The silence of solitude

About twelve years ago I sold my flat, gave away many of my belongings, and embarked on a nomadic life. My conscious aim was to live more lightly on the earth, to go where I was led. It was only in hindsight that I realised that at the root of my journey was a need to move, as the Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen, puts it*, from loneliness to solitude.

My life has been very peopled – with family, friends, and with partners. After a long  marriage, children, and two six-year relationships, I finally understood in my heart, if not in my head, that I needed to accept my aloneness – and learn not only to live alone, but live without the support of a significant other. A recently reclaimed faith had brought me to the still worship of the Quakers; I hoped that allowing myself to be alone with that silence might bring me to a more contemplative life.

And so I advertised for a “hermitage”. It took me initially to an attic flat in Stroud, before a couple of months wandering in the Outer Hebrides, a brief period on a Native American reservation, and five months in a little wooden house by the sea in Dorset. Although I struggled to let go of my attachment, I revelled in the freedom of my new life. Though I continued to seek for other diversions to fill the void, I found periods of serenity and short bursts of joy. Eventually I learned that I had to sit with my yearning and inaction; to go through a boredom threshold, in order to emerge with a sense of timelessness.

In the Outer Hebrides, after a walk on a wild South Uist beach, I wrote in my journal:

Completely alone, a sense of self in the solitude. It is what this trip is about: to find that sense of interior self. A real consciousness of self without that barrier confusingly called self-consciousness which is about worrying how one is perceived. To obtain the former is why I am here, stretching the solitude, what I found in the desert, what I find so hard when living with, or even next door to, anyone. Worry about being heard, interrupting anyone. The joy of liberation at real solitude, paradoxically “losing oneself” as in music or a good book. No interruption of sound or sight, just the natural world and myself in it, part of it. Thank you, God. But, so close to that joy is sadness – part of the same non-duality; also, more mundanely, a yearning for someone to share it.

A year later I found my own hermitage; it’s in the city, and to my surprise I’m still here.

My old central London office is now a flat. I came here over ten years ago, intending my stay to be a short one. But it’s become my own little place. It’s a space of extraordinary quietness, with a precious patch of sky amid the brick walls to the rear, and a womb-like enclosed sitting room, where I can write and be. People-watching has replaced my joy in the natural world. I am an observer, yet part of all I see. I am active, engaged, among people much of the time, but no longer either attached or lonely. Looking back at my journals from ten years ago, I realise how much more settled I am in solitude, no longer  yearning for this or that, though still trying to find a good balance between stimulus and a more contemplative state.

Some years ago, at a session of Quaker Quest, an outreach programme where people can learn about Quakers and share their spiritual paths, small groups were addressing the question “What does the word God mean to me?”. In my group a middle-aged woman shared her experience.

When I was nineteen, I had a stroke. I was in a coma for months. I could hear everything that was going on, but no one knew it. I couldn’t communicate in any way. I felt enclosed in a bubble, and I was so lonely. Then God came into the bubble and sat down next to me.

 The silence that followed her revelation was filled with our wonder and the movement of our hearts. Such a beautiful image. At times of loneliness, it has returned to me as a confirmation of what I found in my wanderings. That we are never alone. In our own bubbles of preoccupation, all we have to do is create a space for God to enter in.

*In Reaching Out. London: Fount paperbacks, 1987

Originally published in Shoreline Conversations, 2015