Solitude

Lately, even with all the writing I've been doing, I find that I'm not making much time for solitude. My job teaching at-risk kids doesn't allow for much solitude at school and at home my wife and I are raising two girls, but there are pockets of time at school and the girls are both in high school and move through the world with us but not needing our constant presence. It's not the commitments to other things that have kept me from solitude so much as the things I use to keep myself away from myself. Even reading lately I find my mind wandering to this or that thing I thing I ought to be doing.

Leo Babauta writes about "Why We Struggle To Make Time For Solitude" and it comes down to this feeling that we need to stay busy whatever that might mean. One level could be the busyness of our jobs. I know people who bring email home and work on presentations after dinner. I gave up bringing my job home but spend that time writing, so I'm not here to judge. I also had to quit my personal Twitter and all of Facebook because I too easily lost myself in the busyness there, hitting refresh and waiting for someone to start something. I've got the Washington Post and New York Times on my phone and flip to them all too often in order to burn about the latest insanity out in the world. I've lost hours at a time to YouTube watching videos I've seen before. All of this feels busy and necessary. Of course it's not.

Babauta asks: "How often do you take time to go out for an hourlong walk? To just sit out in nature doing nothing but contemplating and enjoying the silence?" In the margin (I print the articles and read with a pen) I wrote: Not often. I haven't listened to a record in ages. I've been playing records most every night as I write or look at nonsense online, but I haven't listened to one in at least a month. To listen requires sitting still and attending to the music. I've played records in the background, but every time I consider really listening to a record I instead get busy clearing my desk, answering email, or do some other thing that seems more important. I'm too afraid to sit and just listen.

Uncertainty and fear of the unknown lead us to keep busy according to Babauta. Sitting still, being in solitude, focusing only on one thing, meditating, or even just zoning out all seem vaguely dangerous. What if something goes undone? What if we forget something important? and, God forbid, What if someone sees us doing nothing? How will we explain that? Solitude can feel like a selfish indulgence, a guilty pleasure, or maybe just a strange and frightening notion, but it is none of these things. It is as necessary as the air we breathe.

That doesn't go only for writers like me or artists, photographers, actors, dancers, and so on. Solitude is necessary (and probably lacking) for every person walking this Earth. I'm equally sure that we are trained not to let ourselves get attached to solitude, to fear it, and to suspect that there is danger in being alone.

"And yet, this constant busyness and distraction is draining us. We are always on, always connected, always stimulated, always using energy." Babauta hits the mark again. Burnout, according to my dictionary, is "exhaustion of physical or emotional strength" and that's what the world offers if we buy into it. My teaching job begins at 7:40 and I work with kids straight through until at least 1:00 most days (sometimes longer) before I see a break, before I can have time alone to do nothing. That level of busyness and lack of solitude is toxic. That's why I can't continue in the job. But If I do the same thing to myself after leaving school, what kind of fool am I?

At the bottom of Babauta's article I wrote this: What if I go for a run not to get in shape or an an obligation to do miles but in order to invest in one hour (or even just half an hour) of solitude? I wrote that and then got dressed in cold weather running gear, took myself outside, left the phone in the kitchen, and jogged down the driveway. Almost an hour later I returned home feeling something I haven't in weeks. It wasn't just the way my body felt having run four miles, though that too was good. It was the relief of having been by myself and in no need to do anything but run. I didn't work on any problems, make any plans, or do anything but run and be alone. It wasn't scary either. In fact, I want more.

I'm going to go put an album. First, I'll tear up my to-do list then I'll switch off this computer. The furnace just came on, the dog is asleep on her bed, and there's nothing to do now but listen to what solitude and the album sing to me.

Sitting Alone...

My previous notebook entry ended with this shard: "Sitting alone..." I wrote that while sitting alone during lunch at school. We eat with the kids rather than have any kind of break, so I chose a back table on which I opened my notebook and pen. A colleague at the next table asked if I wanted to join her table.

"No. Thanks," I said with a wave of my hand. "I'm good." Pointing to my notebook, I was about to say, "I have things to write," but another colleague interrupted saying, "he never wants to join. He'd prefer to be all on his own." It isn't the first time I've offended her and left her feeling rejected. I shrugged, not wanting to explain and annoyed with her neediness. I went back to writing for two words — Sitting alone — but some hell broke loose with a couple kids and I got up to deal with it. Lunch ended and, collecting my notebook, I saw what I had written, uncapped my pen, and added three dots as a kind of emoji for longing.

All I want so many times is to just be left alone.

I feel like I should apologize for that desire. I feel obligated to say that of course I also enjoy being with people... I feel required to follow the habits of society, to re-join Facebook, do my running in packs, participate in group texts, watch popular shows and movies, and help my offended colleague feel better by joining her for lunch. Then I remember Naomi Shihab Nye's The Art Of Disappearing.


When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?


J.K. Rowling wrote this recently: "I suppose I must spend most of my conscious life in fictional worlds, which some people may find sad, as though there must be something lacking in my personal life." I get all of what she's saying there. Of course she has to spend most of her life in fictional worlds and thank goodness she does. I also understand how others might find it sad and wonder what she is lacking. Why choose solitude so deep it seems like withdrawal and loneliness? Because it is anything but.

I'm a little disappointed she went on apologize, saying there really isn't anything lacking in her personal life. Then again, if J.K. Rowling feels the need to apologize for sitting alone... I'm in good company.


It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished


Atop the printed agenda for the seminar I'm attending, my friend wrote "In the real world, nobody writes alone." I'm not sure I agree. I share this room with seven writers, a mug of coffee, a doughnut, a pen and notebook, and my Chromebook. If I had to give one thing up, it would certainly be the other people.

I'm really sorry about saying that, folks.

My friend told a story earlier. He had a reading to give one evening but nothing written. He locked the door and wrote for six hours, leaving time for only one read-through before presenting it to people who would brook no nonsense. I almost held my breath as he told the story not because I was nervous for the outcome — he and I can put good writing together whenever we have to — but because I was jealous. "That sounds like heaven," I said. "Locked door, hours of time, and writing." I may have sighed.


When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.


I'm in the back of the seminar room. I have headphones playing The Bad Plus loud enough that I feel as if I'm sitting alone... My words appear on-screen through the simple magic flowing through my fingertips. Writing begins in a comforting and warm solitude that some find too lonely. Good for them. I don't want them to join me here or invite me over to their table. I need to be alone.


Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.


Others at this seminar have been on Facebook, email, phones, the news. Maybe they can write in a crowd but I can't. Even in a crowded room I sit alone "trying to remember something too important to forget."

If I were writing in order to just be alone, I might need to apologize, but I am sitting alone because for as long as I can remember I have had a new project. It will never be finished. I need to get back to it now.

And I'm not sorry.