On Solitude

Canticle 6

Alone one is never lonely: the spirit adventures, waking
In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there;
The spirit adventures in sleep, the sweet thirst-slaking
When only the moon’s reflection touches the wild hair.
There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone:
It finds a lovely certainty in the evening and the morning.
It is only where two have come together bone against bone
That those alonenesses take place, when, without warning
The sky opens over their heads to an infinite hole in space;
It is only turning at night to a lover that one learns
He is set apart like a star forever and that sleeping face
(For whom the heart has cried, for whom the frail hand burns)
Is swung out in the night alone, so luminous and still,
The waking spirit attends, the loving spirit gazes
Without communion, without touch, and comes to know at last
Out of a silence only and never when the body blazes
That love is present, that always burns alone, however steadfast.

 

May Sarton wrote this poem when she was just twenty six years old, decades before she wrote Journal of a Solitude, her remarkable prose work  documenting the twelve months she spent alone at the age of 60.  ‘Canticle 6’ was originally titled ‘Considerations’.  It explores the fine line between solitude and loneliness.

 

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Original photograph by the author

Green Buddha

I woke to snow this morning and a strong sense of silence and isolation. The snow muffled the sounds of traffic from the village and I felt like I was on another planet.  Looking out into the pristine garden I recalled my childhood excitement at each snowfall.  I opened the bedroom window and gathered a hand full of white from the sill.  The cold made me feel more alive.  Years ago I had a collie-cross dog called Floss who loved the snow, ploughing through it with his head down snuffling and snorting, rolling around in a frenzy.  He would return home eventually with tiny snow balls dangling from his long hair, thawing out all over the house and leaving puddles in his wake.  Cats are far more sensible.  Nadia went out warily, making staccato steps as the snow stung her soft pads.  She left a delicate solo track across the decking where my green Buddha looked on serenely.

 

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“I do not dispute with the world; rather it is the world that disputes with me.”

The Buddha

 

Dark Days

The end of the year can be a difficult time for those of us who are alone, either through circumstance or choice.  In the northern hemisphere temperatures drop, the nights grow longer and Christian communities begin their Christmas celebrations.  More than any other time of year there is an emphasis on family values and sharing which can leave single people feeling alienated.  There is a stigma attached to being alone at Christmas.  Turkey for one?  So in this post I wish to share some inspiring quotes reminding us that solitude can be a positive and healthy choice.  Being alone does not necessarily mean feeling lonely and company is often overrated.  The beaming, perfect families of television commercials rarely exist in reality.  If you find yourself alone this Festive Period use the time wisely to recharge and regenerate your energy levels, treat yourself kindly and cherish your freedom.  I’m planning to lock myself indoors with a fridge full of party food, a bottle of the local whisky liquor and a pile of wonderful books.

Ten quotes to celebrate the gift of solitude:-

1. “… the highest and most decisive experience of all, … is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.”

Carl Jung (1943)

2.  “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

3.  “The only antidote to fear is to go through it. Only by embracing loneliness may its tyranny be broken.”

James Hollis (1996)

4.  “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

5.  “My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.”

Patricia Highsmith

6.  “Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

7.  “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more”

George Gordon Byron

8.  “The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”

Aldous Huxley

9.  “I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.”

Audrey Hepburn: Many-Sided Charmer, LIFE Magazine, December 7, 1953

10.  “Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone.”

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

 

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Fire and Water

I love…

the smell

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…of candle wax

in the evening.

 

Constant rain crashing from black skies has kept me indoors for the last two days.  The stream adjacent to my garden burst its banks yesterday and flooded the field.  I’ve watched anxiously as water levels rose higher and higher getting dangerously close.  My home has been flooded twice in the past so I know the full horror and helplessness  of that experience.  My stress levels have been rising along with the water.

Tonight it was a comfort to light candles in a home that has survived another day.  And to be grateful that I am still warm and dry in my sanctuary.

