Two years ago, on January 5, 2020, I celebrated the day before my birthday by going to the Cambridge Zen Center, sitting one meditation session, then walking from Central to Harvard Square, where I sipped hot chocolate and wrote in my journal at Burdick’s Cafe.

We all have spent countless hours ruminating on the Before Times: the simple pleasures we took for granted before the pandemic changed our lives in profound and unpredictable ways. There are many things I miss from the Before Times, but this one will probably surprise you: I miss a certain kind of solitude.

Over the past two years, most of us have gotten more than our fill of remote, socially distanced, work-from-home solitude: the kind of isolation that comes from not going out, not seeing friends and family, not hanging around the office water cooler. But I miss the quiet anonymity of sitting alone in a crowded cafe, strangers buzzing amiably around me.

For the past two years, we’ve spent a lot of time alone together in the separate squares of Zoom screens, communicating with friends, family, and coworkers across our individual isolations. What I miss, though, is time spent together alone: time, that is, spent in the presence of strangers without any need to interact.

For the past almost-two years, I’ve gotten good at what I call duck-in interactions. Tonight, for instance, J and I wanted to try takeout from a new restaurant, so I followed the now-familiar drill: order and pay online, show up at the restaurant, scope out the register from outside to make sure there isn’t a line, then duck inside to pick up my order. Even allowing for brief, masked pleasantries, this kind of interaction lasts no more than a minute: duck in, grab food, duck out.

I miss the casual leisure of sitting in a cafe sharing space with strangers without worrying about shared air and exposure times. I miss the days when sitting alongside strangers was a welcome form of communion, not a potential source of contagion.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

I’m currently reading Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. The book tells the story of Christopher Knight, who lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years before being arrested for burglary in 2013. The book reminds me of Into the Wild, the book Jon Krakauer wrote about Christopher McCandless, except that while McCandless died after 100 solitary days foraging in the Alaskan wilderness, Knight survived for more than a quarter century on food and supplies he stole from nearby cabins.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

With both books, the question of “why” spurs readers onward. In Krakauer’s book, you eventually learn that McCandless didn’t intend to live his entire life as a hermit: during part of his journey, he befriended others, and he intended to return to civilization after his Alaskan sojourn. McCandless was a social, likable fellow when he was around people, and after living on his own in Alaska for several months, he intended (and tried) to leave the wild. It was a cruel accident, in other words, that McCandless died a hermit’s death.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

Knight, on the other hand, is a true solitary, but it isn’t immediately clear why he shuns human contact. Knight returns to civilization unwillingly. After burglarizing area cabins for more than two decades, he is captured and thrown in jail: a hermit tossed in with criminals. McCandless had specific reasons for shunning his family, but Knight doesn’t seem to hold any animus toward his family in particular or society in general: he just chooses a solitary path.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

McCandless died at the age of 24, but had he lived, he would now be 49 years old: a middle-aged man approaching fifty. Knight survived his stint in the Maine woods, and he was apprehended and arrested at the age of 47. The hermetic lifestyle holds a certain appeal when you’re young, but how does it hold up as you approach middle age?

We can write-off Chris McCandless’ quest as the wayward ways of a young man who hadn’t yet found himself: Krakauer, who wrote McCandless’ story when he was 42, looks back upon his own youth and finds parallels between his life and that of his subject. But if youthful restlessness similarly drove Knight to the forest, what is it that kept him there?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

We’ve all probably had times when we’ve wanted to abandon our obligations and escape into the wild, but those of us who are middle-aged presumably outgrew those inklings, choosing instead to settle down and get serious about the business of homemaking, starting a family, or pursuing a career. But Knight sidesteps all those presumably normal pursuits, walking into the woods at the age of 20 and showing no signs of wanting to return. How do you live 27 years of your life in a solitary camp with nothing but a long list of burglaries to your name? Wouldn’t you at some point decide to pursue another path?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

This is what keeps me reading: I want to see what would keep a man in the woods for over two decades. I can understand the impulse that would drive a person to leave society, but not necessarily the fortitude that would keep him away.

Today’s photos come from a solo trip to Maine I took in September, 2004 and blogged here.

New Year's letter to my future self

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.

Notebook + pen + hot chocolate = brainstorming for the New Year. #gratitude

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.