Anyone with a real taste for solitude
who indulges that taste encounters the dangers
of any other drug-taker. The habit
grows. You become an addict…
What voice can equal the voices of solitude?
What sights equal the movement of a single day’s tide of light
across the floorboard of one’s room?
– Jessamyn West
Slice of Cake:
Jessamyn West is best known for Friendly Persuasion,
a 1945 novel based loosely on her grandparents,
who were Quakers during the American Civil War.
She later contributed to the screenplay of a 1956 movie based on her novel.
The movie is also called Friendly Persuasion. It starred Gary Cooper. It got six Oscar nominations.
Despite my love of old movies, I only recently saw this film.
(And honesly, I don’t particularly recommend it.)
Nor had I ever heard of Jessamyn West—
not until my sister-in-law Lyn lent me a
very different Jessamyn West book
called To See the Dream,
which was published the year after the movie came out.
To See the Dream is a memoir—her diary, really.
And it’s a wonderfully fresh, poetic slice of the everyday life of a writer.
The first sound was the far-off cry of coyotes.
A coyote sings more sweetly to me than any bird.
He pushes the horizon back with his voice.
He makes a gift of space.
He says that something is still hidden.
– Jessamyn West
in her memoir To See the Dream
To See the Dream is full of tales of her time in and out of Hollywood
during the year Friendly Persuasion was being made into a movie.
She writes about working as screenwriter...
Then getting fired as screenwriter.
Then getting re-hired as screenwriter.
And really, the Hollywood part is not at all what you’d expect.
If there were anything glamorous about Jessamyn West,
she sure doesn’t let on in these diary entries!
Instead, her writing is funny and very down-to-earth.
I think what made both Lyn and I love To See the Dream
is West’s insights into the difficult balance between daily life and making art.
Writing in a small town is still thought to be
a strange and rather embarrassing activity…
I would as soon think of beginning
a conversation at a local dinner party by saying,
“I’m in the midst of a new love affair,”
than by saying “I’m in the midst of a new short story.”
The two announcements would be equally effective in
killing further talk—until I left, anyway.
– Jessamyn West
Happy 117th Birthday
— Jessamyn West —
– born July 18, 1902
in North Vernon, Indiana
We all know at times
what it is to be wearied in spirits.
Mine, I confess, are exhausted.
The greatest kindness you can show me will be to
let me have my own way, and only say that I am gone
when it is necessary… Oh! Miss Woodhouse,
the comfort of being sometimes alone!
– Jane Fairfax
in the novel Emma
by Jane Austen
Been thinking this week about what solitude means to me. Here are a few things I’ve realized.
> Solitude is wonderful. Simply put.
I am a very social person. I love my family and need my friends. I host parties often. And yet—
I also truly cherish my time alone.
Perhaps what I love is that feeling of freedom that Robert Louis Stevenson describes: The freedom to ‘follow this way or that’ and at my ‘own pace.’ Toni Morrison said that the true meaning of freedom is being able to wake up and ‘decide what to do with the day.’ I find that’s a heck of a lot easier when I’m spending the day alone.
Now, to be properly enjoyed,
a walking tour should be gone upon alone…
because freedom is of the essence;
because you should be able to stop and go on, and
follow this way or that, as the freak takes you;
and because you must have you own pace…
– from Walking Tours
an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson
> Spending time alone is a luxury.
Like any luxury, it’s not for everybody.
(I know that, say, three days of silent solitude—which I’ve done and loved— wouldn’t be
everyone’s idea of a fun time.)
My advice would be to have a partner who
wholeheartedly supports what you do
and respects both your time and your space to be alone.
– painter Betty Tompkins
Like any luxury, too much is too much.
Even for me.
> Solitude is where I find the creative space to write.
I’m not the only one. A fundamental need for quiet time alone
is something artists talk about a lot.
I need to be alone to do my work.
I need to have days
that don’t have someone’s shadow in them.
– novelist Mary Gordon
Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise.
Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can.
Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.
– poet Jane Kenyon
> Solitude is how I revive myself whenever I, like Jane Fairfax, feel ‘wearied in spirit.’
There is a quality of silence that comes only after a full day alone without interruptions, knowing there are more solitary hours tomorrow. The quiet rolls out ahead of me. Thoughts unspool in long threads.
Both small details and long perspectives are allowed abundant consideration.
