From cool blue ice She melted into the serene rill below and swirled Her way down the slope. A cup dipped into the water and She felt Herself poured over a sun-beaten face, thick with sweat. Thoughts lost in introspection, the man let the water drip back into the stream. Continuing on Her journey She felt the leaves fall on Her and carried them down, down. Some slipped away from Her fluid grasp, and others joined Her. She came now to a bridge and looking up She saw the face of a woman who saw peace in the waters below. A single tear landed without a sound to join the gently flowing waters. Though no one could tell, She wept as well as She passed under the bridge downstream. Tall soft pine waving farewells in the breeze.
It was night when She first entered the sleeping city. Dark houses are filled with slow breaths and strange dreams while the occasional streetlight reveals nothing but strays contemplating their next meal. Further on a key slides in noiselessly and turns as a wayward teen sneaks back into their warm home, hoping not to be heard. While the ever vigilant and worried parent is blanketed with calm knowing their child is safe. As city center is reached, the dawn approaches and She turns into vapor as She wafts into the street, drifting and curling around corners. It is Sunday morning and only a few vehicles pass on towards churches whose bells call to worship. She sighs as hidden sins enter wooden doors and quietly sits in polished pews. A few people shuffle down deserted alleys, failing to recall clearly the boisterous activities of the night before. An old man with newspaper in hand opens a door and She follows warm smells of roasted beans for steaming brews and feels at home for a moment. She passes by a woman in her 40’s dressed in Sunday best, who slowly stirs her coffee feeling ignored and unknown while her husband stare into his phone to learn the minutia of teams and players in upcoming matches. She circles in behind the counter as a barista makes conversation with a young man, who is gripped in fear for how vulnerable and in love he is with her. He contemplates what to say, but never gets it right. And before the ventilation takes Her out into the streets again She passes by a manager thinking about his wife and young son at home who he had to leave on a Sunday morning to come in to work in a country that doesn’t rest as much as it should.
In the day’s heat She ascends above the growing bustle and looks down upon missed connections, lost opportunities, and people who have forgotten how to listen, to breathe in the air and be thankful. It cries to Her, or is it a song of continuous discord? She cannot tell. It deafens Her as She continues to rise and feels Herself condense back into cohesion. As the noise subsides She looks down again and sees fields of green and dives down like a giant tear to the spongy earth below. She is drawn to the roots of a tree and took asylum in the xylem as She flowed up trunk and out branch and waited. Each day She is fed to the growing fruit, incorporating Herself into the flesh.
The sky turns above and She hears Her benefactor hum a song of patience as Her branch becomes heavier with fruit. And each day a young girl comes to sit under the tree, hoping for better days. Hiding from the screaming of parents and breathing in the clean air to replace that dank smell of her father’s alcohol. And each day She hears the hope, the hiding, and the relief of the young girl sit under the tree. She hears Her kind slide down cheeks and get wiped away on pretty dress sleeves. She hears the slow decay of an untended farmhouse, and the façade of a mother pretending everything is alright. And then one day, with leaves fading from green to orange, the girl sits with head between knees, shutting out the world. The wishing to be whisked away is like a piercing scream into the sky. Ripeness hears Her call and She has no choice but to fall to the ground. Vibrant in Her redness, full of sugar and quenching juices. A thud that could be heard by no other, save someone sitting under the swooping branches, and the young girl’s head turns. A soft rumble reminds the girl she is hungry. And there was a meeting to never forget as she, but for a moment, loses all remembrance. Each bite slow and savored and She can hear the sound of laughter as She is consumed by the young girl. From the lattice of fruity flesh to the dendritic flow of blood. Through lung, to ventricle and atrium, the girl and She merge together as one.
Eyelids widen in the dead of night and She slips out through door in defiant trance. With divine strength she climbs stealthily into hills and then on to rocky slopes rising like a fog in a valley breeze. She is sustained by Her purpose alone and through 3 days and nights she climbs and climbs until white frozen ground is beneath Her bare feet. Soft snow shuffles and She listens between gusts of wind for the calling of Her home. As She gazes out at the wide world, the first of the sun’s rays dance of Her face, sweet peace is like a hymn from a jubilant choir in Her ears. She sits down on Her throne of ice and closes Her eyes in glacial contentment.
