Teri Gross (Fresh Air) interviewed Fenton Johnson about his cover essay in Harper’s Mag “Going it Alone”. Fenton's essay addresses the importance of solitude and what it means to ourselves, our well being, and the sense of self. What we can learn from that? What can we can with do with it?
What struck me was the sense of purpose Fenton found in his solitude as the opposite of loneliness. In his view solitude was a mission, a choice where, it is we can find meaning and purpose within in quiet and stillness.
I wondered if the pull of this idea/way of life is due to the magnetic poles of death and relentless grief that spins like a compass needle. Or am I using this to put order into my reflection on my journey from diagnosis, to treatment to, loss, mourning, and grief. Ultimately to apply what I learn and discover to a better my life? In a way shake my skin loose and morph into a new me? Leverage death and loss to make me whole again? What does this tell me? And how to do I apply it? And what outcomes am I seeking?
Johnson opened the Terry Gross interview with:
Well, it's a question of fate and destiny. I think it's my destiny to live alone and to be alone. I think it is a combination of choice and circumstance, what we're given and what we make of what it is that we are given. At some point, I did make an active choice - a very active choice - to inhabit my aloneness. And that, I think, is probably the most relevant consideration in addressing that question.
He goes on to discuss his partner died during the AIDS epidemic of the early 90’s and how his first thought was that he would go thought a grieving process and find another partner. Yet in his admission he felt drawn to an aloneness in the secular world that he could inhabit so he could do what he wanted with his life. He speaks about the essential solitude that one can express and live. He is not speaking about being a shut in nor a hermit but, one who examines their life with the goal of knowledge. True that.
Johnson said something that made me stop and consider his premiss and read his essay, “grief is probably the most idiosyncratic of emotions”
That fit so well with the piece in the NYT on grieving where the author noted that grief is unique to each of us like finger prints. I wanted to know what was it about my grief specific to me and my journey of loss that would give me new knowledge? Would I come to new realizations? It is less that I listened and read Johnson’s work and thought that is what I want to do but, I was doing that without understanding why, what it offered, and how to do it. Why?
Johnson’s lede in the Harper’s article was from Pascal “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” BOOM! I was hooked like a cheap Ban Lon sweater on a barbed wire fence. One because it felt right, second cuz Donna early on said the same to me when I was itching to go out and party at night, ‘You need to learn to be alone and comfortable with yourself’. Not sure did that well with it back then. Though Donna and I could be together in a car for hours comfortable with ourselves and not needing to yap.
Johnson points out living alone is not unheard of with a quarter of US households having only one resident and that is not limited to just the US. So Johnson sets out to find perspective on that solitary life. In order to set this understanding up, Johnson points out that this is not spinsters and people with threadbare lives but those who ‘dedicate’ their life to being alone. Artist such Whitman, Dickinson Cezanne, Rilke, and Thoreau. For these artists solitude was the driving force in their gifts of art, music, poetry, and more.
He offers a long list of writers and artists who are as he calls them solitaries Siddhartha, Moses on the mountain, Jacob, John baptizing in the waters, Jesus in the wilderness, Magdalen, Bonhoeffer, Cezanne, Hart Crane Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes Henry James Eudora Welty and more. These are stories of solitude that is neither tragic or bad luck but a part of who they are.
Solitude is a way to manage my social media excesses and find contemplation of what is and why. In its simplest form solitude is to find one’s self through reflection. It gives me a touch stone to write and think.
Reflection has been at the center of my world for years. Reflection is a key part of what we do as learners, we integrate our experiences and those experiences of others to make new connections of ideas. We change our consciousness. Johnson makes the point that fate is submission to circumstances of life while destiny is active engagement. Marriages and partnerships do not just happen but require hard work and likewise solitaries consciously embrace and actively participate in their solitude.
Solitude is not better or worse then being coupled. Johnson wants to know why he is called to this and that is my question why does this feel right and on point with my life today? Johnson further examines celibacy and notes that this is not about celibacy as a negative but as a joyous turning inward. Coupling is natural, a unity with another person expressed in the act of coitus that he points out means meeting or unity. While solitary is a supernatural unity of seeking an interior journey become the reward.
