Saturday, March 01, 2008



Someone should write a history of it.

Think about it. Probably for the first million plus years we were here on earth, we were up to our ears in solitude. We'd watched the sky and the horizon for a bit of smoke, listen for the turning of a clumsy wheel or a whistle coming from some tall grass. Anything that might signal that our solitude was about to end.

At night, we'd sit in a tree or a cave and practice our smiles and handshakes on the off chance we'd meet somebody the next day coming toward us through that grass. We'd also practice our “company’s coming” talk, "Hi, I'm Abel from this tree here, glad to meet you. You just passing through? Like to stop?"

Sometimes you see a bird all alone on a tree, turning his head this way and that, pausing and listening the way birds listen to the sounds in the wind when they're all alone. We were probably like that bird most of the time we were on earth--maybe up to about 15,000 years ago when we learned to hunker down together.

It was probably a good break from the solitude and what was behind it and always coming closer, the loneliness.

A person gets tired of sleeping with his back exposed to the wind and the weather. He wants to have someone behind him keeping his back warm. It was probably that way when he was a baby, his momma pressing his back into her warm belly. You miss that kind of loving and go searching for something that will break the loneliness and the fancy Sunday-dress version of loneliness, solitude.

But then something happens, and we start getting a little too much of that pressing.

Maybe it's the growth of cities or the rise of the merchant class or the start of the industrial revolution with its ugly factories, and all we got then is people pressing into us, some pressing in a loving way but more just pressing, just pressing a little more each day until we start thinking down into our DNA and remembering the solitude we had so much of so long ago, and we start missing it.

(Photos: The first photo of a field in Illinois is by the poet and photographer Michael Healey. The photo of Walden Pond 2007 and the Bellagio Casino/Las Vegas 2007 are by me.)


Sara said...

Lovely post, John, but I wonder what happened to inspire it...

Manfred said...

I daydream about being on a sunny hillside with grass and trees, a breeze and the song of birds, being close enough to smell the earth.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Sara, Thanks for the nice words.

I got interested in solitude this semester teaching my American Masterpieces course. We were doing Thoreau and Dickinson, the great solitudists of American lit, and my students seemed uneasy with the idea of solitude.

Why, some of them asked, would a person choose to go away from other people?

This got me thinking about solitude.

That was one thing. The other was that I'm living a solitudinous sort of life here in Valdosta.

I write, I shop, I ride my bike.

Day to day, I pretty much talk only with Linda and our cat Samantha.

The rest of the time I'm scratching my head and wondering how come I don't get around much anymore.

Stephen said...

Hi John,

I grew up in a family of five. We ate dinner together every night at 5:30 p.m. and goodness knows you were not late for dinner in our household.

When we started going to college family dinners became quite rare.

When I went to graduate school, I experienced solitude. I mostly ate alone, since I could not afford to eat with others. I did not get married until I was 42, and goodness knows, I really appreciate having dinner with someone every night.

When I started making a living, I found myself increasingly wandering over to the tavern. I secretly wished for the 19th century urban taverns as a social center and as a place where jobs were found, conquests bragged about, and games played. I actually found one that had a little of that, but it was only on the weekends during the day. (I moved a block away from this place.)

I experienced solitude, and the only advantage to it was that when I wanted to watch pro wrestling or a HBO series on DVD, I could do it at any time. (Now I have to schedule this in. :-))

I celebrate those who choose solitude, and a great many of hermits lived a solitary life--and did good work.

I am not familiar with the Spiritual Exercises, but St. Ignatius may offer something for this.

As we sit and praise solitude, perhaps it is worthwhile thinking about Catholic religious orders and how they practice asceticism.

joe glaser said...

I like your pictures, John, but I wonder about your primatology. Are there any solitary apes besides orangutans? Our closest relations seem to be the bonobos.

Thought experiment: Emily Dickinson as a bonobo.

John Guzlowski said...

Stephen, thanks for your comment.

Your story reminds me of my good friend Bill Anderson. He was a solitary person also, spent his life reading philosophy and thinking and traveling alone.

He found pleasure in that life but he needed a tavern too, someplace he could go and sit and listen to people talking to each other.

Sometimes they would talk to him.

He liked that.

John Guzlowski said...

Joe, my primatology -- as Linda likes to remind me -- is a lot like my sense of history: 90% misremembered and 10% fantasy.

The only thing I know about primates is what I've learned from reading William Burroughs.

Anonymous said...

As long as I can remember I've always sought solitude. When I lived in Chicago I walked the empty winter beaches, trekked to the suburbs on the railroad tracks, and explored the forest preserves at night when they were closed. I mostly did these things alone but sometimes I would take a friend who I thought might be able to keep still.

Now I live in a rural part of the second least populated state in this country. I am often alone outdoors for hours at a time and I have yet to tire of it. Solitude is replenishing and comfortable to me.

I rarely feel lonely. When I do, I am nearly always around groups of other people. At such times I will find myself staring out the window at the horizon and soon I'll go outside to explore and be by myself.

Solitude and loneliness are not at all the same thing.

