The wife of a friend of mine died suddenly when she was 40. The mother of an eight-year-old, our daughters were the same age and shared an interest in horses.
She was an English teacher, and we both loved books and reading. We’d escape parties to talk about what we were reading and why it mattered or not.
One of her rituals was to take a yearly retreat for three or four days on the North Shore of Lake Superior. In order to honor her memory, I decided to do the same. Find a cabin, bring a pile of books and maybe my favorite Scotch, take a few walks, admire the changing colors of fall.
I found a converted chicken coup with a wood stove off Highway 61. No running water, an outhouse, and particularly no internet or phone.
I am an introvert by nature, and perhaps for nature. Having spent a portion of my youth as a feral child escaping the chaos of my home, I found sanctuary in sitting next to Lake Minnetonka. I became a keen observer of the natural world and my curiosity always led me to new discoveries and joy. I was hoping this chicken coup could rekindle that feeling as well.
As I grew to adulthood, my life became busier and I acquired the habits of our culture. My time outside then was spent making haste. I recall leaving early Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving with friends and driving all night to West Virginia to kayak the Cheat, Gauley and New Rivers. No sleep and we’d be on the water for a day and a half and then drive 1200 miles back to work by Monday morning. Or I somehow believed that there was virtue in reaching my hiking destination 30 minutes faster than the last time, or conquering some black diamond run.
It feels good to be tired after this kind of playing. But it seems a competitive thing. I don’t quite understand this now. But see it when I watch a crowd of snowmobilers unload their sleds and roar off. There may seem a type of snobbery here. I’m not judging, just observing, because I too was attracted to this way of being outside in groups. Identity and belonging rank just below security and safety on Maslow’s hierarchy. There’s comfort in groups, but groups often aspire to the lowest common denominator.
Competition and accumulation have become benchmarks for success, much like storing fat on our bodies. Perhaps no longer needed. Especially in a world where we consume more than the earth can replenish by August of that year, or where our identity is driven by our anger. Winning and craving for identity are insatiable drives.
As I’ve hit the far slope of life, this feels like too much caffeine. Serving too many goals of others, rather than my own. It seems a drug I can never really get enough of, rather than enjoyment. Now I like to find a place to sit in nature. On a rock in the middle of a stream. In a tree. On the edge of cliff in the desert. Just take in the clean air. Feel the pulse of the earth.
I couldn’t do this unless I had honored my friend by following her retreat. The chicken coup burned down, and I moved to another one room cabin. My long weekends in that cabin morphed into a week and then ten days. I hadn’t ever intended to stay that long. Even for an introvert it was really hard at first, not talking to anyone for ten days. One gets lonely.
But something happens after a while. The loneliness turns to solitude. I’m not sure how. But a different type of play takes over. One with childhood fascination for nature. Or maybe I got comfortable being with myself. It’s a peaceful feeling. A strange feeling because we are so programmed to be busy. It’s the difference between sound of a storm on a tin cabin roof and the call of a mourning dove. Time slows down.
As a ritual, I have the perfect meal the night of my arrival at the cabin. People have asked me what that is. My answer is that it’s a little bit of everything that you like or want. So if you like sushi or chocolate cake, it’s just one small piece. A bite. The meal is eaten very slowly so each bite is savored. For me the world is like that as well. As climate activists and humans, we cannot save the world unless we can savor it.
I’m not sure I can tease some grand lesson from this. But I am fascinated by the transformation. As a kid I craved safety and my tromping around outside in my jungle satisfied the hole in my life with curiosity and awe. In my young adulthood, my escapes became competitive, busy and less fulfilling, even though I was with others. There was an element of competitiveness that never really satisfied. But spending 10 days by myself required me to slow down and pass through isolation. It might have been the grief I felt for my friend, or for myself, which at some level is love.
Being alone becomes a laboratory for creativity and curiosity. Especially in the time of a pandemic. It provides room for play. The play of childhood where one can lie in the grass and watch the shapes of clouds. The experience of solitude for me is not just the process of being alone, but of finding contentment and joy in that aloneness that makes being with others more enjoyable. This is the connection I seek.
I wonder if this is the way forward with the climate. Does our busyness, our domination of nature, and consumption fill our souls? Does it make it more enjoyable when we seek the company of others? Of course not.
I’ve returned to my little cabin for thirty years because I believe in slowing down to breathe. Being alone creates the space for solitude. It creates the perfect meal. Savoring every bite. So we can enjoy the company of others.
‘We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™