I think of myself as having the vocation of a solitaire. For most of my adult life I have risen before dawn and spent two hours in silence and solitude, reading and writing and daydreaming while looking out the window at the rising light. These two hours are the best of the day for me. When illness or travel or circumstances make these impossible, I am a bit bereft.
I like to work alone. Other than golf, which is relatively social, my greatest pleasure is reading and writing—by myself again. I even enjoy golfing by myself, an activity my brother Joe, who is an avid golfer, would never do. “You golf by yourself?” he asked me incredulously, “what’s the matter with you?” What’s the matter, indeed.
I’m not anti-social, at least not enough to signal someone in the mental health community. I like people. I prize friendships. I attend gatherings, festivals, dinners. I’m a member of a community. But, I find my greatest satisfaction and fulfillment in solitude. The animal I am wildly attracted to is the Blue Heron gliding alone in an endless sky or sitting by itself, Buddha-like at the edge of the Lake Erie Bay… and then returning each evening to the community, to the colony of nests nestled on the top branches of adjoining trees.
There’s a lot of us solitaries out there—some are married or in a relationship, many are single, a good number professed religious vows. All of us fit this definition of a solitary offered by Fenton Johnson: solitaries are individuals who, through a combination of temperament, chance, and choice, of disciple, fate, and free will, chose solitude as their means of giving themselves to others.
And speaking of Fenton Johnson, I decided to indulge myself during this pandemic, this time of mandated solitude, by reading his newest book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life. What more I can learn and relish about solitude at this stage of my life is beyond me, but still my mouth watered when I came across the new publication. The title of the book stems off this lovely poem by an obviously “near-the-edge” solitary temperament, the poet Frank O’Hara.
When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were not friendly and birds
If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
I was going to end the blog with the poem. But then I thought, “Won’t most of you read it and say, “Yippee for you Old Monk, but what about me? While you gush about solitude, I’m another ilk. I get my sense of purpose and fulfillment from interacting with people. This enforced enclosure is stressful, even agonizing.”
We can all agree that we are encircled by a sudden and terrible suffering that makes us feel disconnected, sad, and helpless. We grieve the loss of small acts of human contact that we took for granted—visiting a parent in a nursing home, meeting friends for dinner, cheering for the local hockey team in a packed arena…. We watch the news and worry about the homeless, the pregnant mothers, the people in countries with minimal health facilities, our retirement savings.
So how do we get through it? Where does the energy to deal with this crisis come from, your energy as well as mine? If my energy to engage the world emerges from solitude, how about yours? Just two examples of this energy at work:
A friend, whose mother moved in with her to recuperate from a recent operation, wrote me about how they are coping: “My mom says the Rosary every day, I think sometimes three times a day. We play the dice game Farkle together and watch old TV westerns and Andy of Mayberry--it sure takes me back to my childhood. My partner is practicing her Italian and I am practicing my guitar until my fingertips hurt….”
And I just heard my friend Sister Mary on the phone talking about a person who bought dozens of sleeping bags, piled them in his car, and drove the inner city at dusk dropping them off for the homeless.
Prayer, simple family activities that remind of binding ties, practicing a skill you love but never had enough time for…playing an instrument, learning a language…and, of course, creative acts of random kindness…all of these are sources of energy that will bless you and others.
Bless you enough so that you, like O’Hara can proclaim—even now, especially now:
And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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