Alone?“You are never alone,” a friend from Australia (Queensland, half way between Brisbane and Cairns) said to me in a comment on a recent Facebook post. I had planned a quiet New Year’s Eve carefully, visiting Trader Joe’s in Kansas City for some really great Creamy Danish Blue Cheese, some Trader Joe’s aged Gouda, marinated Greek olives, a jar of olives stuffed with Blue Cheese, a tin of smoked Herring and a nice Beaujolais. I lit a couple of candles, put on some Renaissance music and settled in for an evening celebrating the coming New Year by myself.
Then my phone pinged. I was excited to see that Tanja, one of my Camino Kids, sent via WhatsApp a silly Happy New Year Cartoon, followed by a selfie of her toasting the New Year with a glass of Prosecco and a “Happy New Year” wish. I sent her a “Happy New Year” reply and attached two pictures. One was a selfie of me toasting with a my glass of Beaujolais and a picture of the opossum that had been eating the birds sunflower seeds on my deck. I was not alone. Two joined me in my celebration, one very lovely and the other not so much (verifying evidence on my Facebook page).
I have found contemplation, mindfulness, to be a helpful tool in dealing with a life that is sometimes out of control. (Is it actually ever in control? I think not.) One of the Monklings in Galway, Ireland, with whom I spent a week last September has recently asked for thoughts about doing contemplation in community and alone. That issue touches a nerve for me since I have spent many years constantly immersed in the lives of others longing for the rare times of solitude and now spend almost all of my time alone.
As a child, I played alone most of the time. My four siblings are all much older than I. I had an affinity for nature, worms and caterpillars, moths and butterflies, tadpoles and water bugs, weeds and wildflowers, puffy cumulus and wispy cirrus clouds, sun and rain and blue sky and wind. At the same time, while during my young years my parents did not socialize with the neighbors on the block, I was not shy about going down the street, getting acquainted, even if it meant knocking on the door and introducing myself. Before Dad broke down and got a television (not until I was eleven), I spent time watching television at a house down the block with an older couple who had a dog with a missing eye (result of chasing cars).
The need for solitude and community seem to be securely bound together in my DNA. That is hardly unusual. While some feel more at home with one or the other, it appears that the human species is wired for both. That is how we have survived and populated the planet.
We were sitting on an outcropping of rocks at about 9000 feet in a remote spot in the Rockies accessed by gravel and dirt roads outside of Woodland Park, Colorado. It was very late on a clear night. The stars were bright. A ribbon of stars clustered together to form the Milky Way. Occasionally, one of the stars, manmade, moved steadily, without wavering, from one horizon to the other. We were mesmerized by the stars. We had spent the day with full responsibility for the activities of about sixty high school age people, seeking to engage them in nurturing activities, deal with the intensity that comes with adolescence, the energy, the quick minds, the silliness, the relationships building and breaking and building again.
We talked quietly for a while, in the dark, hoping to hear no young voices of cabin escapees armed with flashlights coming up the steep hill to break the quiet and steal the darkness from us. Soon we settled into complete silence. It was dark and silent and serene. Each of us, separate from the other, sat in utter solitude, alone. We were alone together. I will never forget that moment, that place. The people sitting near me were college age then. They are now in their fifties. I still feel a bond with them even though the time between face to face encounters can sometimes be measured in years.
My wife Mary Ann was in a terminal battle with Parkinson’s Disease, a battle that lasted almost 24 years. Parkinson’s is not a terminal disease, but a disease that once it comes, stays to the end. My job as the Pastor of a congregation had no boundaries other than ones I set. I remember often taking comfort in the fact that there were only 24 hours in each day, providing one clearly identifiable boundary, firmly fixed. I was technically on call all of those 24 hours in my work, although it was not often that I was called out during the night. In a strange way Mary Ann’s clearly defined needs provided some freedom from the constant work responsibilities. People understood and very many came to our rescue and volunteered hours each week to be a present friend to her while I was working. There were times that I was able to be gone for two nights by myself.
St. Francis of the Woods is out in the country in North Central Oklahoma, on a 500 acre working farm, a place set aside for those seeking solitude and silence and Spiritual renewal. I drove through the expansive prairie in Kansas called the Flint Hills and after five hours of music, shedding all the clutter that had gathered in my mind, I arrived at the cabin. There are many acres of woods with a pathway through some areas, an occasional bench for reflection and reading. I was the only person there other than the Director and a few of those who worked the farm. I saw no other human until the third day. There were birds and deer, an Armadillo so busy nosing around for grubs that he was oblivious to my presence.
I found my way to a small field that was completely surrounded by forest. It was my favorite spot. I set up my three-legged camping stool and sat in silence in a corner of the field, ten or fifteen feet into the forest. Some turkeys wandered by about 50 feet farther into the forest. A Pileated Woodpecker landed on a nearby tree. That species is about 17” tall and looks like a feathered Pterodactyl. I read, I thought, I felt fully present with everything around me, just part of the landscape.
I decided to move out into the open in the center, the highest point of that five or ten acre field. A Turkey Vulture soared from over the woods, so low over my head that I could hear the swishing of its wings. Three of them circled over the field for a few moments before gliding away to find prey that was not so large and mobile as I. I sat on the stool, ate a granola bar and an apple, and poured a bit of coffee into the cap of the thermos. Then I settled again, this time in the sun, to think and meditate and read and become fully present with that place.
I began to think about Mary Ann. Contemplative mode seeks to calm the raging river of thoughts and words that just refuses to stop flowing. The goal is to move deeply into what is most basic to one’s existence, fully human, no frills, nothing to prove or accomplish to have value. At its best, it does not separate and isolate. It is an inward journey and an outward journey at the very same time, allowing the someone who lives under all the layers of busyness to feel secure enough to open him/herself to others. As I sat there, I realized that Mary Ann might wonder why I wanted to go off by myself, away from her. I had never done it before. Turning off the cell phone had been an important part letting go of the busyness. I called her from that hill. We just talked for a bit. Mary Ann hated talking on the phone. She never had been very verbal and the Parkinson’s had made her even less so. I wanted her to know that my need for solitude did not signal a need to be away from her. On the contrary, it drew me closer to her.
Last September, when the fifteen of us rode out to ancient thin places in Ireland, where people for thousands of years had come seeking to engage mystery, to experience Spiritual renewal, we grew into a community. We spent times in silence, sometimes in close proximity to one another, sometimes distant, even out of sight of one another. At times we were alone together. At times we talked and laughed and sang and even danced (sort of) together.
When Tanja messaged me on New Year’s Eve, the bond that had come from walking the Camino together was palpable. We were together (including the opossum). When I spent the time as a child in nature, I was connected to what lay around me there. When on that outcropping that night in Colorado, looking at the stars, we truly were alone together, bound to one another by the darkness and the silence. When I was sitting on that hill in Oklahoma in utter solitude, Mary Ann was as close to me as she would have been were my arms wrapped around her transferring her from sitting on the side of the bed to her wheelchair. Yes, even when people to whom I feel connected respond to a Facebook post, it is an expression of community.
I am wired for solitude and community. I think we all are. Solitude and community are not mutually exclusive but they are woven into the fabric of life. Some of both are necessary to make the fabric strong and beautiful.