Friday, December 31, 2010


A couple of months or so ago I joined in a Facebook conversation around the word 'retreat'. Here is some of what I wrote...
Retreat is my default setting. It is where I most want to be and from where I 'venture forth' in selected ways. I love space and silence and thinking - and with plenty of that I am better equipped to engage meaningfully (and selectively) with friends, whanau, community...

In the meantime I read Anthony Storr's Solitude: A return to the self which suggests that "solitude ranks alongside relationships in its impact on an individual's well-being and productivity" (blurb). While Storr's book didn't offer me quite what I was looking for, it led to a post-Christmas discussion with a friend about the distinction between solitude and loneliness and a recommendation to read Petrarch's edited letters. Finally, I finished Marilynne Robinson's Home yesterday (I am now re-reading Gilead, for more about which see and in googling Robinson I came across the following interview excerpt. The full interview is at
I don’t think I could want something else. For instance, I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. It’s a predisposition in my family. My brother is a solitary. My mother is a solitary. I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.

And I went yes, yes, YES!!!!!!  More to come on this.....


  1. Beautiful beautiful beautiful, and I could not agree more. I've been otherwise engaged with both my daughters' families in house for the holidays and have not had any moments of solitude. Wonderful family time, but I feel spent and limp and eager to get back to restorative quiet. Everyone left yesterday. You've posted thrice in my absence, and what beautiful posts they are. Thanks for the Marilynne Robinson quote---and yours.

  2. Ah, but I have just read your beautiful post prompted by that family time!! As with everything it is a question of balance...

  3. I looked to Stephanie Dowrick's Intimacy and Solitude when I read your post, Jane. She writes about balancing time alone and time with others.

    An underpinning assumption is that time alone is (for some people) not valued and is avoided - so her text tends to come from a different angle from this conversation. She asks:

    "How is it that some people - I among them - love to be alone, find it stressful, in fact, when there is not enough opportunity to be alone, while for others, being alone must be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of being in company the person does not really enjoy?"

    This opens up far more questions than I can float here - but I appreciated her work because it was one light in the wilderness of dark-noise around the assumption that to be alone is to be odd.

    There is not a lot of chatter about the value of solitude.

  4. Thanks for this Elaine. I have not read Stephanie Dowrick and obviously should because my experience is that solitude is 'othered' (your use of the word 'odd' is spot on). So in fact, for me, she is not coming from a different angle at all...

  5. I do see it as a different angle because she starts with the assumption that being with others is normal and normalised. I see it as valuable to think of it otherwise - that being solo is a privilege that few can achieve and that is undervalued and under-respected within the culture we live in - how different to be in a Buddhist culture! How this culture expects that the telephone can intrude at any time and that one is probably seeking company if one is alone - and how sad that is. While Stephanie is not in that space herself, I fear that the assumptions she makes are that the majority of readers will be more comfortable with togetherness (even if uncomforable) than being alone. I have not read the work thoroughly, so I may be wrong, and you are more than welcome to read and discuss further. Ka kite. E

  6. Oooh, lots of things... I'm still stuck on the 'different angles' because I don't perceive a difference. You can make an assumption that being with others is normal and normalised without necessarily agreeing with or condoning that perspective.

    'I fear that the assumptions she makes are that the majority of readers will be more comfortable with togetherness (even if uncomforable) than being alone'. I think that may be a reasonable assumption both biologically and as a result of social conditioning.

    I guess the difference is that you are privileging 'being solo' (tho' not sure that is the same as 'solitude').

    It is also possible to argue that being 'solo' by choice is a selfish privilege of the socially lazy and maladjusted (might as well throw the cat amongst the pigeons!!).

    This is good - is expanding my thinking significantly :-) Thanks Elaine.

  7. Yes, I am separating living alone and solitude and talking here about living alone. You could say that I am privileging being solo - not because it is desirable but because it is assumed (by many) that it is undesirable - thereby inviting the person who chooses to live alone to be on the defensive. I do not think you or I are in a defensive mode, but I have other friends who are and who would see their lives as other than their ideal because of their position.

