Abbey of the Hills
I’ve been thinking about solitude lately. And not the forced solitude of Covid-19 quarantine, although it has helped many people to discover or re-discover the benefits of choosing solitude—a slowing down, introspection and self-realization, blooming creativity, and some research suggests more compassion, as we’re forced to distance even from our own small circle of friends and contemplate humanity as a whole.
Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Solitude is a choice, and as long as you can still engage with other humans when you want to, solitude is very healthy. Some researchers even suggest that solitude—away from the buzz and noise of everyday life—is essential for internal exploration and identity development.
It’s true we don’t always like what we find when we turn our gaze inward, and this is probably why so many people are afraid of solitude. But I can’t change it unless I face it. And really, is growth as a human being possible without the self-reflection possible in solitude?
I just turned 64, and for the past several years I’vebeen giving myself a gift each year around my summer birthday—solitude. For many of those years, I’ve gone to various monasteries. I either go with a friend, where we each spend quite a bit of time alone but share meals, occasional walks, and sometimes services with that monastery’s Sisters, or I stay in a hermitage, where I spend several days without seeing another human. Last summer I traveled Ireland alone doing research for a book—more pilgrimage than hermitage.
I did a hermitage again this year, at Abbey of the Hills in northeast South Dakota. It’s a former Benedictine monastery, Blue Cloud Abbey, set in rolling prairie with two tiny hermitage cabins. I’ve been going there since back when the Brothers were still there (they dispersed when vocations dwindled and they couldn’t keep up the Abbey anymore). I’m a writer trying to finish a poetry manuscript I’ve been working on in one way or another for 5-6 years, so the “room of one’s own” was a blessing, and I mostly finished. But also, I’m a Type A hyper-responsible overachiever who just needs an occasional reboot.
The first day of my annual “away” is always a frazzle of travel, hauling, unpacking, and getting oriented. After that, solitude makes a few miraculous things happen:
(1) There’s a sense of release. Muscles let go. My shoulders drop. I sigh a lot.
(2) I give myself permission to do nothing. I let go of my usual daily duties and take full responsibility only for me. The day I arrived at the Abbey this year, I dropped my baggage inside the cabin door, then I spent at least an HOUR watching storm clouds build over a pond.
(3) Or, I give myself permission to work without interruption.
(4) I re-center, re-align, re-examine, and remember my priorities.
(5) I connect again with Earth. I watch, listen, walk and really feel every step. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “With every step, the earth blooms,” and yep, I do that. This year I saw a marmot, deer, a beaver, and a kingfisher (my totem bird). I heard cows, a dog, scrub jays, something scratching under the cabin, and something, uh, softly “bugling” (that’s the best I can do for this sound I’ve never heard before) outside my open window at night.
(5) I take care of myself and pay attention to my body. I eat when I’m hungry. I go to bed when I’m tired. I wake up when I wake up.
(5) I heal. If I feel like crying for two hours about all the people who’ve died from Covid and their unrealized potential, or John Lewis’ passing and why in the name of all that is holy we still need a Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, I do. If I need to acknowledge and vent my deep deep deep really really very deep dislike of Trump, I do. If I need to eat carbs, I do. If I need to play my ukulele and sing up a storm, even though my stroke-y left vocal cord is barely moving right now, I do. If I need to pray to the Universe or Mother Earth or Saint Mary Magdalene or All That Is Sacred, I do.
I’m so incredibly grateful—and aware of my privilege—to be able to do this. I have a family who understands and supports my need for solitude, and they help me make it happen. I can afford to rent a monastery room or hermitage for a few days. I teach, so I can find time to go, either by choosing not to teach during the summer, or by teaching summer classes online. I would do whatever I could to help someone else “away” too, if they wanted. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to start. I wonder how my parenting, my younger career path, and even my place in community would have been different if I had started this in my 30’s? I’ll contemplate that next “away”…