Tag Archives: solitude

Solitude, aloneness and landscape

I don’t need to be on my own to be lonely. Like many people, some of my loneliest experiences have been in the company of people where I have not felt I belonged.  I’m good at not belonging, and there aren’t that many people in whose company I find solace.

Solitude, on the other hand, has been something I’ve actively sought for much of my life. The peace to sit with my own thoughts, the freedom to be as I am with no reference to anyone else. Not being around people does not always cause me to feel lonely.

One of the things that lockdown clarified for me, is that I experience loneliness most intensely in relation to landscape. I don’t find wild, human-free landscapes lonely though. The kinds of wild landscapes other people might call bleak, barren or lonely, have never struck me that way. Expanses of land and sky give me a feeling of belonging, of being held and acceptable.

I am nothing to a hill. I find that immensely comforting. Skies do not judge. Trees do not want small talk. The landscape has little or no interest in me, but is also accepting of me. The loneliness of not being easy in human spaces is eased for me by being out under the sky. Finding the official guidelines when lockdown began were to only go outside for an hour each day was hell, and plunged me deep into depression. In the end I ignored what I was supposed to do, but walked at night and in the early dawn light so as to pose no risk to anyone else.

The loneliness that comes from being landscape starved is worse than anything I have ever felt about a shortage of people.

There are people I need. People I missed dreadfully when I couldn’t spend time with them in person. I know who they are now, and they know who they are, and some of those relationships have evolved of necessity. People I know it is safe to be emotionally honest with. People whose absence causes me the same kind of distress as not being out under the sky enough. There aren’t many of them.

I find the loneliness of being with people where I don’t belong is far harder to deal with in the short term than not having much contact with people outside my household. Over the long term, the absence of people I care about has been painful, but the absence of people generally has been fine, and in many ways a blessing.


The hermit’s call

In ‘A Branch from the Lightning Tree’, Martin Shaw talks about initiatory journeys into wilderness, and also the importance of bringing that back an integrating it into our village. Similar things are said of contemplation, shamanic journeying, and other voyages ‘out there’. What gives the experience meaning and significance, is how we bring it back and add it to the mix. We travel together, and those who venture off the path on wilder adventures have an obligation to their tribe to come back with that. And perhaps arguably also an obligation to self, to mesh that experience into regular life. If you go off forever, into faerie, into the mists, or the wilderness, then you are lost to your own life, to your old self and to some aspects of your humanity.

Nonetheless, there are those who go, with no intention of returning. It may not be the retreat into wilderness, but into silence, absence, or stillness. A deliberate stepping out of the flow. It may be that life and people are just too difficult, or a feeling of having nothing left to offer the tribe. Even starting with that intention, it may be that time withdrawn makes it possible to see some point in going back, something worthy of offering to the wider world.

When I lived on the boat, I was very much a hermit. I spent a lot of time in silence, I interacted with very few people. Sometimes that felt lonely, but it had the merit of being easier. I’m not very good at relationships with people. I never know what to say or how to say it, I find conversations hard work at the best of times, and there are very few people with whom I am entirely relaxed. I never know what to do with my elbows. Self-conscious and over-thinking, agonising over mistakes made and anxious about the inevitable next one…

Perhaps I best serve the tribe by mostly not being in it. Perhaps I am most use when I retreat into silence and just come back, to carefully held spaces like this one where I can piece my words together slowly and I do not have to worry so much about my elbows.

In contrast though, the contemplative Druid group met this week. It’s a place where it doesn’t seem to matter much if I am clever, or not. All I have to do is show up and sit quietly with others. They do not ask much of me, and are very accepting of my not being very good sometimes. There’s a feeling of safety in that. In not having to be anything.

Part of the problem, as Martin Shaw points out in his book, is that when you come back with the light of some otherworld in your eyes, or the darkness of it… this can be scary. You have stepped outside the tribe. You really don’t belong anymore. You are not easily reintegrated. You are other. Every time I try and step back into normal human interactions, I am coming back, from long dark subterranean journeys, from imaginary voyages, from time with the hills and sky. Of course I do not fit tidily anywhere. Perhaps it is my job not to fit tidily. I do not know.