Solitude: My space is still my space, and Solitude is my religion
Several years ago, during one of my classic explosions over the invasion of my personal space, I was accused of being “a whirlwind of contradictions”. I cannot deny that there is a great deal of truth to this accusation. Any casual consideration of the dichotomy that is my life would result in an overall contradictory perception, and rightly so. At times I have even struggled to understand it myself, and it is a profound paradox that may very well have had its beginnings in my Southern girlhood.
I grew up in a large, loving extended family in which I was the emotional vortex among unemotional and detached adults and siblings. The constant efforts to get me to adhere to the “children should be seen and not heard” doctrine led to numerous episodes of forced isolation, which was anathema to most children, but which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I quickly came to the realization that for me, being alone was preferable. And therein lies the paradox.
On the one hand, I enjoy social interaction and human contact, and I am absolutely fascinated with human beings and the emotional mechanisms that drive the human psyche. Yet there is another inherent and vital part of me that harbors a desperate need for privacy, causing me to withdraw at times, into a cocoon of insularity and yearn for Solitude. My own inviolable space.
I have been blessed with exceptional children and grandchildren whom I adore and enjoy spending time with; family members and good friends whom I cannot imagine life without; and for the past 15 years, the love, devotion and support of a truly good man, now husband, for whom my every wish or need is his command. And yet…My space is still my space, and Solitude is my religion.
Having been raised Catholic and educated by nuns, for the most part, I have to admit to a slight amount of hesitancy in proclaiming Solitude a religion. The mere use of the phrase will beg questions and accusations from the faithful and trigger memories of ruler-wielding teachers. Obviously, I am not that far removed from images implanted in my head in childhood of Purgatory and Limbo and all that awaited the unfortunate souls in those dark, ominous waiting rooms. As an adult, however, I know with absolute certainty that for me, Solitude is as much a religion as is my Catholic faith, which I still practice on my own terms.
Some may find the term “the religion of Solitude” quite unacceptable, but I interpret the phrase differently for this reason. I believe I was born with an inherent disposition toward being alone. As a child, I most enjoyed and spent a great deal of time alone, perfectly satisfied with my own company, entertaining myself, keenly observing life, and experimenting with words. Then when I was about 7, I learned that I share a birthday with Emily Dickinson, and that set into motion a lifelong fascination with the famously reclusive 19th Century poet and the writing process. I was completely taken with “The Belle of Amherst”, “The Mad Woman in the Attic”, and fascinated by her unusual life of self-imposed social seclusion. Most people thought of her as strange and peculiar. I related to her completely and understood her desire for isolation. She expressed her need for Solitude in this poem:
There Is A Solitude Of Space
There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –
~ Emily Dickinson
Other writers and creators have also waxed poetic on the desire and necessity for Solitude, privacy and personal space as well:
Henry David Thoreau: “I have never found a companion so companionable as solitude.”
Aldous Huxley: “The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”
Voltaire: “The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude.”
Rainer Maria Rilke: “I am alone in the world, and yet not alone enough to make every hour holy.”
Thomas A. Edison: “The best thinking has been done in solitude.”
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe: “A creation of importance can only be produced when its author isolates himself, it is a child of solitude.”
Over the years, the expressions on the subject that spoke to my own life situation were those of women writers whose struggles for alone-time and creative Solitude mirrored my own. Sadly, many of them experienced creative atrophy, their voices silenced and literature lost through familial obligations and social circumstances.
Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own:
“A woman must have money and a room of her own in order to write fiction.”
In her 1978 classic, Silences, Tillie Olsen exposed the many ways the creative spirit can be silenced when she wrote in the dedication:
“For our silenced people, century after century their beings consumed in the hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made — as their other contributions — anonymous; refused respect; recognition lost.”
The visual component of these women writers’ words lends an additional element of truth to the concept of creative Solitude. Blissful, creative Solitude. My space.
Before the explosion of the social network led to the arbitrary bending of age-old lexical rules by re-classifying the noun “friend” as a verb, an equally disturbing assault on our sensibilities had already taken place. Seemingly overnight, the phrase “my space” became the Internet version of your neighborhood Starbucks and old friends were finding each other and reconnecting with their forgotten past. Altering the meaning of the two-word phrase for generations to come. Shortly thereafter, Facebook invaded the populous and millions of total strangers began “friending” and “liking” one another with ever-increasing voracity.
I will admit here that I am still not feeling the need to share every detail of my daily activities with millions of stranger-“friends”s via cyberspace. And at the risk of being perceived as a behind the times language purist, I am also not willing to give up on the true meaning of the previously meaningful phrase: My Space.
My Space used to mean privacy. My own personal space. My own private domain. And there was a time when it was actually considered bad form or a personal affront for someone to “invade my space”. Those were the good old days.
The Internet is evolving so rapidly that it’s increasingly difficult to keep up with trends. Mention “My Space” to any Gen-Xer/Technocrat/Twitter Follower/ Facebook friend, and the likely response will be: “That was that old social networking website that hardly anyone uses anymore.” A sign of the times to be sure. But as for me, I prefer to hold on to the true meaning of the phrase and will continue to do so, because my space is still my space, and Solitude is my religion.
As a writer, it’s hard not to view the quest for Solitude through the prism of gender. For the male writer, it’s simply a matter of choice. For females who are frequently multi-tasking and distracted by myriad responsibilities, the serenity of Solitude is often just a fantasy.
The Genuine Necessity of Solitude for Writers
Historically, women have been characterized by a patriarchal society as the gender defined by relationships. From childhood to old age, in our assigned roles as daughters, wives, mothers, nurturers, primary caregivers, lovers, and more increasingly in recent years, breadwinners, our identities have always been multi-layered. If one is fortunate enough to count somewhere in this juggling act, a reasonably suited and simpatico companion, then lucky stars must be tallied and counted. But even so, realistically such a relationship can become encumbering and intrusive, and previous periods of support and understanding can eventually morph into one-sided resentment.
Even though I have enjoyed and sometimes reveled in the comfort and sensuality of male companionship from time to time, the shelf-life time frame of these relationships has dwindled ever increasingly over the years. I’ve always been aware of my constantly ticking inner emotional clock and the inevitable limits of my attention span. Understandably, this has been tremendously unsettling for men in my life and often has led to unintended hurt and resentment and separation, and what novelist Ursula LeGuin refers to as “The Grudge”, when she wrote:
“A woman who tries to work against that grudge finds the blessing turned into a curse; she must rebel and go it alone, or fall silent in despair.”
And as Tillie Olsen put it:
“She would never exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.”