Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “I went to woods because I wanted to live deliberately… to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” After returning from my own time of solitude in the woods, I think Thoreau could afford to tap the breaks a bit.
In an overarching sense, the trip was exactly what I asked for. This is what I wanted — a quiet place, free from chaos and distraction. I hoped for a beautiful and inspired setting. And that’s exactly what I found in that secluded mountain cabin outside of Asheville, North Carolina — a place known for great food, a thriving live music scene, and miles upon miles of natural outdoor playground.
I had plenty of wonderful experiences. I hiked trails. I sampled the local fare. Swam in pools at the feet of waterfalls. I slid on a 60 ft. inclined rock into a frigid bath of water. I took a kayak down the French Broad River. I sang along at the concert of a gifted songwriter. I drove a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most scenic drives in America. I did all this and more. But I did each of these things alone.
And it was this aloneness that I found so unnerving. The feeling caught me off guard. After all, I’m accustomed to time alone. It’s not unusual for me to spend an entire day away from other people – lost in the process of pondering and planning, studying and writing.
But what I realized was that my typical brand of solitude operates on a welcomed leash to keep me close to the folks I know and love. With the tether untied, I never quite felt settled.
Maybe that’s how it would be for anyone. Most of us see familiar people each day — family, friends, and coworkers. Even those who live alone or work from home still have a rotation of familiar faces. Our neighbors. The mail carrier. A barista or bartender who knows our order by heart. Without those faces I felt a bit lost.
Interestingly enough, I began a pattern of making a 45 minute round trip to eat my evening meal at the same restaurant each night. It would have been much easier just to prepare something simple in the kitchen of the house I rented. But I didn’t go into town because the food was that much better. I was driven by the odd hope that someone there might have a faint recollection that I existed, that I belonged to the great collective human enterprise.
As I leave this place and return home, I take the confirmation of two truths with me. The first is that I really do belong to others. We all do. No one lives as an island. And I’m grateful that our lives were meant for the often chaotic, but infinitely valuable, web of relationships around us.
The other confirmation I take with me is that the solitude has something significant to say… if we are willing to listen. I wasn’t always willing. On my first day, I sent a text message to a group of friends, half-joking about all the ways I might have to distract myself from the crouching silence. One of my buddies replied, “Two weeks may not be enough time.” I knew immediately that his comment was no joke.
The mind is a master of distraction. It will do just about anything to avoid the life lurking beneath the noise and clutter of our daily commute. But each and every time my mind made a case for cutting the trip short, there was always another call, almost a whisper, reminding me that I needed to do this.
In my experience… and this is just one person’s experience… you must remain in the silence long enough to hear what’s really there. To ask a few unavoidable questions of your own heart. To pray a few prayers that you’ve been too polite to utter. I’m not so sure the clock on actual “retreat” even starts until you’ve passed this point.
The solitude makes us wrestle with who we are. It pulls back the illusions we’ve worked so hard to maintain, leading us by the hand through every chamber of the heart. What we discover on that journey is a sacred heirloom – one we carry with us when we return to wherever it is that we call home.
Maybe, as my friend suggested, two weeks wasn’t enough time. Perhaps I was just starting to make some fascinating discoveries. Maybe, with more time, I would have driven down the mountain with a veil guarding my brightly illumined countenance. Or maybe I would have just driven myself mad. I can’t say for sure. But somehow I feel that this time, like every sign of grace, was just enough.