Most of us don’t have the capacity to be alone. Some of us seek a romantic partner to fill the void of our incomplete soul; others of us distract ourselves with endless social obligations and busy schedules; still others of us are so desperate to escape our own company that we’ll settle for the most frivolous forms of socializing, be it superficial friendships or meaningless small talk at a bar. But no one and nothing can spare us from the frightening fact that— fundamentally— we are alone.
Despite our terror of loneliness, solitude is vital to leading a rich, contented life. Henry David Thoreau, who famously sequestered himself on Walden Pond, found solitude restorative and rejuvenating: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating.” Pablo Picasso believed that “without great solitude, no serious work is possible” while Marcus Aurelius asserted “nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.” Perhaps no other writer has plumbed the soul-stretching depths of solitude with more candor and courage than May Sarton. In 1972, Sarton, a poet with no husband and no children, lived in self-imposed isolation in a sleepy New England village. Her soul-searching Journal of a Solitude offers an illuminating glimpse into her observant mind and generous spirit.
Like most writers, Sarton struggled to maintain a balance between her exterior and interior life. Without the drama and excitement of outward living— corresponding with friends, going on book tours, hosting dinners and attending occasionally glamorous, often uninteresting cocktail parties— her existence would be dull and not worth exploring. But without time to reflect, life would disintegrate into incoherence and incomprehensibility.
For Sarton, solitude was salvation and sustenance. In her diary, she could process the chaos of everyday existence. To be artists, we must— like Sarton— find a balance between life and writing, between action and introspection, between the demands of the day-to-day and the demands of the spirit:
“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my real life again at last. That is what is strange— that friends, even passionate love, are not real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened.
Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'”
What does it mean to be “productive”? In our hurried hustle culture, productivity is getting things done; it’s getting results; it’s producing a concrete product. The curse of capitalism is we become workers on an assembly line— our worth measured in terms of input and output. Reduced to economics, our value is calculated in dollars and cents, our status determined by how much we contribute to the deranged hamster wheel of production and consumption.
However, in writing and in art, productivity doesn’t always look productive. Sometimes productivity is playing and puttering; sometimes it’s pointless daydreams and blissful reveries; sometimes it’s sitting at your desk all day and not writing a single sentence you like. When we feel as though we’ve squandered our day, we must remember that idleness is indispensable to creativity. As inspiring, incandescent spirit Brenda Ueland once wrote, “The imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling.”
Often times, we’re accomplishing a great deal when we appear to be “doing nothing.” When we’re doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, our minds are actually pondering the puzzle of how to conclude our symphony; when we’re luxuriating in a bubble bath, solutions to once unsolvable problems bubble up unbidden from our subconscious. Indeed, we usually get our best ideas— not when we’re at our desks, completely and utterly absorbed in a project— but when we’re doing something seemingly unrelated: going on a midsummer stroll, folding fresh laundry (One is reminded of Mozart, who said it was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly”).
In a delightfully defiant passage, Sarton imagines what is (and isn’t) a waste of our time and challenges capitalistic notions of productivity:
“It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours. It is then that images float up and then I plan my work. But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show….Time wasted is poison.”
What makes life worth living? In a November 11th entry, Sarton suggests living a contented life depends on having a higher goal, a mission, a purpose:
“We are whole or have intimations of what it means to be whole when the entire being— spirit, mind, nerves, flesh, the body itself— are concentrated toward a single end.”
Sadly, many people— particularly women— don’t have enough open, obligation-free hours to “concentrate on a single end.” They’re too busy juggling careers, changing diapers, carpooling their children to soccer practice. Most women’s days revolve around the needs of their husband and children. Rarely do they have time to pursue their own passions. The result? They feel aimless, adrift. Without a lighthouse to guide them back to the shores of the self, many women float without a purpose or direction. Much like Virginia Woolf, another accomplished diarist and feminist, Sarton laments:
“It is harder for women, perhaps to be ‘one-pointed,’ much harder for them to clear space around whatever it is they want to do beyond household chores and family life. Their lives are fragmented…this is the cry I get in so many letters— the cry not so much for ‘a room of one’s own’ as time of one’s own.”
If you’re feeling disconnected from yourself, heed Sarton’s advice and carve out time of your own. In the noise of everyday life, you might lose sight of who you are but in the silence of solitude, you’ll once again hear the whisperings of your own soul.