For most people, seclusion has never been easy to find, but today it may be harder than ever. Empty places are few, and communication devices keep us perpetually on call. But we still crave the bliss of solitude. In advance of the Zócalo event “Why Do We Go Alone into the Woods?,” we asked several authors and artists about the role of solitude in their busy lives. How do they find it?
I Wish I Knew How–But It’s Great When I’ve Found It
I craved solitude so much in college, I wrote a song about it as soon as I’d learned three guitar chords. People were around all the time! I wasn’t used to it. Still, it can take a while to settle in with oneself. Time alone doesn’t automatically bring the peacefulness that can come from solitude. There’s a lot of static to move through.
I think about it a lot here; L.A. is unusual this way. I don’t carpool often, so it’s usually me, in my car, alone, decompressing from whatever event I’ve just attended. I think I rely on that time more than I realize. A few years ago I took myself on a week-long writing retreat to a center in Santa Barbara that cultivates silence. It was like cracking open restlessness. Each day, I would whine and squirm, not wanting to write. The mornings were so uncomfortable. And then I’d settle down and get stuff done. By the end of the week I was so much calmer than I was when I began. But I can feel how that tension has built up again, how I’m “due.” Where does the computer fit with all this? How does it cramp solitude? How does it court it? I’m not sure, not sure yet how to navigate that balance.
Aimee Bender is the author of four books, the most recent being The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.
I Find It an Hour Or Less From L.A.
Almost every weekend I leave the sprawl for a bit of solitude, and the options here are nearly endless. Sometimes I scramble up the side of a mountain; other times I’m on a long, looping trail through valleys. Sometimes I’ll just boulder-hop along a river, find a nice spot, and lie out for a few hours where it seems like I’m the only person in the world.
Walking alone in the woods is its own form of meditation, each boot-step a mantra. Sometimes we go for a physical challenge, sometimes for the chance to snap a great landscape photo–but I think for every hiker, the reason we keep coming back is simple clarity.
Freed from modern, urban busy-ness, our brains can finally, freely process our lives in surprising and unpredictable ways. Maybe you’ll finally crack that problem presentation for the office. Or perfect the concluding line of the poem that’s been in your brain for weeks. Or maybe you’ll just have a moment–seeing a line of storms roll in on the horizon, watching hawks circling their nest, or experiencing the sun setting as the moon rises–something that reminds you that you came from this, that you’re a part of it, and you need it.
When I’m hiking, I don’t care about the washing machine that ate my quarter or the loud, screaming kid who lives downstairs. I can turn my face toward the sun, breathe in deep the scent of ponderosa pine and simply appreciate–for this moment–my place in the quiet maelstrom of life.
And all this is here for us in L.A.–an hour or less from the nearest In-N-Out.
Casey Schreiner has been hiking the trails of Los Angeles since 2004. He runs ModernHiker.com, L.A.’s oldest and largest hiking blog, and is head writer of Attack of the Show on the G4 network.
I Find It Among the Crowds
I recently moved from a remote island in the North Atlantic to the center of Toronto, Canada’s biggest city. I thought I’d be losing solitude. In Newfoundland, I could walk for an hour or two and see no one but the occasional driver. In Toronto, I’m surrounded the moment I leave my house: there are dogs, kids leaving the high school, nannies pushing strollers, deliverymen, mail carriers, commuters rushing for the bus.
At first I found this dizzying. Where, I wondered, would I find solitude? After years in Newfoundland, I’d come to equate solitude with a literal emptiness, with the big blank stretches of space that greeted me in the park and near the ocean. For months after the move I was distressed; I recoiled from the lack of privacy. But now that I’ve been home for nearly 10 months, I find myself acclimatizing, even enjoying myself. If anything, my solitude feels richer and more complete in this much bigger city.
I savor a different sort of solitude here. There’s something about the sheer, unmitigated size of the place that makes it safe to be alone. When I’m troubled or struggling with a problem, I now instinctively head for the bustle of the streets. I’m a nondescript person; I blend in. And I can walk for hour after hour this way–through parks and playgrounds, along non-stop downtown streets–content with the notion that my solitude is somehow enveloped, that I’m less alone in the state of being alone. There’s a comfort to this, a gentle reassurance. It’s as if the presence of others is giving me the room I need to be more fully on my own.
Emily White‘s Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude was recently published by HarperCollins. She is at work on her next book, and spends an awful lot of time walking.
I Find It At the Gym
I take a daily pilgrimage to a church where I made a sacred contract between myself and my body. Some seek redemption there. I seek strength and insight. It’s a place where the faithful worship iron, and sweat is my holy water. No choir sings hymns; rock ’n’ roll beats out of an iPod into my ears. I minister myself. A tattered notebook outlines the liturgy of the day: 10 pull-ups, 20 kettlebell swings, 30 box jumps, 40 push-ups, 50 sit-ups, 60 burpees, 10 pull-ups.
Clarity and peace emerge from exercise, whether from lactic acid searing my muscles or from rhythmic breath soothing my body and mind. A workout can be like a traverse across foreign land. There may be hazards, and I don’t know if I’ll make it through. I’m a solo traveler, and accomplishing my goals is up to me. The more times I explore the depths of my capabilities, the more comfortable I become extending those limits, even while knowing discomfort awaits. As my hands slip from the pull-up bar there’s no one above to lift me. If I take the easy way out, I fall. If I focus and trust, I ascend.
This communion with the self creates strength to embrace the unknown of the everyday, and the gym is a place where I hone the faith that I’m capable of more than I believe. Reaching maximum heart rate and gasping for more and more nourishing oxygen renders deep experiences of solitude. No one else knows how I feel in those moments. They sometimes look more like suffering than peace, but I’m alone, blissfully free from even my thoughts, and electrically alive.
Andrew Sullivan is an independent photographer. In addition to his work in the United States, he has photographed in Kenya, Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, and Brazil. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times.
*Photo courtesy of buksy4free.