Solitude: A Reprieve from the Noise of Doing

Monday, March 28, 2016 - 5:28pm

Solitude: A Reprieve from the Noise of Doing

“Solitude is the soul’s holiday, an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead.”

There comes a moment.

You love your life and the precious people in it. Yet, suddenly, the very intimacy you cherish feels like a burden you can no longer carry. You want to see yourself as a person who is competent and sturdy and kind. But today you are able to be none of these things.

You can’t plan one more meal or push the cart through the frigid produce aisles one more time or carry one more bag of groceries in from the car. You can’t cook another balanced dinner or sit at the table and have one more meaningful conversation. You can’t anticipate or meet one more need or set one more thing to rights.

You want to sleep alone in a narrow, clean bed and wake up in silence and let things go their own way. You want to take a vacation from worrying and fretting and fixing. You want to have breakfast at ten and skip lunch and eat salad from the serving bowl for dinner, with your book propped in front of you. You want to take a walk at your own pace, slowly. You long for a conversation in which the only one you have to listen to is the small quiet voice inside, the voice that speaks without words.

You imagine what a relief it would be to spend a whole day without talking. Without cleaning or washing or weeding or folding anything. Without makeup, without good cheer, without a to-do list, without getting in the car, without reaching for your wallet or your phone or the dog leash or the sponge.

You wonder if anyone else hits this wall. The wall of too much. The hard, unforgiving place of feeling crowded and tired and overwhelmed. Of knowing you simply cannot accomplish all that needs to be done, or make good on all the promises you’ve made to others. Or live up to the expectations you’ve set for yourself.

You find yourself imagining solitude, craving it. The dark quiet cave of aloneness beckons.

And you think about where you might go, just for a little while, to privately fall apart and put yourself back together again, without causing anyone you love too much fuss or inconvenience. You email a friend who has a cabin on a country road, the place you went once before to grieve the loss of a friend, and to write the first, halting chapter of a book you weren’t sure you’d be able to finish. Yes, she responds moments later. Yes. Go.

You tell your husband, who knows better than anyone how frayed and fragile you are. Who worried when you burst into tears after breakfast for no reason, but whose hugs and rational words of advice just made you cry harder. Go, he says. I hope it’s what you need.

You undo some plans, cancel this and that, make a pot of soup to leave behind, water the houseplants, throw some things in a bag and drive. At the market you’ve never been to before, the items in your green plastic basket tell the story: cherries, an avocado, yogurt, kale, raspberries, blueberries, and M&Ms. The food choices of a person who is not intending to feed anyone else.

You arrive at dusk in a downpour and lug your things up the twisty path. The cabin door is sticky but unlocked, like a magic place in a fairy tale. Everything you brought with you is soaked but it doesn’t matter. The rain has washed away some outer layer you were ready to shed anyway. Arriving drenched, with your hair plastered to your head and your feet squishing in your sandals, feels like a beginning. Already you are inhabiting your body in a different way — curious and raw, defenseless, hopeful.

Inside, the damp, musky scent of old wood, old seasons, summers past, gives rise to sharp childhood memories: a cabin rented long ago, the familiar textures of leisurely afternoons spent reading and dozing under old quilts while waves lapped a nearby shore. Solitude has always been your home territory. A daddy long legs skitters across the floor. The rain pounds the roof. You open windows, put clothes on a shelf, line up your wet shoes. As darkness falls you feel lighter. Peaceful. Better.

In the morning, without any sort of plan, you walk up the road, going nowhere. Focus on today, you remind yourself. All is well, you say, to no one. And it is. With every step you are clearing a space, coming closer to a self you almost forgot you knew. The good news is, that self hasn’t abandoned you. She has been here all along, waiting patiently for you to turn away from all your busy comings and goings, to recognize her, greet her, and welcome her home.