There is space to not only think and feel but, as my sister-in-law Lyn said,
“to be aware of my thinking and feeling, and to discover my own truths”.
That kind of quiet heals and refreshes me.
It’s like ballast in the hull; afterwards the sailing is so much smoother.
Begin here. It is raining…
I am here alone for the first time in weeks,
to take up my ‘real’ life again at last.
That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love,
are not my real life unless there is time alone in which
to explore and to discover what
is happening or has happened…
I taste life fully only when I am alone here.
– from Journal of a Solitude
by May Sarton
There’s a pasture in the countryside
I used to call my own.
There’s a natural pillow for my head,
the grass is overgrown (yes and no).
I think of that place from time to time
when I want to be alone.
– from Anywhere Like Heaven,
lyrics by James Taylor
“Half Cup More”
When my children were growing up, I would occasionally go away by myself for a couple of days. I called them my one-woman do-it-myself writer’s retreats. (I think I did this maybe six or so times, over the ten or so years that I had two schoolkids at home.)
Here are some excerpts from my journal during my very first solitary weekend.
It was April 2000.
I was living in Christchurch, New Zealand.
For my retreat, I stayed at a B&B
in Sumner, which is one of
Christchurch’s beach neighbourhoods.
Well, here I am where I said I’d be: Alone.
Yes. It is wonderful.
It just is.
The light on the water tonight was fantastic. Abendsonnenschein. The sand goes all pearlized, as reflective as a mirror. Every breaking wave reflects the pink light of sunset. So gorgeous.
The room isn’t perfect. As I walked up, looking for the address, I thought: Not over the garage, not over the garage. Oh. It’s over the garage.
There’s a pretty view but not from the bed, or even from a comfortable chair, so it’s mostly wasted. And there are only overhead lights. No reading lamp by the bed. That’s a drag.
But all that is minor, compared to the major luxury of being here.
Ah well. Tomorrow morning B & the kids come to collect me.
Tonight I wandered lonely as a cloud on a darkening beach, teaching myself John Masefield’s poem off by heart:
I must go down to the seas again for the call of running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied…
– from Sea Fever
by John Masefield
This afternoon, walking along, truly enjoying being exactly where I was, being exactly who I am…
Wearing my still-wet beach sandals, I ate and shivered at a sidewalk café. Mulled wine. Yum. It’s the same café that B and I had lunch at yesterday (only yesterday!?) when he gave me a ride here.
“What have you learned, Dorothy?”
Next time remember socks and peppermint tea.
Someone was once asked: ‘What would you do with a totally free day?’
The answer: ‘Waste the whole day trying to figure out what to do with the day.’
Not me, my friend.
I am relaxed and happy and at peace. This was expensive. This was more than worth it.
Alone is an old and dear friend of mine.
I love that, without planning on working on my essay (due in class on Monday), I came across the perfect quote in a Maya Angelou poem.
I love that I found Beloved in a bookstore with cozy couches and two other women sitting and reading, so I felt comfortable just scanning through it for the two passages I needed to complete the essay. (Found ‘em!) I bought a little poetry book to pay my toll.
I love that Elle said, “And an extra big hug good-bye for you” before she turned and ran off to her class. She’s seven, and she understood she wouldn’t see me for a couple of days. She’s amazing. She really is.
I love that, on the phone, Jay told me a knock-knock joke about cows. Five-year-old humor at its best!
me: I love you.
J: I don’t love you.
J: (whispered) I really do.
me: I know you do, sweetie.
Back at home
11 days later
Something I learned at Sumner is that there is an end to the enjoyment of being alone.
I remember some of that—how it felt bad to be alone too long—when I was living by myself in college. And I felt some of the very edge of that on the last evening in Sumner.
At Sumner when I called the kids from the phone booth, it was because it was the responsible thing to do, at a responsible hour. But I know I needed to hear them, too.
There is also this: I can still feel some of the high from that weekend even now.
Next October. Yes. Plan on it.
Santa Rita Mountains
What I need—
all those times
and long to pull blankets back over my head,
Is to remember this sunny September day,
the nothing I have to do.
The all-day aloneness of
Yesterday and today;
I had that then
I can have it again.
Just to remember.
(mid-day insects buzzing by)
Santa Rita Mountains
© 2009 Kelly J Hardesty
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— Kelly J Hardesty
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