I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.
— Henry David Thoreau
Last winter my tax accountant asked me what I did at night at the cabin. He knew I worked during the day but how did I entertain myself at night? I told him I read and keep the fire tended and that I like being alone. At first, he looked dubious but then realized that his favorite time of the day was when he went home after work and settled on the couch with his cats and watched TV. He enjoyed the solitude, he admitted.
A friend of mine reminded me that when I first bought the cabin, I felt some anxiety about what I was doing. I knew that spending so much time alone was different from what most people want, that it was a strange thing, for a woman, especially, to do. Most people seek out the company of others. But I knew I wasn’t the only one who craved solitude. There was my hero, Thoreau, who spent time alone at Walden Pond. And I have a kindred spirit in the man who inhabited the cabin adjoining mine, who lived there alone for 40 years.
Bill Waite was never totally isolated; especially in summer he had neighbors and friends nearby and even in winter he could drive down to Estes Park anytime and get groceries and interact with people. Yet, from what old timers tell me, he spent a lot of time alone, especially in the winter. I know he liked to read; he had a dog for companionship; and he would have kept busy with all the usual cabin chores: chopping wood, getting a fire going, hauling water from the creek. But I think people are still puzzled: what did he do with himself all day?
Those of us who spend time alone, especially in a beautiful setting, know that nothing needs to be done. At the cabin, during the day I work on my computer, but even when I’m not working, I never feel bereft or bored, like I need some distraction. Time slows down and you realize there’s no need to do anything. All you need is to be there, absorb everything that happens: the snow slowly falling, the flash of the blue wing of the jay, the wind that hums through the pines. Soon you’re in sync with the world, breathing in as it breathes in, breathing out together. How many people get to experience that?
My solitude, often broken by visits with neighbors and friends, lasts two or three days and then I’m back in Boulder and in the thick of the world. But I recently read an article about a man who disappeared into the mountains of the Northeast and lived without human contact for 15 years or so. His story only became known after he was arrested for breaking into summer cabins looking for food. When a reporter interviewed him, trying to figure out how someone could be so isolated for so long, his story was not one of loss or even loneliness but of experiencing a different reality than most of us do. For him, time wasn’t measured out but expanded to fit the day, and his perceptions of the world were so subtle that he was aware of everything. He existed in an almost kind of ecstasy, a deep and rich sense of the world.
As the world gets increasingly over-connected, so we need never spend time alone if we are plugged into our electronic devices, I can’t help but think that time away from that over-stimulated world will become a necessity. We need a way and time to connect with ourselves, which gets distanced with the busyness of our daily lives.
There’s a place you can go, and it’s right here. You don’t have to travel miles to the mountains or a faraway island. You can shut out the world, turn off your device, just for an hour or a day, and go deep into yourself, deeper than you could ever imagine.