The sun is shining and you are sweating and your legs are moving. You listen to the sounds of a summer day. Kids playing soccer at the boys’ camp on the lake. The encouraging shouts of counselors and the wild ruckus of competition. Further on, from a shed in a field: the sounds of an orchestra tuning up for rehearsal. A solo flute traveling up and down the scales. The breeze rustling leaves in the dense canopy of maples overhead. A lawnmower churning back and forth across a expanse of green. The drone of bees in a jumbled roadside garden, colorful as a piñata. Everything has its wonders. You are here to pay attention.

Alone, your life begins to feel like a choice again. You find yourself drawn into harmony with the sweet, easy flow of the day, unfolding according to its own rhythm. Slowly, something that was stuck deep inside begins to move. You ride the gentle currents of sadness, regret, joy, longing, acceptance. Surprised by tears, you lift your face to the sky and allow the sun to dry them.

There is the necessary, satisfying work of serving others in all the places where you are loved and needed. But there is also this: the soul’s work, which you ignore at your peril. And so, for today, anyway, you commit yourself to it fully: The journey inward to find your own truth. The stillness of your mind behind the noise of your doing. The willingness to see the beauty inside yourself, and to honor that. You are a little rusty and awkward in your quest. The privilege of solitude is also a skill that requires practice.

At the far end of a field, a granite bench awaits under the shade of a tree. The words “Sit a while” are in engraved across the top. You do. And you take in the view, the gentle, slumbering hills, the drifting veil of clouds. This, too, is a kind of compassion — resting, listening, waiting in the silence of your heart to feel the next step. There is a new energy moving in you. A reverence. You can do this. You can dive down, naked, into the sacred quiet. You can learn to be at ease here. To be grateful for these hidden treasures. In this secret, spacious place, you remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build.

In a little while, you will walk the long road back. You will return home tomorrow a little different, still holding the hand of your wilder self, having touched for just a moment your own infinity.

The grace of God means something like:
Here is your life.
You might never have been, but you are,
because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.
Here is the world.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don’t be afraid.
I am with you.

— Frederick Buechner


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Katrina Kenison

has explored the seasons of a woman’s life in three memoirs, most recently Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment. She celebrates the gift of ordinary days at her blog

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Katrina, thank you for such a beautiful essay on the beauty of solitude, going within and finding yourself. Peace & blessings!

Beautifully written once again!

I have been feeling this so acutely...couldn't put my finger on what exactly, but you nailed it...the need for solitude and time for just my own thoughts, my own needs, my own wishes. In fact, whenever I feel this I usually read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's A Gift of the Sea -- a solitude moment lived vicariously through her words. But, in fact, the actual going away and making the space, well after your words it's just obvious now isn't it? Putting it on my must-do list...will find a way...thank you. Thank you for your words, your vision, your grace...but mostly thank you for your timing.

Tender hearted and beautifully written Katrina. xx

Love this article. Kennison has touched a place in me I didn't think anyone else knew about. Oh for the solitude she writes of.
As Brer Rabbit my say, throw me in that briar patch.

I was drawn into this essay, drawn in and along and through. I was not sure I wanted to come out the other end. I recognize my own daily quest and insistence on these very moments where I can be my own best friend. Thank you for an exquisite piece of writing.

I know this place....thank for giving words to an ache that I know. Beautiful. True and so affirming.

Exactly how I feel many times as I drive the hour to the coast and my apartment by the sea. Her salt water heals me and brings me back to my Self. Thank you for putting my thoughts into words.

Oh yes. Yes. Beautifully said, dear Katrina.

This is so, so lovely, and so, so true. I read it with tears pricking my eyes because I suspect I need an interval like this one. xox

I, too, found this essay tender and touching and wise. But we all bring something different to our reading. Now in my late 60s and being alone day after day, having passed through those years when I was too busy to breathe and wanted only to be left alone, I've found that solitude can be just as much an enemy as busyness. Here, in my world, it's not so much grappling with the never-ending list of things that need to be done as it is grappling with the fact that very little needs to be done, with nothing seeming consequential. The seasons of our lives all have something powerful to teach us. Living now with my adult son who has had schizophrenia since college and who sleeps most of the day because of the medications he takes, I have too much time to think about the regrets of the past and worries of the future. But we arrive at the same place, which is making peace with ourselves, our choices, the "beautiful and terrible things" Frederick Buechner speaks of, When the terrible things are too much to bear, I have to dig down deeper and find those beautiful things to keep going.