Some Like It Cold

In John o’Groats Marilyn is ready
for the fray, fresh lipstick, folded pink
napkins, polished counters.
And her namesake pouts from on high.

One scoop or two? She’s ample
with vanilla, frivolous with fudge
frosting when the Orkney ferry men
drop by for cones and the latest crack.

The easterly ripples the canopy stripes,
keening like the piper from the pier,
The Pentland Strait froths whirlpools
of café au lait on the rocks.

End to Enders celebrate, guzzling
champagne, taking turns taking
photographs under the signpost.
By lunchtime Marilyn’s low

on peaches and cream, high on rum
and raisin.  She pops out for a fag,
sits on her bench in the car park reading
War And Peace as Stroma disappears into haar.

Herring gulls scout for wafers at her feet.
A bus full of Germans reverses past
the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, clockwork heads
turning her way.  Mizzled tourists queue

but Marilyn is oblivious. The wind surges
and her skirts swirl like a snow flurry.
A sudden gust and she rises, bench and book
and all, up, up high into meandering skies.

 

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Note 1:- John o’Groats is a small village on the far north eastern tip of Scotland with spectacular views out to the Orkney Islands.  It’s a landmark destination for tourists, many of whom wrongly assume it’s the most northerly point of mainland Britain.  In fact, a remote spot named Dunnet Head is the most northerly point and is located about 15 miles west of John o’Groats.  ‘End to Enders’ is the phrase used to describe the many determined folk who journey like pilgrims, sometimes on foot or by bizarre means, from Land’s End (Britain’s most southerly point) to John o’Groats, a distance of 874 miles.

Note 2:- ‘Crack’ or ‘Craic’ is a northern term meaning gossip, news or chatter.

Note 3:- Stroma is a small abandoned island, part of the Orkney group.

Apologies for the Turtle

I

If I write about you, will you go away?
Your reptilian stare, leathery grin, chilling
skin follow me everywhere.  It’s disconcerting.
You keep popping up without warning,
that alarming sneer, so hoity toity!
Why don’t you piss off back
down deep? No-one will miss
you here.  You don’t fit in.

Dump the rubber shell suit, try navy blue
anorak, polyester trousers from Tesco.  Stop eating
strange fish. What’s wrong with mince and tatties?
Your body odour is hard to ignore, try
Impulse Sweet Smile.  Join the SWRI,
take up baking…I’m quite partial to a Gypsy
Cream.  And I’ve been meaning to ask, why
are there jelly fish on your lawn?

II

I’m old as the sea and twice as deep.
I was born in the land where memories sleep.
History will keep repeating the subsonic beep
of your fears. Like surf drawing the beach
I will return, to be hanged by the neck
till almost dead but never
quiet.

III

Being entirely ocean going, leatherbacks never encounter barriers in the sea that they cannot swim around.

‘They’re not used to any kind of restraint, they’ve never seen a wall,’ Jenny McCloud, the aquarium’s rescue director said to The Shetland Post.

‘They’ll continue to struggle, they’ll continue to swim forward.’

 

Memoirs of a Sea Pebble, Part 2

 

 

 

Mona Lisa

There were seven smiles on her menu,
one for every day.
Monday showed white teeth,
Tuesday was curvaceous
Wednesday was whimsical.
Thursday was more of a grin,
Friday was a pout, Saturday red and sexy,
Sunday was serene, of course.
She practiced in front of the mirror
until they were perfect.
But she still ate dinner alone
watching the six o’clock News.

High Plains Drifter

One of the few things I had in common with my mother was a love of film.  They say if a pregnant woman listens to Mozart it will encourage the unborn child to be musical and good at maths (the structure of classical music helps the brain to develop). In my case I was exposed to the stories of Hollywood while still in my mother’s womb.  Cinema tickets were cheap and the local Essoldo was a five minute walk from home so my mother went to the movies several times a week clutching a bag of oranges for which she had a craving during pregnancy.  Those were the days of glamorous stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor and strong silent heroes like John Wayne, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart.  My mother had plans to name me Victor after the Italian American actor Victor Mature if I turned out to be a boy.

