Retreating, Year 2: the rhythm of solitude

Glenn Falls, NC

This week, my second annual personal retreat, has been one of contemplation and discovery. I discovered it only took me one full day to let go of the need to check for texts and phone calls were consider  opening my email (vast improvement over last year).  By Tuesday morning I (mostly) let go of the outside world. Which was handy because the rain kept me inside with my books and notebooks all day.

I brought a number of books with me this year. I started the trip listening to the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods in the car. After five hours I’d lost count of the number of women he described as “fat “or “stupid “or both. That not being the energy I wanted for this week, I turned it off.

The book I keep coming back to this trip is May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude.  It has been a decade or more since I read it last. The timing is fortuitous. Being alone for four days (not counting travel days) in a row doesn’t come often, this is the second time in my life, last year’s retreat being the first. This year was very different, however. First, I am healthy.  The stomach bug last year inhibited my ability to enjoy my solitude in the beginning.  Second, I was not prepping for a finance committee meeting immediately upon my return (learned my lesson there!).  The end result is that I’ve had for full days with no one in my living space but me and no priorities outside myself. For the first time in my adult life, I found a new rhythm. Thanks to May Sarton, I’m calling at the rhythm of my solitude.

It is a gentle book that sits under my skin with surprising revelations. It is also a very different book for me now. I believe my son had just been born when I read it the first time. Now, married for 15 years with two children (10 & 12), Sarton’s contemplation of the vastly different path for a woman as an artist when she chooses a married or solitary life strikes particular chords. Can one still be an artist and have a family? If so, how?

The frame in which she writes also hits the ear differently today. This journal was written in the early 70s, against the backdrop of Nixon’s presidency and Women’s Lib. Sarton quotes women writing to her saying that they envy her solitude, her space. She quite rightly states that women are not simply seeking a room of one’s own, but time of one’s own. Without time, the room isn’t much good to us…indeed, it mocks us.

When reading Sarton’s book, I can’t help but think of my dear friend Heather. She, like Sarton, is a poet and she, like Sarton, has chosen a solitary life. In the past couple of years, Heather has reinvested herself into her poetry and it is beautiful to watch. Is this renewed artistry a direct outcome of her choice to bring her marriage to a close? Is it the demands of our families/spouses that keep us from our art, or our assumption that they are mutually exclusive?

I am not a poet. I love to write, but as you see here, I can barely get a blog post written more than a couple of times a year. I do subscribe to Seth Godin’s premise that we can all create art at work, regardless of the type of work we do and I see that in my own life. When we are at our best there is an art to the marketing, the budgeting, the inspiring of donors. I love that. I particularly love that at the ASC. My work fulfills me in so many ways, which is why  you will often hear me say this is my last job. Is that enough?

I am happy in my marriage. I love my husband dearly, we’ and we have fun together. I adore the blessing of participating in my children’s lives; I even suspect we will survive puberty which is currently knocking at the door. Is that enough?

Must we always want more? More love, more space, more art, more solitude, more togetherness, more joy, more time, more contemplation?

I appreciate may Sarton’s steadfast, yet gentle, refusal to be the archetype by which others try to define her. The “man on the hill,” as she says. Separate, above it all, detached from passion. How can anyone truly live detached from passion, especially a poet? She created and lived the life that suited her, whether it fit a preconceived model or not.

We’ve come a long way from the assumption that women abdicate their jobs and/or personal drives when they get married. However, I don’t think we’ve solved the puzzle. Perhaps because we keep looking at the same models and trying to tweak them here and there. What would happen if we threw out all our assumptions and each person/group or family looked at their own lives and loves and art and created a model that works for them? Would we end up in the same place? Can we truly throw out our assumptions? It would take putting our personal and communal joy outfront and that is a scary proposition.

What I know is that this week I found a new rhythm. I guess the next step is to see how I can flow back and forth between the rhythms of my relationships and the rhythm of my solitude. I need both; I think we all do.

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