Thank you so much for your post Nancy. I have one daughter who lives 3 thousand miles away. Aside from our difference in children, and my living alone, I identify with every word you wrote. Every life has its challenges. The greener grass on the other side isn't.

Your insight of life stages was thought provoking. I wonder what the next stage will feel like. I just had the thought that although I sometimes crave solitude for all the reasons Katrina expresses so articulately, I wonder what it is like to crave fellowship and meaningful work. What I take away from both thoughtful insights is we must always work on contentment, stillness and deep meaningful relationships. There is no magic stage of life ... Thank you for your thoughts. You have added your voice to my own story.

I'm in my late 60s, Nancy. (Also, I had an adult child with Schizophrenia, but about 16 years ago, after 14 years of bravely trying to cope with her illness, she decided not to continue with life.) And I understand how you feel. However, after a few years of too much solitude (fortunately and unfortunately, I was able to retire in my late 50s), I decided to find a balance for me. I now attend a church, which is very much into social justice and which also has a very active group for us older ones. I volunteer for the local Assistance League (it's only 2-4 hours a week). I volunteer at the local community college's ESL program (aside from the 2 hours of commitment to an assigned student, I can volunteer more hours any time I want to, Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. - 9 p.m. And I am considering going back to college next fall to take a beginning Spanish course. I do not drive on Fridays, and I try not to drive on Saturdays, if at all possible (and it usually is possible not to do so), and so, two days a week in a row, I am home alone with my cat (Fridays and Saturdays I clean house and do laundry). And most other days of the week, I am home by 2-3 p.m. I read, watch Netflix, knit hats and scarves for the homeless, and make all my meals from scratch. It's perfect for me -- possibly not for you, but I hope I've given you some ideas.

There is an external solitude, and there is an inward solitude.

The inward solitude is available all the time. Cultivate it and there's no need to retreat from the world.

I consider the Jewish Sabbath to have the seeds of such solitude.

About two years ago, I took up fishing (spin, then learned to fly fish) and it has been such a blessing. If I were to try to find solitude at home, it would likely never happen - if no one else distracted me, I'd find ways to do it to myself. Being out on the water, catching or not, has been such a gift - I've had chances to see so many new places, explore myself and the world, and sometimes (in a great while) I have a good day on the water and for a few, brief minutes, come close to one of nature's most resilient beings. This was a wonderful read for a Monday am.

Katrina's essay is lovely and brings into stark contrast my own experience of being at the other end of the spectrum ... living alone in retirement, with friends who still work or live far away. Almost every day is a solitude and a choice of whatever it is I want to do. I do volunteer and do myriad other things trying to find my "necessary and satisfying work of serving others where [I am] loved and needed". For some it is a given and how fortunate you are to have the opportunity to find moments of solitude. I guess we all want what we don't have, or at least a little bit of everything.

Gayle, I understand exactly what you mean. We can have too much solitude, which is just as challenging in its own way as having too little. For every time I once said to myself, "I just want to be left alone," I now look around and wish that I'm not so alone. It's difficult to find the right balance, and I have no trouble admitting that I'm lonely. Being an introvert, I don't find it easy to just go somewhere by myself because I've learned that I can be even lonelier in a crowd. My dearest friends live far away, and my other two grown children are too busy to stay in touch with me and their brother. My sister and best friend is nearly 1000 miles away, and we have only email to stay in touch. I do have a lovely church family, but they all have families of their own. I wish you well.