John Guzlowski said...

My daughter Lillian just reminded me that my day-to-day solitude isn't as complete as I suggested.

I am in fact in frequent contact with everyday via cell phone, and each call is a pleasure!

Geo-B said...

You know, this blog comes at a funny time for me: as I grew up we lived in a great number of places and were always moving. As I've pursued jobs, I moved around a bit, and I also married and had a family late, in my 40s. I was wondering why of all places, my thoughts most often go back to graduate school when I lived a distance from campus in a little house by myself and could write and read and stay up for 24 hours or sleep for 24 hours without anyone noticing. Now I'm 59 with a teen ager and an next-year teenager, the phone rings every ten minutes and everything gets noticed.
As I was driving last week, I concluded that I often think back to that time because I had the time to gather my thoughts, coalesce my personality. Maybe that time is a base that I draw on, a great quiet that I had the opportunity to take advantage of.
I remember that if I had to write a paper or solve some problem, I would walk to my house which was some distance and look at the trees and flowers and stone walls and when I would arrive home, the answer would pop into my head without my consciously thinking of it.

I live 50 miles from my present job and have to travel over many congested highways. So that could be 3 hours in the car which used to be contemplation. The job requires that I be available by cellphone. It used to be that that time in the car I was gloriously unavailable.

Manfred said...

"I had the time to gather my thoughts, coalesce my personality." That's what I miss. The time to let my thoughts sort themselves out and good ideas rise to the surface. Now I'm forced to talk on the phone for hours every day about crap I care nothing about. I miss being able to think and read and let my mind wander.

When I worked at a clothing store, I sometimes had to spend hours untangling bras and other ladies undergarments--what a nightmare. I would daydream about reading Ibsen's complete works, a kind of winter dream of escape. When I left the store, I would forget all about Ibsen.

Manfred said...

On Pain

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses
your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its
heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem
less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted the seasons that
pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the
winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.

It is the bitter potion by which the physician within
you heals your sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy
in silence and tranquillity:

For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by
the tender hand of the Unseen,

And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has
been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has
moistened with His own sacred tears.

Khalil Gibran

Marty said...

Interesting post, John. Solitude has been impressed upon me lately against my will. Sometimes it doesn't matter how many people are around. Sometimes the loneliest place is in the middle of a large crowd. True, loneliness isn't exactly solitude. Perhaps true solitude only comes when you stop looking up from the cave or the tree for anyone else happening by. It is the wind again. Welcome.

Geo-B said...

Well, manfred added the poem about pain from Kahil Gibran. When John wrote that someone should write a book about solitude, I thought of this intriguing encompassing book I recently read about pain, by a famous 19th century French novelist living through paralysing pain who took notes, thinking that he might write a novel about it: In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet, translated by Julian Barnes. It's a gem of a book, at the same time an insight into contemporary novelist Barnes, who thought he should bring this to contemporary readers.
It's a defining trait of humans, to turn abject tragedy, crushing depression, and loss of hope into redeeming art.

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks, everybody, for writing about solitude.

I've been thinking about solitude a lot, maybe because I'm retired and spend a lot of my time by myself. But I never realized that so many people are thinking about solitude.

It makes me feel hopeful.

Manfred said...

I read a proverb today that "The best medicines have a bitter taste."Sometimes the best things for us are those we enjoy least.

The Accidental Existentialist said...

Once again, I am amazed. And I agree with sara who said, "...but I wonder what happened to inspire it..."

And what happens when you struggle, in vain, to find a balance between solitude and pressure?

The Accidental Existentialist said...

And John...I think it odd or interesting or ironic or kismet that I come, intermittently, to your blog, (as I do many things in my life) and your posts seem to speak so directly to me.

Only today was I setting out the ground rules for what I hope will be a monastic year of reflection, study and a change in my consciousness. I have always been the individual that craves and requires human interaction. Unnaturally so. I am a social animal. So, my challenge over the next year is to seclude myself from my distractions. A solitude of choice. But also of necessity.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Accidental Existentialist,

Reading your recent posts here, I got to thinking about something my favorite existentialist, R D Laing, said. He always felt that the worst damage we could do to ourselves came when we tried to define ourselves as a certain kind of person. When, for example, we tried to make ourselves only a person living in solitude, or only a person living among and for others.

Choosing one path closed us up to the other path.

What he suggested was that we recognize and accept our tendency to be multitudinous. Sometimes we want solitude and sometimes not, and we shouldn't get down on ourselves for being one or the other because eventually, if we are one, we will be the other.

Thoreau, the great American solitudist, finally left Walden because he had other lives to live.

The Accidental Existentialist said...

Always brilliant insight and advice from you, John. I know that I have never been solely among one camp or the other (solitude v. society) and this current exercise will be no different. I will maintain relationships with co-workers, friends, etc. My goal, however, is to work to not fill every waking moment with actions (and inactions) that distract me from myself.

And so, I will shed possessions, ancillary and unhealthy relationships and habits, and commit to finding and celebrating the small and universal joys that this life has to offer.