The last in this series, comes late for several reasons. For one, I am Poland, and have been enjoying my vacation. But largely it is because this last quality has needed many if not all of the things I am going to talk about under this heading. The time change has left me less than well rested and it has taken about a week to really feel like myself again. It has taken also some time for me to find enough time to myself, in which I haven’t needed to take care of my son, and haven’t been surrounded by family. My in-laws live in a small apartment and it has felt uncomfortable for me to spend a lot of time writing around others. Finally it has taken a lot of thought, deep thinking, introspection and perhaps a little creativity to nail down what I wanted for this last quality. It also took some humility as I had to bounce this creation off my wife because I was rather unsure if I had a cogent post here or whether I might need to make a 9th quality. What I thought was going to be my 8th quality changed as I realized there were other things that I wanted to write about that I felt were linked together but unsure how. And there may be some debate as to whether or not I was successful here putting all of these under the same umbrella. In the end I’ve decided the number of qualities isn’t as important as saying what I wanted to say. My wife also told me that I was quite clever in my solution to the final quality being solitude. She almost never tells me I’m clever even when I think I’m being clever so that has me feeling really positive about this post. 🙂 With that said, let’s delve into solitude.
I am going to break this down in a more organized way, but let’s talk about some general things first. You might first think that, “Hey aren’t we humans social animals? You’ve been going on a lot in this series about how we can all better get along and have empathy, so why should solitude be so important?” If you’ve raised a child you of course have seen the changes from a baby still thinking it’s in the womb and not knowing it is separate from the mother, to a slow buildup of a sense of self. From then on as parents we try to help the child along to develop a sense of independence. To sleep alone, to be able to do simple physical tasks and to enjoy playing on their own as they gain more and more self-sufficiently. And as a child I remember not only being proud as I could do more things on my own, but actually growing to appreciate and like having time to myself, free from responsibilities to anyone. It seems to me that everybody, no matter how social they might be, to be healthy, need some alone time. Healthy relationships often aren’t ones where both people spend every single moment together, but where each have some hobbies and things that they like to do on their own. Everybody needs their space. What we do in this solitude varies and I am going to talk about 3 different facets of solitude that I think are all important, and I do think have a common thread. So let’s begin:
It takes a little more humility to mention that I owe this important aspect of solitude to my wife. I am not an overly creative person, but when she mentioned the importance of solitude to the creative process I realized she was right. While artists and musicians certainly collaborate, the initiation of that creative process is usually done alone and then ideas are bounced back and forth with those that are collaborating. Walk into any museum and count how many pieces in that museum have more than one artist listed there. You won’t find many. How many of your favorite novels have multiple authors on the front cover? How many of your favorite poems are written by more than one person? We may be inspired by others when we create, but ultimately what we create is done I solitude. I also don’t want to arbitrarily separate the arts and sciences, it is just generally more easily seen in the arts. Collaboration and feedback is a very important part of the scientific process, but often the vision and inspiration that starts a new idea is formed through thinking in solitude. Scientific history is littered with important scientists whose vision and inspiration excited the scientific community and progressed their respective fields forward. My blog posts are often inspired by conversations, articles or books. However it often takes some solitude to think about what I want to say and write. Even if during that process I talk it over with others as I have done with this blog post, in the end solitude has played an important part in the creative process.
Regardless of the seemingly infinite things we can think of to do, we are sadly quite finite creatures. Our time and energy have limits and many of us are constantly trying to get the most amount out of our day and not getting enough down time. I’ve already discussed the importance of play, and certainly this is important in reducing stress and giving us more strength face to the challenges of life, but there is also the simple act of rest. Resting your muscles and resting your mind. One of the ways we do this of course is simply through sleep. I know few people who don’t love a good night’s rest, and more and more I hear many people wishing they could have more (including myself). According to the National Sleep Foundation, we aren’t getting enough, and this leads to all sorts of problems such as increased weight gain, loss of focus, anxiety, and overall being less efficient as we could be. Whether you are sleeping with someone or not, sleeping is an activity that is done in solitude. It is your time to be unconscious and recharging your “energy cells” and freshening the mind. Getting better sleep may give you less waking hours in the day, but chances are you will be more focused and efficient during those hours such that time will not be lost and may actually be gained.