When I reached adolescence we would stay up, just the two of us watching late night films on the black and white television set.  My father went to bed early as he was up at six for his foundry job but on Sunday afternoons he and I watched classic Westerns such as The Searchers, True Grit, High Noon, Stagecoach and The Magnificent Seven.  The image of the loner cowboy, a gun-toting misfit with a mysterious past riding into town out of the wilderness was common to most of these films.  In reality American cowboys worked in groups riding along with the herds.  Gunfights were rare events.

In his final book, Fractured Times Eric Hobsbawm examines the cowboy myth and its role in Western Culture. The idea of solitude, being set apart from society and  holding alternative, idealistic values is crucial to the fantasy appeal of the cowboy hero.  Hobsbawm writes:-

‘Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can’t, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man’s right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don’t think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him. As Tom Mix put it: “I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle and bridle. It isn’t my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it’s all ironed out, I never get any money reward.”

My favourite old Western as a child was Shane.  Alan Ladd’s portrayal of a charismatic yet sensitive loner who saves a family but then departs alone into the misty blue mountains seemed very romantic. The tear jerker ending got to me every time.

 

There’s something dreamlike and special about losing oneself in a film.  Sitting in the darkness of the cinema or alone on the sofa at home, reality and fantasy become indistinguishable.  Sometimes, when the film is over images replay in my mind for days and seem more real than my own routine life.  I think the stories we are told, like fairy tales in childhood have a powerful hold over us, influence our hopes and dreams, the way we think.

Parts of the Far North of Scotland remind me of the Wild West; the long, straight, empty roads, wide horizons with distant snow-capped mountains, the huge skies, the freedom from the restrictions of the city.  Like the old Frontiers this is a place where a person feels she can re-invent herself, a blank canvas to create a new identity.  It’s a land that attracts those who have problems fitting in with mainstream society for various reasons.  Those who want to start afresh. The locals call people like me, ‘White Settlers’ and it’s not meant kindly.  They narrate sinister stories of criminals on the run and ex-secret service agents hiding out incognito, just like the mythical bandits and outcasts of the Wild West.

And like the Wild West there was, strangely enough, a gold rush in Sutherland at the Strath of Kildonan in 1869.  Even today tourists are able to hire equipment and go panning for gold in the river but you’re much more likely to catch a chill then get rich quick!

My local village has a long, wide Main Street, wide enough for five lanes of traffic which seems incongruous in such a tiny place.  It always looks deserted but you know that you’re being watched.  Behind the twitching net curtains there is always a nosey-parker.  Just like the small communities of the Western prairies everything you do here is noticed and probably held against you at a later date.  It’s a place with traditional values frozen in a time warp back in the fifties.  Feminism and equal rights are alien concepts.  The wind blows cold from the East and you can almost see the tumbleweed rolling along.  You can imagine a big shoot-out, just like in High Noon with Gary Cooper swaggering out of the Post Office to fight off the bad guy about the sins of double parking or a misplaced wheelybin!

Invasion of the Loners

I learned a new word recently.  Hikikomori.  No, it’s not an ancient Japanese martial art or tea drinking ritual but a social phenomenon that began in Japan and is spreading around the world.  The Japanese government’s official definition of hikikomori is people who haven’t left their homes or interacted with others for at least six months. It seems to be more of a problem with young middle class males but can affect any gender or age group.  Young Japanese gradually retreat from society, abandoning relationships and career to remain in the parental home, hardly ever going out. Although some hikikomoris may have underlying mental health issues such as depression or anxiety the condition is believed to be cultural in origin.

