I crave solitude.
Which is quite the about-face for a confirmed card-carrying Extrovert. In the final quarter of 2017, my world spiralled out of control, careening from side to side like a car spinning on ice, bouncing from one concrete life barrier to the next. I had to stop and get off the rollercoaster to reclaim my sanity. I just didn’t realize that in order to do so, I had to shed not just longtime friendships and old habits, but embedded expectations and deeply ingrained beliefs. Sure, I was trudging bravely ahead, one foot in front of the other, but I wasn’t getting anywhere except falling deeper into depression, denial and demons. And the back talk from my very own mind was the height of insolence.
“Go inward,” counselled my mentor Carrie*. Her words rattled around in my head like the angry circus lion pacing in his austere cage. While I never feared my own company, I was terrified of the single-file of solitude. But the paths all lead to the same place … right off the edge of the cliff. I felt profound sadness, aloneness and an acute desire to shatter all of it into a million little pieces.
And I did exactly that on New Year’s Day.
I spent most of the winter curled up with books, something I hadn’t done for the sheer pleasure of enjoyment in years. Work necessitated reading work-related material. Then chemo dulled my brain, making deciphering my native Engish almost as cryptic as Greek. I struggled to comprehend and hold three words together long enough for them to become grounded in meaning. My mind was a sieve; I could write, but I couldn’t retain what I read more than three seconds.
I had to teach myself to slow down and read at the “See Jane run” level all over again. I didn’t lose my ability to read actual words, but the instantaneous process of cognitive recognition was off kilter. I could read a store banner, but I couldn’t tease deeper meaning out of newsprint. Letters jumbled together. I struggled to remember the names for simple, mundane words which fill our day … like wallet, door handle and shower.
It’s a terrifying place to land when you have bills to pay, traffic signals to negotiate and four mouths to feed.
I wondered if I had become hyperactive, frantic to find the next distraction.
But I forced myself to stop. Never one to run the other way from a challenge, I signed up for a creative writing certificate to immerse myself in words. I’ve done more reading in the last six months than I have in the last decade.
I read biographies and memoirs on lives lost … Steve Jobs, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Everything Happens For a Reason by Kate Bowler. I read classics I missed the first time like Melville’s Moby Dick, Nabokov’s Lolita, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Huxley’s Brave New World. I reread favourites like The Pearl, The Old Man and the Sea, Handmaid’s Tale, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and To Kill a Mockingbird. And even sought out old friends like Harry Potter, Robert Langdon in Da Vinci Code and the dizzying landscape of the Game of Thrones set.
I absorbed writing advice from Stephen King, Anne Lamott, Virginia Woolf and William Strunk. I invited the Holy spirit in by meandering through many faiths; Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Kabbalah, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Paganism. I read scripture daily. It’s the one email I never miss out of my sea of unread mail. I found bright, new voices struggling to leap off their literary pages into our consciousness like Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot. I filled in the gaps with decadent excerpts from Jennifer Egan, Alice Munro and short stories found in the New Yorker.
I read and wrote poetry for the first time since grade school.
And I realize that I found peace. Stillness. No frantic hell-bent pace obscuring the scenery.
My reading took on a rhythm of its own. A thread gathered up and pulled from an emailed newsletter, a featured article on a well-read literary website, a slice of research mined from Google took me to faraway places. I could sit back and follow the path to my own redemption.
I learned what it truly means to be present. Here and now. Just to be … nothing else.
Our relentless pursuit of happiness drives us farther and farther away. My incessant thirst for meaning was pulling me under; I was drowning. I stopped fighting the current and stayed still. Instead of feeling gripped with loneliness and the pain of being alone, I relished the solitude and the joy of being alone.
Being alone wasn’t a problem I had to solve. I relearned to enjoy my quiet contentment while sitting alone in a coffee shop on Friday afternoons with my writing notebook. As Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet shared with Scientific American: “From Darwin to Picasso to Dr. Seuss, our greatest thinkers have often worked in solitude”.
We are so afraid of our own thoughts, we’d rather administer mild electrical shock than be left alone in our own heads. There is no shortage of stimuli. On my iPhone alone, I have over one hundred applications. I can call, text, message, email, photograph or video the outside world. I can absorb that world within through translators, music identifiers, Netflix and meetups. I can filter my own story through my finger tips to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and WordPress. I can collect memories in Pinterest and find new routes in Waze. I can locate exact constellations in the heavens directly above me with satellite and GPS assisted sky views just as easily as I can magnifiy a label. I can order a driver, food or a sell a mutual fund with the click of a button. I can amuse myself with games, emojis and movie making.
But I couldn’t hear myself think.
Those who love me made sure I was never alone too long. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing and my internal dialogue plays Jekyll and Hyde. Weekends are filled with family, friends and love. But I learned to quiet my mind and just listen.
It is in those quietest moments when I learned the most. I reconnected to the language of science, the science of nature, the true meaning of communication, and found myself. The rise and fall of Annie’s soft breathing beside me calmed my own breathing. Even silence has a lovely sound. It creeps in like sunlight on cat’s paws. I could finally hear God speak. I took my time to listen, to ask, to understand and to reply.
And find peace.
Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God”
It is what it is. Que Será, Será. Whatever will be, will be is all in our mind.
“J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne pas savoir demeurer au repos dans une chambre.”
“All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” ~ Blaise Pascal, 1669
Silence is golden,
*Name(s) changed to protect the innocent!
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