Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Sleeping in the Forest

Sleeping in the Forest by Mary Oliver

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

"I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately,  to front only the essential facts of life,  and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,  and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Henry David Thoreau

I have just returned from a full week of seclusion. I went to the Catskills, checked into a motel along the banks of a river, and spent seven days in my own company. During that time, I had no access to the Internet, nor to my cell phone. A few friends knew where I was; they called me intermittently on the motel phone. I saw people every day when I went for my meals; I chatted with the people who lived in the small town where I was, and one night, I even drove down to Manhattan for a date, but for the most part, I wrote, I hiked, and I read. Alone.

What I want to talk about is solitude.

May Sarton once said that loneliness was the absence of the other but solitude was the company of the self. I've just experienced that. It's not the first time in my life that I've enjoyed a period of time alone and not been frightened by it, but it's taken me a long time to reach a point where the idea of going off by myself, without a companion, does not fill me with dread.

Loneliness is a terrible sensation. The absence of others opens up before us like the maws of hell; and the desolation of isolation feels like being hugged by the ice-cold arms of death itself. Perhaps the fear of being alone is the fear of death; it's the one journey that we must take alone. There will be no one there to accompany us, and the struggle against that feeling drives many of us to behaviours that are ultimately harmful, even if the things we do seem to be staving off loneliness at the time.

My week away was amazing. Its purpose was to finish my novel, which, I'm happy to report, I did. The novel is done. After some revisions, it will be ready to shop around for possible publication. But I didn't write for publication. I wrote to communicate, to set free the ideas in my head, to give parts of myself voice. Ironically, I did this while being quiet.

While I'm engaging in a solipsistic recitation of a week spent alone, I'm aware of a few things that I think are relevant to my politics. One of them is that my ability to go into the woods for a week is a privilege. The motel was incredibly inexpensive, but still, a week in a motel is not cheap. If I had camped, I would have needed equipment; my point being that a week in the wilderness these days is only for the privileged classes who can afford to get away from it all, or the everyday life of the rural poor who call those areas their home. Economically disadvantaged, I assume that they are able to enjoy the natural beauty that those of us trapped in urban and suburban sprawl long for.

I could tell you about the experience of my hikes into the wilderness every day. Of how I never saw another human being; of the pair of eagles that flew just over my head; of the newborn fawn, still wet from his mother's body; the snakes I nearly stepped on; the mother grouse that feigned not being able to fly in order to lead me away from her nest; of the multitude of wildflowers in the woods. There. I guess I have told you. But really? I hope you get to experience some facet of this yourself.

The other thing that was reiterated to me by my trip is the sense that if only we could make peace with isolation, with solitude, and not feel the panic of loneliness, our politics would benefit. The need for company, for relationships, can lead to issues of domination and control and cruelty and abuse. Yes. Relationships are powerful and can be fulfilling and lovely. But our fear of being alone can drive us to do cruel things to keep some people near. It works its way up the chain of our relationships, so that our politics becomes a macrocosm of crying, grasping need. Of pure want. Of suffering.

I walked in a local graveyard. There were too many children's graves there. Some of them were recent; in a town as small as it was, there seemed to be too many adolescents and children in the ground. There was also something stunning: carved into the side of the cemetery, overlooking the river, was a huge granite memorial with Chinese inscriptions and carvings of Chinese ancestors. The only sensation that I can use to describe this monument and its setting, the absolute peace that I felt when I sat in the middle of it with the sun kissing my face and the breeze off the river keeping me cool, is perfection. Quiet perfection.

There is no point to this diary. It is a simple acknowledgement on my part of the power of this community; of how, having returned from being away, I wanted to make contact again. Of how grateful I am for all of this. Of how much gratitude I have for both community and solitude.

So, I'm grateful to be back. Grateful to be alive. And eventually, I'll read all the news I missed for the week and re-immerse myself in the politics before us. But I'll carry the wilderness with me, just as I carried this community with me into the woods.