall into place. I always thought people who treasured solitude must be very deep and very wise.
For me this may be one of the differences between solitude (welcome, peaceful, calming) and loneliness (imposed, wrenching, apparently infinite). Or maybe it has more to do with whether I feel truly alone, which I never do when accompanied by a non-human animal, an ocean, or anything remotely botanical.
My monkey-mind is seldom quiet, but it’s in the garden that it comes closest. For the first few minutes I might be aware of a work problem, a looming deadline, or a call that must be returned. Sometimes I’m just stewing about a situation that’s aggravated me, formulating a sharp speech to the offender in my mind that in truth I would be highly unlikely to deliver under any circumstances. But unless I’m immersed in a chore that demands physical strength a sharp implement, aggravation is short-lived in the garden.
Usually a song will rise up to take the place of the babble. It could be anything from an old favorite appearing for no obvious reason, or something heard recently that lodges like spinach between teeth: mildly annoying and stuck. What music it is has significance: it tells me the truth about whatever I’m feeling or trying not to feel.
This is kind of fun: if it’s a random country song, I know it’s hot outside and I am immersed in my Texas identity. If it’s “Angel from Montgomery,” for sure I am sorrowful or feeling someone else’s sorrow. To break out in “Mercedes Benz” is a definite gesture of defiance toward a world full of people who take themselves too darned seriously (I’d like to sing a song of great social and political import…goes a little something like this.)
Sometimes something poetic shows up in my head, and when that happens I know I’m going someplace extremely evocative. What line, what image, what poem? Usually this will lead me immediately to a person past or present, living or dead, much too close or irretrievably distant. This is free association, of course, a trail ride along a path that is both very familiar and completely new. Might as well head on down there.
And just as they say in self-help books, it’s when I get as close as I can to quiet that I will get as close as I can to creative. It makes sense that it’s in the garden that whatever I’m thinking of writing here will suddenly fit itself into a pattern of words and images that will convey something I want to say. Oh, that’s it! And the big picture is suddenly clear – so unlike writing a poem, which for me generally starts with the first line and no “big picture” at all.
I must have been leaning toward thoughts on solitude even during my vacation when this lone agave stalk caught my eye. It rose from the edge of a cliff, just past its flowering, bearing a worn caught kite struggling weakly against the wind. Having no knowledge of the reality that its emergence signals the death of the plant itself, the stalk merely existed, slowly browning; yet in that moment it was important to me. It was the only thing that stood between me and Catalina, standing day and night whether I was there to see it or not. We’re all of us that alone, sometimes.
And without warning, the very topic of solitude brings me back to loneliness, poignancy, sadness. No wonder I spent so much of my life in search of chatter and distraction!
Maybe it’s connected to my experiences as a youngest child in a houseful of people, whose older sisters seemed always to be going places with their friends, but too often being alone used to fill me with the sense that everyone else was having an excellent time out there without me. Fun was being had while I was drying the silverware or risking death by boredom. It took about forty years for me to become almost entirely free of that terrible left-out feeling.
One day while Mary and I were biking around as usual we were hungry as usual and casting about for a place to eat. We must have had something pretty good planned for dinner, for neither of us wanted anything heavy. Mary came up with Utro’s, a kind of family-friendly tavern that stands near the docks where the fishing boats tie up. It had been a San Pedro institution back in its original location, and the walls are covered with local memorabilia and photos of what looked like decades of family events and gatherings of “the regulars.”
There were only a couple of customers there besides ourselves; then an elderly couple walked in and greeted and were greeted by the bartender and waitress by name. Kind of like Cheers. The man was gregarious and chatted with them while his wife made her way to a table and sat motionless for several minutes before he came to join her.
Even as I’m writing this I want to stop chattering and make my way into her silence. Not to intrude, but to spend a little time in a mind that can be quiet enough to simply sit and look out toward the fishing boats. I like to think she was sitting in peace and contentment, but we can’t always know that about someone else, can we? No one owns our solitude except ourselves.
The great developmental theorist D.W. Winnicott wrote about a marvelous concept he called potential space. To put it briefly, he believed that if two people experience a connection that seems safe enough, comfortable enough, trustable enough, then they would share potential space. He meant two things by this: one, that since our connection is so safe, we can tolerate separateness and differentness between us. We don’t need to be joined at the hip or constantly inquiring into every single thought the other one has. We are two people, two separate people, and that’s fine.
The other meaning is that since our connection is so safe, there is great potential between us. Here we can be ourselves, be spontaneous, be imaginative, tell our secrets to one another, say what we really feel. All kinds of great human experiences are possible for us because we are connected to one another.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I certainly feel very well-connected to the people in my life, despite the fact that the reality of death imposes itself with fiercer intensity every day. Didn’t Ernest Becker argue that if we deny that reality we are not really living at all? It’s been years since I felt the kind of existential aloneness that used to haunt my dreams with images of empty houses with curtains fluttering in open windows. Clearly the meaning of solitude has changed for me, and much for the better.
A garden can be very reassuring in that way. Its cycles of coming and going can be stressful, but they are familiar and not to be feared. A winter garden may make me feel slightly bereft, but I know the landscape will be back and busywork like sewing will fill the need to be making something. I’m no longer much distressed by plants that don’t make it; none of us is going to make it for very long, really, and putting in a new plant is not an act of disloyalty after all.
Most of the time I’m alone in the garden by choice and by preference. I make enough words and hear enough words most days to have my fill of them; I never even garden with my iPod running music into my ears. I always like it when neighbors walk by and tell me how much they enjoy the garden, and it’s pleasant to pass the time of day with them for a few minutes; but I’m always glad to go back to the silent plants and the rocks and weeds between them.
Not loneliness, not at all. Solitude.