Solitude

bare tree during daytime solitude

This has been sitting in drafts since June 2020. So today felt like the right time to publish it, nearly two years later.

I have been thinking a lot about solitude. The world is in the midst of a pandemic, and many of us are alone or experiencing the deep pangs of loneliness infiltrating our homes and psyche. I can safely say this is not an easy time for anyone.

Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. Research has said that this type of isolation can lead to self-awareness, and I think they are on to something.

My days before the COVID-19 virus were spent alone for the most part. I work from home, and aside from the odd meeting, I would go all day without hearing a voice other than my own. So muttering to myself while walking through the house or singing along to whatever was playing in the background is how I kept myself company when the silence became too much to bear.

Looking back at the solitary times explains the volume of Spotify playlists I have created, as well as the notebooks filled with scribbles for future novels, screenplays, and random philosophical thoughts all waiting on — something.

Covid-19 has thrown my world into a tailspin. I was already spinning due to issues out of my control which thrust me into the role of caregiver, but it was slow and heavy like a category one hurricane. There is going to be residual but manageable damage. With the novel coronavirus — it’s bearing down like an F5 on the world – brutal, hard, fast, leaving nothing but destruction in its path.

Solitude is dear — a comfort — to me. For many years I was hell-bent on avoiding any solitary time by filling my days with as many mind-numbing, distracting activities as possible as a way of escaping past trauma. (There is a reason one of my Twitter accounts has nearly 100k Tweets.) Finally, after eleven days in the hospital, many of them in ICU, I stepped away from my devices and allowed myself to be truly in the moment.

It was a revelation.

I was more present during those days than I have been in two decades. Realizing how precious time literally is is the best gift I have ever received. I work very hard every day to make every second count, where before I was kissing that time goodbye on mindless activities — doing heaven knows what for the past 20 years.

That two-week period in the hospital also taught me about solitude and how precious it is when you are trying to create or to heal. When there are people in your room every hour on the hour to check something, and all you want to do is sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time, you become a quick study.

Goethe says, “No one can produce anything important unless he isolates himself.”

My first instinct during periods of great emotional distress is to retreat inward and shut the world out. But unfortunately, the withdrawal is immediate, painful, and shallow. Friends have told me that it feels like Thanos snapped his fingers, and I disappeared from the earth. Nothing but dust left where my body once stood.

I know now that this is not solitude but my reaction to something much greater at work in my life.

Anxiety.

My own anxiety has reared its ugly head on more than one occasion of late. I’m lucky to have had many years to develop coping tools for my anxiety disorder. I don’t know what will happen with the entire world gripped in anxiety. However, I’m afraid that the trauma we will experience from this time period will be cataclysmic. For those suffering from anxiety disorders, the noise that is normally an annoying hum is now Niagara Falls.

Coping tools are great to have, but I am a realist, and the harsh reality is that I lose myself during times like this.

The only way to explain is to ask you to imagine a chicken egg. Inside is the chick who has been incubating inside the egg and is waiting to peck its way out and join the other baby chicks, ready to explore their new light-filled world. Instead, I withdraw into a fragile yet tough shell, where I am encapsulated in darkness. Try as I might to peck my way out of it; there is no escape until I have matured enough to force my way out of the safety of the shell.

How am I managing? I am treating this time at home with my husband and son as a gift. My natural inclination is to withdraw and block everything with the aforementioned mindless activities. Instead, I am attempting to be mindful of this gift of time that has been handed to me. Instead of running multiple errands all over town or sitting in rush hour traffic, I can be.

What does it mean to be? It’s different for everyone. My personal meditation practice of many years is hanging by a thread, so I have opted to adapt.

One of my favorite pastimes was to sit on the stoop at my grandparent’s house, listening to bluegrass concerts with my PawPaw that he had recorded on his portable cassette player, and sip from an endless glass of sweet tea. So I sit on the porch in my favorite rocking chair, focus on my breath, and let Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, and more of my beloved favorites soothe my senses. Rock, breathe, rock, breathe, rock, breathe.

Focusing on the breath (chosoku) is part of my personal meditation practice. I used to be quite the purist and would only sit if I could be very still and use the zazen posture.

“The body does not move in zazen posture. The mouth is closed and does not speak. The mind does not seek to be­come Buddha, but instead stops the men­tal activities of thinking, willing and con­sciousness. By removing all signs of bonpu from our legs, hands, mouth and mind (which ordinarily act only on behalf of our deluded human interests), by put­ting the Buddha seal on them, we place them in the service of our Buddha na­ture. In other words, when our bonpu body-mind acts as a Buddha, it is trans­formed into the body-mind of a Buddha.”

https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/zazen-is-not-the-same-as-meditation/

Rocking is a form of zen for me. It is like floating in the ocean when the waves are sizable but smooth. Your body is lifted up one side of the wave and dropped back down the other side, the sun beating down on your face, bleaching the fuzz on your cheeks. Up and down, up and down, up and down.

Right now, our solitude is not voluntary, and I worry about people who live alone, like my Grandmother. I worry about people who are trapped in relationships where domestic violence is the norm. I worry about my friends who are essential employees. I worry mother, the ICU nurse.

For solitude to be beneficial, certain preconditions must be met. Kenneth Rubin, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland, calls them the “ifs.” Solitude can be productive only: if it is voluntary, if one can regulate one’s emotions “effectively,” if one can join a social group when desired, and if one can maintain positive relationships outside of it.

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/03/the-virtues-of-isolation/521100/

The world is struggling. Due to how we are structured as a country, we don’t have certain protections that other countries do – – healthcare, etc. As a result, protests are popping up in different spots throughout the United States. Most are staying in their car. The ones who are not are endangering the people who are on the sidewalk with them and the law enforcement who are there to manage their protests.

We miss our family. We miss our friends. We miss the normalcy of everyday life.

The most transforming influences in life are personal friendships. Everyone who meets us influences us, but friendship opens the heart to the ideas, ideals, and spiritual quality of another life, until we are susceptible to everything that the friend is and sensitive to everything that he thinks.

The Meaning of Prayer Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1915

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