    Yes, I agree that Stephanie's assumption is reasonable. If I were looking for a book that addressed distinctions between solitude and loneliness (ref your original posting) I would not have chosen it. Not that I see it as irrelevant, but the direction from which it is coming is one that assumes (I think) that one is also seeking intimate relationships.

    So what is intimacy? One interpretation is that it implies sharing all things (living together). I do not think that is necessarily the only useful use of the word. I do not seek intimacy with one individual, but rather, a network of individuals with whom I can be intimate in relation to different aspects of their and my life and interests. The kinds of conversation I have with you are different from the kinds of conversation I have with others. Hence my "intimacy" with you is different from with other friends. I suspect I avoid the word because of its sexual connotations. And I suspect I have not read Stephanie's work in depth because I see those connotations in my skimming through.

    I bought the book many years ago - and it is not a priority to analyse it now - hence my intuitive responses - as I say, I may be misrepresenting the book.

    Yes, it is possible to argue as with your thrown cat but one could equally upset the birds by arguing that living in a (joined at the hip) partnership is weak, lazy, co-dependent and selfishly excludes the wider community. Neither argument holds any water for me. I think a better question relates to the ways in which diversity is fostered (so that people have options) and how we collectively support each other and our environment - such support is something that you, through this blog and a multitude of other ways, gift to our world. Thank you.

    Your initial blog item did not contrast solitude with any "other" - dkm's reply did draw a contrast now that the family is gone - I think that triggered for me the idea that within busy families there is little time for (or in many cases respect for) solitude. Hence my discussion entered into a different conversation space.

    All very interesting. Have a great day.

  8. Brief notes on what I wrote and lost because the post was too long ...

    Yes - I am discussing living alone as opposed to solitude. This triggered by dkm's comment about gaining solitude now the family is gone - not by your original posting which simply discussed the phenomenon.

    Yes, Stephanie's assumption is reasonable. I see a tension for people who choose to live alone because the dominant expectation that people are happier (or ...) in partnerships. This can invite defensive responses from people who are live alone.

    Cat among the pigeons - one could argue that living in a joined at the hips partnership is co-dependent and antisocial. Neither position holds much weight for me, nor similar put-downs.

    A more interesting discussion is around how a community enables multiple options while identifying and fostering ways of living and being that support diversity and care for people and environment - your blog and your way of living exemplify this for me.

    And then about intimacy - defining it in relationships that are not sexually based, or based on living together - I avoid the word because of its connotations but see that it as a valuable word, linked to loyalty, long-standing friendships where different forms of intimacy exist within different relationships. mmmmm ....

  9. Interesting - the earlier writing appeared later! The contrast is, in itself, a conversation!

  10. Positively absorbing conversation, ladies! And yes, it is all about balance, isn't it? Both are beautiful---connectedness and solitude---and at least for this reader, both are necessary---and not mutually exclusive---as the connectedness of these comments demonstrates :-). I suppose we each have our own measuring scale. Mine is happier when the solitude side is heavier. I suspect this to be true for most, but we learn to live with less because our lives require it. Mine certainly did, until I retired and then I surprised myself at the reclusive personality I didn't even know I had!

  11. Thank you hem and dkm. Absolutely true - it is not either/or but, as in most things, about the balance. I like the 'both are beautiful'. The researcher stirs. How I would love to explore more people's experiences of achieving (or not) this balance....

  12. Wouldn' t this be an interesting study! I remember having to force myself to pretend to be managing everything happily as a young mother and teacher, and wondering if others were managing as comfortably as they looked to be, or if they were pretending too. Are you an academic researcher?

  13. Are you an academic researcher?

    I was. Relinquished that world. But the curiosity (in my case the interest in people's worldviews and ways of being) that drives research remains strong. I see interesting questions everywhere!

    I think one of the great things about age (maturity!) is that the need to pretend diminishes and we can be more honest - this is me, warts and all!!!