“Most of us need limits and thrive within them” This struck me as well since forever when giving direction I learned that if you offered the team an acre of space with open ideas they floundered and struggled to find focus. But when given a narrow silo of direction, well considered and smart direction, they thrived and produced the most creative work. That is what struck me about solitary or solitude to look inward and learn and thrive. To limit the world about you and focus on that which is within. Johnson says later that he wants to live not in anticipation but to embrace the life he was given. Yes embrace it. And as Johnson writes to be more thoroughly integrated with the world about us.
Johnson presents us with the concept of a vow and what it means. He says it is a more flexible and encompassing and challenging than a vow of celibacy. A vow to oneself or others or God makes us responsible and struggle with our conscience. It is as William James pens “moral equivalent of war”. The vow means placing limits on desire, and creating an engine for its fuel. He states his admiration for those who honor their vows in the solitude of their hearts and compares it to a virtue that is defined by the doing. I am not sure I have made or will make a vow though I do embrace the world of solitude. Perhaps I need to make a vow to myself.
So what does solitude offer and give to Johnson? Clearly he misses the sex of a relationship but not the act as much as the before and after the arguments and bickering. And asks what can replace that? A quiet room, the autumn light, silence at the core of being that is his/ours. To live for the changing light seems enough he pens. Can I do that? Can I find peace at being at peace? For me I miss the challenge of someone smarter than me. I miss Donna's ability to cut to the point, find the perfect something, and make me laugh.
He brings this essay to a close with the reality that solitary’s journey is not free of pain and suffering. Freedom, liberation, and peace runs through suffering. “The self is the vehicle, that boat that takes us from loneliness to aloneness—that takes us on the journey to solitude.” I agree my boat is the recent loss and all that surrounds it.
There is more that Johnson notes about his journey and solitude. But let me put this into perspective for me.
My Take on Solitude
As I listened to the Fresh Air podcast and read Johnston's essay I wondered was it fate or destiny that brought me here. The illness, the caregiving, the loss, the mourning, the grief was a the path that brought me to this fate that I could not escape. Or perhaps the solitude was a destiny for me to find my personal meaning and make decisions about life.
A friend, a voracious reader of self-help books, told me that we rest upon three pillars, family, career, and faith. I lost two: family and career. For the past three years I have been working to replace career with various ideas and job applications. I’ve pitched various career ideas and am still working on finding one that can replace what I lost or surrendered. Sigh. Think snowball hell… In my mind and I have said this that (i.e. work) is/was my meaning and purpose. But Johnson presents a seductive thought, the meaning and purpose I seek may not be external but internal the answer is within if I can be quiet enough to hear.
There is the metadata of his essay and there is the metadata of my life today based on my history and experiences. The meta of the essay is the understanding that solitude is not foreign or counter to our capacity as humans. It has a place that can function as a source of knowledge and learning. The meta for my life is questioning what my life has boiled down to these days what this life will be going forward. How can I take Johnson’s ideas and apply it to my life?
I guess my first goal is to find the peace in the solitude of writing, the book, and preparing podcasts and not jump up to do something else. To learn to sit and listen quietly to my inner voice. To not look at what’s next or what do I do to fill the time with chores and acts. No I am not going to do mindful mediation. Tried that and was not happy about it. It left me thinking about what I didn’t want to do, not what I wanted or could discover. That is my issue not the process. Johnson notes “visions appear to the solitary prophet. Revelations arrive in silence and solitude.” Not sure that is in my capacity I am not a creative in that sense but can I unwind from this spool of thread that is my life. To extend it to its rightful length and examine it? It is less the past and more a vision of what I am seeking in the future? Can I free myself enough to see a future?
There is more to do for me by me with me. This is not an external exercise, it is amassing experiences, not things, to find what each means. To apply these experiences to the tapestry of my memories to create a new piece of me and life. And ultimately to apply its meaning to today.
Slowly I am finding my place in solitude and its comfort. I am trying to forgive myself and make amends to me and others. My reaction to Johnson’s essay and premiss is not sour grapes. It’s not that voice in my head screaming screw it I am not part of anything so I will hold my breath and pout. It is about finding others experiences to figure my own out. To apply a new set of guide posts to my journey.
The smallest measure of success is to find a way to write meaningful posts with out the struggle. Second, to find a way to live and not shut myself out. Third, actively participate in my life each day with me. These are simple moments and ideas but they need to be applied and measured and examined. Sitting here and writing. Sorting this out to be published is my vow. It is my mission and goal.