Sunday before last, I stood on the airstrip of this little island of ours and watched a single-engine prop plane take off and disappear into the clouds, feeling very much like a heroine in an old black-and-white movie—and suddenly very alone. For Philip was on that plane, a kind pilot friend having offered to spirit him back to the city for the work week, and I was facing the prospect of camping all by myself for six whole days. Not that I was adverse to the plan—it was one of the things that’s making this time by the sea a possibility, and I am grateful, not only to my husband, but to our friend, whose generosity both simplified our scheme and gave Philip a good, old-fashioned adventure. (“You’ve got to see the marshes from the air,” he keeps telling me. “You’ll never look at them the same way again after viewing them from 1000 feet.”) Nor was I necessarily opposed to the prospect of so many days of aloneness: Solitude and I are old friends, and here was certainly an opportunity to renew her acquaintance in an entirely new way. Nevertheless, it was hard to think of being here in this loved place without the one whom my soul loves, and as I stood there under a leaden sky, with the wind snapping my skirt against my legs, a funny little desolation crept over me. I listened until the plane was out of earshot, then I walked slowly back across the runway to my car. The Airstream seemed so empty, even with a nine-month old puppy in residence—if 24 feet of aluminum-sheathed trailer can echo, I swear they did that day. And so, I did what any rational female would do: I sat down on the sofa and had a little cry.
After that, I pulled myself together and made a Plan. I was resolved to demonstrate my love and thanks by having much to show for these days—I honestly cannot think of another time in my life when I’ve had absolutely nothing to do but write. Bonnie and I quickly established our little routine, which included, among other things, a nightly FaceTime chat with Philip (fun for me and wholesomely confusing for her!), as well as a morning hour in bed with coffee and journal (well, Bonnie didn’t journal that much—she mostly licked my face and sloshed my coffee). I grew comfortable with the systems, like angling the awning at the threat of rain, and lighting the pilot lights on our Princess stove each morning, and I made a master list of daily requisites: reading, prayer and intentional silence, walks and bike rides, and, of course, writing. I outlined my novelling goals in no uncertain terms: One-half chapter a day. Period.
On Monday I picked up a lovely, perfect moon shell—not at the shore, as one might imagine, but at the base of a tree in my own campsite. Was it left there by another pilgrim into silence, some other lone soul learning again or anew the language of solitude? It reminded me of the words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, from her slim jewel, Gift From the Sea:
“Solitude,” says the moon shell. Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the day, some part of each week, and each year…the core, the inner spring, can best be re-found through solitude.
I told one of my best friends before we came down here that I was really looking forward to re-finding my solitude. I’m often alone in the round of my life at home—but being alone is not nearly the same thing as being alone with yourself. To be alone with yourself, there first must be a purposeful silencing of the mental chatter with which we’re all so tempted to swaddle our brains in this busy, productive world of ours—and that can be a terrifying thing, particularly if one has forgotten how healing and helpful the deep silences can be. For the only true aloneness, of course, is aloneness with God, open-handed and empty of pretense. How easy it is to base our standing in grace upon our own efforts, howsoever boldly we might declare otherwise. I don’t think I realized how much I’d been congratulating myself over small successes and writhing under habitual failures (that sharp word, that condescending thought, that deadly ingratitude!) until forced to confront the facts in the seclusion of my own soul. All week I carried an image in my mind of a fretful, fussy infant soothed into sudden and unavoidable comfort by the encircling warmth of strong arms which, unlike even the most faithful human embrace, will never let go. My soul is even as a weaned child, said the Psalmist. Be still and know that I am God, said the Lover of my soul. Allright, I said, with the wind and the waves and the sea birds circling overhead as witness. I have no other choice.
I was taken aback the first week of our sojourn by the crippling fear that seized me every time I sat down to write. It was really amazing, something I had to painfully press through. I’m realizing, the older I get, that the toll of “too much” on my inner equilibrium is getting steeper and steeper, an expense I can ill-afford to perpetuate. And it always manifests after a season of soul neglect as a serious discrepancy in the inspiration department. There were so many negative voices to drown out when I was trying to write I could hardly hear myself think. But somewhere round about Tuesday of the second week, a curious thing happened. I was writing away (rather grimly, I’m afraid), when my imagination caught the faintest prick of light, like a lone firefly amid the murky shades of a dark wood. I hesitated, pencil poised thoughtfully. Then, seeing as I had absolutely nothing to lose but a few pages of bad prose, I followed it. First one fairy lamp appeared, and then another, and another. And before I knew it, I was in love with my story again, writing furiously each day, often till after 7 at night. It just felt so intoxicating to be anchored in the scenes once more, to know that old excitement that presents itself in my heart as physical pain.
And it felt so good to fall into bed at night, with a stout mug of chamomile tea and a fat Elizabeth Goudge novel, knowing I’d worked as hard as I was able. Ever so much more work to be done, of course, but we’re moving forward again. And I know it wouldn’t have happened without the gift of this time, this place, and the healing spaces of solitude.
Near the end of the week, I rode my bike early to the beach and watched the tide come in. There, alone in the warm sunshine, with the surf pounding in my ears and lapping almost to where I stood, I heard at last the water music that Kreeft was talking about, that endless song which God breathed into His sea, that one lullaby that never grows old:
I love you, I love you, I love you…
Bonnie and I were wild to see Philip on Friday night. I cleaned the Airstream within an inch of its life, put a bottle of wine in the fridge, and strung pretty paper flags on the awning. (I even ventured off my island for a grocery run!) When I saw our little roadster, Happiness Runs, draw up alongside the Airstream, we both exploded out to meet him—Bonnie Blue jumped as high as Philip’s head! I may have been slightly less demonstrative…but no less happy to have him back.
A joy all the sweeter for an enriching, soul-centering foray into Solitude.
Moon shell, who named you? Some intuitive woman I like to think. I shall give you another name—Island shell. I cannot live forever on my island. But I can take you back to my desk in Connecticut. You will sit there and fasten your single eye upon me. You will make me think, with your smooth circles winding inward to the tiny core, of the island I lived on for a few weeks. You will say to me “solitude.”
You will remind me that I must try to be alone for part of each year,even a week or a few days; and for part of each day, even for an hour or a few minutes in order to keep my core, my center, my island-quality. You will remind me that unless I keep the island-quality intact somewhere within me, I will have little to give my husband, my children my friends or the world at large.
You will remind me that woman must be still as the axis of a wheel in the midst of her activities; that she must be the pioneer in achieving this stillness, not only for her own salvation, but for the salvation of family life, of society, perhaps even of our civilization.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From the Sea