Nancy, I think I understand where you are, have been in a similar place, and know that changing circumstances can make it hard to stay in balance. I hope you can find a creative outlet to help you make new meaning of your time holding place for your son. It is hard to keep one's self open as an introvert and without close family, but there are people, or animals, or things which can help support you. I wish you well.

Thank you Nancy for your words of deep understanding. Being lonely is a very particular pain, and while most likely epidemic in our society, invisible. Instead it gets identified and labeled as other things, if it gets identified or mis-identified at all. I can see it is part and parcel of the everyday structure of our American society, so while lonely, I don't think I'm alone in a personal-to-me inadequacy. I can admit to myself that I'm lonely and even sometimes say it out loud, though saying it out loud never seems to make any difference except for the receipt of a momentary nod, followed by a moment of discomfort, because then I have made some one feel guilty which is not what I want to do. I believe that most people are made uncomfortable hearing a person say she feels depressed or lonely. They want to fix you, but don't know how. Unsolicited advice or else an awkward moment of silence usually is the result. No fun for anyone. I am a mixed introvert and extrovert. I have started several groups -- 3 women's groups and one mixed -- because I know there are others like me. The groups are good and my Tuesday evenings are taken up with them. But Tuesday evenings do not a connected life make. Anyway, I am pro-active as I can possibly be (in several ways I won't go into here), and still trying to work my way toward some deeper understanding/acceptance/ability to live the life I have with more equanimity. Equanimity comes and goes. At the moment it feels gone. Maybe after breakfast it will return. I wish you well too Nancy.

In the ever-increasing clamor and crush of modern life, solitude is an absolute necessity. This lovely essay is mini-retreat -a gentle reminder that in stillness, we can rediscover our sense of equilibrium. How I love the concept of reaching out to touch an infinity of my own... Thank you, Katrina.

I guess if tears roll down my cheeks as I read this, that means your words turned a certain key within me?
The grocery list, the memories in the cabin, the voice that says, “Don’t be afraid, I am with you?”
All these things assure me that the friend who forwarded me this post, like your words, are evidence that
this time is well spent, reading, reflecting, being.
xoThank you Katrina, S

AM going down this road in a couple of weeks. I am checking out for a month. Just me, my motorcycle, some music I love, a journal, the open road and want to see only two things while I am out on the road...other than that...whatever happens, happens.
Wylde Soul Photographer-Miriam in the real world...

This was timely & affirming; thank you! I'm trying to introduce a little more of the quiet reprieve of solitude into my own life.....

Beautifully written, as always. Again, touching a piece of me with those needs and wants, usually too fearful to react or respond.
Thank you for providing the "instructions for care."

So lovely to find Katrina here in one of my favorite places! This is such a touching, thoughtful piece and I often feel the weight of the "wall of too much" and know that solitude and silence are the only way to recalibrate. Giving myself this gift often feels impossible but so truly necessary. Thank you for the gorgeous reminder, Katrina!

With deep practice to sustain us and exquisite essays like this to remind us we can live fully in this world, experience the beautiful things, the terrible things, the ten thousand things with wonder, openness and a profound sense of the sacred journey that is human life. Thank you for this, Katrina.

Katrina, your word transported me to the times I've taken like these, each so vivid -- and touched on the longing I carry, always, for this kind of rest and solitude. The rhythm and restoration of it.
With gratitude.

Lovely, lovely. I tend to have more than a touch of the hedonist in me. I practice self-care (and a bit of self-indulgence), necessary due to some health issues, but also necessary to maintain my spirit as well as my body. I'm fortunate that I have only myself and my precious dog Lulu to care for. Saturday afternoon naps are practiced fairly regularly. Wandering walks in the park, too, listening, seeing, hearing, feeling. In the summer, I carve out an hour to just lie outside in the sun, with Lulu snoozing nearby. I feel the ocean breeze caressing my skin, the sun's warmth relaxing me. Time alone is vital and valuable. When I pray, I speak to the Divine; when I meditate, I can hear the answers.

so beautifully written Katrina. Thank you for sharing it.