According to Japanese government figures in 2010 there were 700,000 people affected by this ‘social disorder’ and it has increased to well over a million today.  Hikikomoris are modern-day Hermits and it seems to be contagious.  There are similar reports from Europe, India and the US.  Experts believe the trend is stronger in Japan because of the immense pressures experienced by teenagers in the competitive education system and jobs market.  There is huge pressure to succeed, make money and conform to social expectations.  There is little space for individualism or creativity in the Japanese cauldron of intense capitalism.  So unless society loosens up and allows its citizens space to breath, explore their potential and have time to actually LIVE, this problem may well increase.

If more and more people shut themselves away and stop participating in society then who will maintain an ordered, economically viable country?  Societies could self-destruct unless we start putting human values before those of so-called economic progress.  Surely, we make money in order to live, not the other way round.

Another interesting piece of research according to Michael Zielenziger’s book, Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, the syndrome is closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder.  Many of those affected had experienced bullying and were shy and introspective.  The author claimed that hikikomoris were highly intelligent having discovered independent thinking and a sense of self that the current Japanese culture could not accommodate.

So hermits taking over the world might not be such a bad thing after all.  Perhaps they will create a revolution, a new world where we do not live like brainwashed ants, servants to a soul-less State.

Hermit Hair

I went out yesterday for the first time in ten days.  It’s not that I’m anti-social, anxious or have an aversion to people, it’s just that I no longer feel the need to go out unless it’s for essentials.  Almost everything that makes me happy is now centred in my home so why venture away? Anyway, I needed a haircut and much as I’ve embraced the hermit lifestyle I’ve not abandoned my need to maintain appearances. This begs the question how much having fashionable hair is to make myself feel good or to impress other people? There are negative connotations to women who ‘let themselves go’.  It’s seen as the brink of personal Armageddon to stop checking yourself continuously in the mirror, stop conforming to social expectations, stop trying to look younger but just be natural and unadorned. Women who fail to invest energy in self grooming  also fail to exist as social and sexual beings.  They descend into the swamp of undesirables, drunken bag ladies sleeping in doorways, dirty fat women wearing shell suits who smoke themselves to death, emaciated junkies selling themselves on street corners. These are the negative stereotypes we associate with a neglected appearance. ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ and ‘your body is a temple’ are deeply ingrained concepts in our psyche. Our mothers taught us the value of a clean and proper body. We are judged and labelled by how we look.

Traditional hermits were men with wild hair and flowing beards living in remote caves. Their unkempt hair was seen as a mark of their wisdom and status as spiritual beings as they dedicated their lives to prayer or nature. No one minded if they stank a bit.  But it’s different for women. The modern female hermit is more likely to pursue a solitary life in an anonymous city apartment with the luxury of central heating and broadband or in a country cottage with a vegetable garden and a cat for company. She still has to engage with the world to some degree; to shop for groceries, to earn a living, to repair the leaking roof or get medicine.  How alone can we actually be in the modern world? Did Greta Garbo still get her hair done after she became a recluse? Did she stop looking in the mirror?

I did not enjoy having my hair cut. In the old days I would have left the salon floating on air and feeling great.  Now I just think, that was a waste of two hours and fifty quid.  I feel tired afterwards.  No, it was not my hair-do that made my trip worthwhile, it was the little things that I never noticed before that feel precious because I spend so much time alone.  Small interactions with other people are now more meaningful.  I love watching people.  Their everyday gestures can seem beautiful.  Just the way someone smiles  and hands me my change in a shop or the way the hairdresser bends to a small child and gently asks “what’s your name sweetie?” The way a woman carefully buttons up her coat before going out into the rain or the school boy enthusiastically chatting about his day while he has his hair cut or the stylist’s rainbow hair reflected in the salon’s mirrors as she flits like a bird of paradise. They all feel like special moments when I can appreciate the humanity and vulnerability of others.  It’s the little things that matter. We all have a light inside us and we are all privileged to be alive on this amazing planet.

Read Rhian Sasseen’s excellent article on the history of the female hermit at

https://aeon.co/essays/is-becoming-a-hermit-the-ultimate-feminist-statement