I spent most of the day yesterday curled on a friend’s couch, writing. A (not her real initial) and I used to go to a writers’ conference every autumn, but after a few years we decided we’d get more out of taking a day just to write rather than listening to people talking about writing. Toward that end, yesterday we spent the day having our own writers’ retreat at A’s apartment.
Sometimes you just need to take a day to do whatever it is you wish you had more time to do. Before I could break away to spend most of my Saturday writing, I had to tackle my morning chores, taking the beagle out and in, cleaning dishes and litter boxes, taking out the trash and recycling, and feeding and medicating one of the cats. By doing these things, I bought myself the rest of the day—a luxurious chunk of time between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm—to focus on writing without interruption before returning home to my usual obligations.
I used to have this luxury every day: that is, I used to be single. I used to live alone in my apartment in Keene, and the only living soul I was beholden to was Reggie, whose needs at the time were simple: a walk, a bowl of kibble, and a couple bathroom breaks. But now I have a husband and a houseful of pets, and life is complicated. Being married and surrounded by furry creatures is wonderful and bears its own satisfactions, but sometimes I long for the simplicity of my single days.
This is the value of a retreat. Retreats are like a vacation or a game of make-believe: instead of casting off your attachments to move to a monastery and become a monk, you take a day to role-play. You step outside your life and its obligations, at least for a little while, and you live a life that once was or still could be yours, but isn’t.
It’s remarkable how quiet even a thickly settled neighborhood can be when you yourself are quiet and not chasing after anything. My apartment in Keene was in a similar neighborhood as A’s—close to downtown, but affording solitude if you didn’t have business with the cars that occasionally approached and then passed. There is great tranquility to be found even close at hand when you simply stop, settle into your seat, and sip your tea, reminding yourself you have nowhere to go and nothing to do.
When you’re a wife, any place you don’t have to clean feels like a luxury resort, even if you’re simply sitting on someone else’s couch. After J and I were married but I was still teaching and living three days a week in Keene, I’d sometimes try to explain my arrangement to others. Their responses were amazingly predictable, with married women invariably looking at me with a wistful expression: “Oh, you have a place of your own!” J and I make a conscious effort to give one another space—we often and without a hint of irony insist that the secret to a happy marriage lies in having separate bathrooms—but even given such space, every married person I encountered (particularly the women) craved the solitude they imagined I had.
Solitude is, after all, an elixir: the simple act of stopping one’s usual mad dash of accomplishment serves to staunch a pernicious kind of bleeding. I love to write, in part, because it requires this kind of stopping—this kind of plug-pulling—this kind of turning inward. We are like deer who chase after grass, Kabir said, when the richness of musk lies within.
Solitude is not, in other words, a place: you needn’t go far—or anywhere at all—looking for it. All you need is a quiet couch and a cup of tea—or, if your mind is quiet, just the tea will do. Solitude, again, is not a place: you needn’t journey to monastery or mountaintop to find it. Instead, solitude is a decision to consciously turn away: a closed door, a silenced phone, a firm resolve to let one solid day pass without alarm or interruption.
This is why solitaries such as Henry David Thoreau and May Sarton, neither of whom was a proper hermit, are so widely misunderstood. You can, it turns out, live a solitary life in a house at the heart of town or in a cabin within walking distance of company, solitude being defined by inner rather than outer measures. Given the friends and commitments we all as social creatures have, can you occasionally and with full-hearted conviction say, “No, right now I need to be alone”?
Solitude blossoms when you say that single word “No.” Can you find the wherewithal and resolve to say “No” to the world—“No” to commitments—“No” to the obligations of caretaking, if only for a while? This commitment to say No needn’t be lifelong, but it needs to be wholehearted while it lasts: for this next solitary session, whether it last two years at Walden or a day on a friend’s couch, I resolve to ignore the world outside and look deeply at the world within.
This is often more difficult for women than for men, given how women are conditioned to be caretakers, but even women can find the resolve to kill the Angel of the House, as Virginia Woolf described it. The house will not collapse, the pets will not die, and my marriage will not fail if I take a single uninterrupted day to write.
It isn’t, ultimately, our external obligations that keep us from the task at hand: they are simply our excuses. For once you do close the door and silence the phone, there is that great existential fear: given a day to devote to nothing but your writing, what if you should find nothing to say?
Solitude is scary if you’ve become alienated from yourself, but when you’re on comfortable speaking terms with your own mind, you never are alone. Turning within, you discover yourself to be a remarkably interesting and insightful person with plenty of say and share, your inner world an untapped well.
Solitude, after all, is both fertile and fecund—a dark, deep, and mossy recess studded with gems. Your self is boring and inane only when you’re too busy, too hurried, or too harried to explore it properly. Given the time and opportunity to become acquainted with your own inner self, you’ll find an infinite font of secret wisdom there.
But this makes it sound mystic and aloof–a far-off, magical state–when what I’m talking about is much more mundane: a quiet couch and a cup of tea on a coffee table stacked with magazines. Nothing magical—nothing you couldn’t attain for yourself—if you simply said “No” to other obligations.