What a beautiful expression of the desire to find space and time to simply 'be'!
You have put my dream of temporary solitude into words. I shared your article on my Facebook page GLOWheartmindandsoul, as it so perfectly illustrates the message I was sharing this morning ... such serendipity to read your article today. Thank you!

Yes! Amen.

I needed to read this today. So thankful for the words of Katrina Kenison, who has a way of making images and feelings come alive. My favorite is the grocery bag full of items that reveal she is cooking for no one else...wonderful.

"The privilege of solitude is also a skill that requires practice." So true.
Worth the time it takes and the initial discomfort. But then the healing comes with the privacy of solitude.

This is depressing. This is such a natural part of our being but humans can't take the time to embrace it.

I know this place. Thanks for reminding me I can go back there !!!

Soaking in this. Soaking it in. In tears.

You captured my sentiments exactly. People wonder why I like to be alone, yet it is a need that requires nurturing or I I am afraid I would lose my soul. Thank you!


Absolutely spot on. I crave a break like this, too. Beautifully written essay.

This piece of writing brought tears to my eyes. It is such a piece of permission; how even after two years of mourning the death of my husband, I can still take more time to just be. How two weeks alone at a family cabin is not too much. How a month is not too much. And how, perhaps that book will get written some day.

Not everyone can "go away and rest awhile" as described in this essay. However, everyone can use their daily visits to the bathroom
as a mini-shrine in which to indulge in mindfulness and quietude-- a few minutes at a time.

A beautiful reflection from a gifted writer. Robert Frost come to mind:

Into My Own

ONE of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

It is beautiful written and it sounds lovely, but for many people, if not most people, it's simply not possible. When my children were growing up, I was married, worked 40+ hours a week, went to college PT (not every semester), was very involved in my (three) children's schools and after-school sports (both I and my ex), and also (somehow -- I don't know how I did it) socialized with friends almost every Friday and/or Saturday night for 10-11 years. And since many people, if not most people, don't have a friend with a free-of-charge cabin, we can't afford to get away for a few days, even if we had the time. What I could do -- and I was very fortunate that I could -- was take a day or two off from work, when I really needed to, and after the children went to school and before they came home, I slept and read or spent the day down at the beach, sleeping and reading.

amen to all of this, and most especially to that deep-down place inside of all of us -- or most of us, i hope and pray -- that refuses to curl up and wither away, even when the weight of the world is feeling impossible. that deep-down place that puts voice to the question, "might i come to your sacred place? might i find shelter for my soul?" and then goes and does just that, finding the place and possibility to begin to breathe again, and to discover that the essence of who we are is quietly and always tucked inside. and that a little bit of solitude, of quietude, of unbroken hours in conversation with our soul just might vivify our hope, and lure us back into the melee once again. knowing, always knowing, that the peace within cannot be squelched. thank you, katrina, for reminding us that we are a tribe of kindred spirits, scattered across the landscape, yes, but all joined by tendrils of the heart.

It was as though I was reading about myself…how insightful

"Alone, your life feels like a choice again." Thank you for this Katrina.

Thank you for this amazing essay that truly captured where I am sometimes when I want to run away from life.
Brightest blessings to you

That was lyrical, Katrina, Thank you for sharing! Your piece reminds me to slow down & take a break when I feel like hibernating. It will do much more good than just pushing through it every single time.


"But there is also this: the soul’s work, which you ignore at your peril."

In motherhood, we ignore the need for solitude - such a significant part of the soul's work - by necessity. And yet it is the time of raising children when we, and they, would benefit from it most.

Another wonderful essay from OnBeing.

I will say it again - OnBeing is capable of changing the world.


Precious! Thank you. It really go into my heart.

Thank you so much for these words of wisdom. It was exactly what I needed to read today, as I was feeling all these feelings.
I'm not the only one...
With gratitude,