Sleep, however, is not the only way in which we can rest and recharge. One of the other ways in which we can gain energy is through meditation. Now meditation can be defined in a number of different ways, but all of them have benefits and I will talk a little bit about them throughout this post, but for now when many people think of meditation they think of some bald headed person in a robe sitting down in a lotus position and saying ‘om’ a lot, and I admit I used to be from this camp too at one point. And that type of meditation is beneficial, as it clears the mind and rests the body. By focusing on sound, or your own breathing you can rest and recharge. Recent studies have shown meditation to actually change the brain in a positive way. Daily meditations may also simply involve sitting on your patio drinking a cup of tea while you look at your garden, going on a walk as you take in the sights and sounds of the moment, and it can also involve repetitive activities such as exercise. Repetitive actions keep you focused on the task at hand keeping you in the moment. Exercise is one of the better ways to do this of course because you must focus on the movements and muscles needed to perform the task and this is actually restful to the mind as much of the clutter and stresses of our everyday life can fade away. The well-known “runner’s high” is a good example of this. Of course when you first start to exercise this may be difficult as your body adjust itself to the activity as you may actually experience a lot of pain and/or be uncomfortable and this can be distracting. But this is why meditative activities require regular practice. You aren’t going to be good at it right away and the health benefits take time to come to fruition. I feel that one of the hardest things for people who begin to exercise is they never push through the phase in which it is painful, and tiring as they find they have less energy. But it does get better, and I’ve seen it happen for myself and for others.
If you exercise at a busy gym, or listen to music while exercise this may actually diminish some of the meditative aspects of the exercise as you may start to focus on other things and become distracted. I’ve seen many people pause their treadmill just to text somebody and so I doubt they are getting much of the meditative benefits of exercise, but exercise is still good of course. Being physically healthy gives you more energy and helps you recharge more effectively. Being physically tired is also an aid in getting better sleep which is important as mentioned above. Silence is also a helpful part of the meditative process. Of course complete silence is difficult, but relative quiet may help you pay attention to sounds you don’t often notice like the sound of your own breathing, the babbling of a brook, or the twitter of birds. In previous posts I have talked a lot about the importance of being in the present and this is the one the great advantages of meditation. We can’t always be serene and peaceful, but taking time out of our day to quiet the noise of our everyday lives is important and is something we do in solitude.
The dictionary also defines meditation as continued or extended thought, reflection and contemplation. This is the sort of meditation I do a lot. For better or worse I suppose as I am frequently lost in thought unaware of what’s going on, which is bad for activities like driving, or paying attention to your spouse when she is talking to you. This type of meditation is our natural scientist at work. Whether we are reflecting on our own actions, searching through the past for understanding, issues of the day, or just things that we’re learning, thinking deeply about things is a positive activity. It is our way of helping us see how we can do things better in our lives (humility), what changes we like to make about ourselves (courage), what questions we still have and thus areas we need to understand better (curiosity), trying to understand the actions of others (love/empathy), or setting aside our worries and stresses about future events (faith). In the scientific method it is the final stage that allows us to make adjustments to our original hypothesis and form new ones. Thus our introspection, outrospection, and contemplation ensures that we continue to grow and change in an ever changing world. We may even may take time to plan activities that are both fun, and those that help us better have time to ourselves (play and solitude). And meditation like this and what I described above is something we should try to do every day (vigilance/perseverance).
These meditative activities are all performed in solitude. Even if we don’t get much alone time during the day, 15-30 minutes of meditation can be an important part of good health and if needed, keep the creative juices flowing. If you are constantly surrounded by people your only time for this might just be a nice long shower, or a satisfying crap on the toilet, but in all likelihood you appreciate that time to be alone with your thoughts. Mix that all in with a good night’s sleep and conquering the day may not be seem so daunting, even if it isn’t easy. The amount of solitude that everyone needs for a good sense of well-being I’m sure varies, but I think it’s important that we try to give ourselves that time if possible. In doing so we can gain increased feelings of serenity, understanding, and peace which will help us fight battles in the present instead of the impossible task of winning future ones. The dark side of solitude in the extreme is known, I’m sure, to all. We are a social species and whether you want just a few good friends, or be the life of a party we shine the most in the company of others. Few of us could live the life of a hermit. We do best when we are cooperating, collaborating, and helping. Too much solitude can make us feel lonely, often worse is that feeling of solitude when surrounded by others. Like the other qualities the down side of solitude comes to fruition when we don’t practice the other 7 qualities in this series in some balanced way. And it is possible that what makes solitude good is some security in knowing that solitude isn’t our only option. That we have other treasured people in our life that we can depend on when we no longer wish to be alone.
This series has been long and if you’ve taken the time to read all of it, I do thank you, but I cannot sum it all up in just a sentence or two so I will have one more post in which I will try to take a more holistic view of them all, and take a critical look at how this intellectual exercise of mine doesn’t always mesh well with reality.