February 27, 2019

A few passages on solitude

If there’s one message I took away from reading Michael Harris’ Solitude, it’s that the things we do to bring us into solitude are actually the things we do to best connect: with the world, with others, and with ourselves.

According to Harris, solitude and the pursuit of the singular life is inherently a pursuit of slower, quieter connection. I completely agree, and that’s why I’m excited to be in the middle of my year of quiet. Below, I share a few passages from Solitude that resonated with me.

This first passage encapsulates my main-takeaway from the book:

The ability to be alone, then, is anything but a rejection of close bonds. It’s an affirmation of those bonds on the most essential level. To be happily alone is to affirm one’s faith in the love of others. […]

Each time we write a letter, or reminisce about friends on a solitary walk, we reaffirm those bonds. We prove our faith in others—prove it and thus strengthen it—when we calmly experience separation.

I loved this quote by Sebastian de Grazia that he shares, about the health of society:

Perhaps you can judge the inner health of a land by the capacity of its people to do nothing—to lie abed musing, to amble about aimlessly, to sit having coffee—because whoever can do nothing, letting his thoughts go where they may, must be at peace with himself.

He also shares a beautiful quotation by Rainer Maria Rilke that I want to remember every day of my life:

I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.

He spends an entire chapter on my favorite hobby, something that I do almost every single day: letter-writing. This passage on the life of the letter, from its creation to its storage to its destruction, is beautiful:

Letters demand slower, more thoughtful work; they engage our entire hands and not just our fingertips; they make our confessions precious by withholding them in a silent interval between composition and delivery; and they locate our personal history among our possessions, as opposed to a steel-lined server. The text message equivalent (though delightful) is no substitute for the drawn-out progression of true letters, the accumulation in the shoebox, the ruffled tops of hastily torn envelopes, the tactile history of the thing itself. And then, of course, there’s the potential for destruction, for forgetting: old-fashioned letters can be tossed in the bonfire, whereas in the indelible world of email and smartphones, both parties have a copy. The ability to destroy evidence of love may be as important as the ability to preserve it.

I loved these two sentences about love letters:

In the solitary composition of our love letters we heal wounds and bridge distances. When we write them we experience communion within our solitude.

One final passage, again about writing letters, that I wish everyone could read when they ask me why I spend so much of my time and my money on postal correspondence:

A letter is an act of faith—the solitary letter writer, working for hours, perhaps, at a single expression from one human heart to another, must assume a connection to someone who is absent and non-responsive for maybe weeks at a time. As the critic Vivian Gornick has it: To write a letter is to be alone with my thoughts in the conjured presence of another person. I keep myself imaginative company. I occupy the empty room. I alone infuse the silence.” One presses beyond the happenstance of spoken speech (and the casual reassurances of texting and email) into an ordered expression of things that requires removal from chatter. And yet that conjured person does sit by our side. When we take the time to write long letters to those we care about, we uncover a part of them that was not revealed before, not at dinner parties, nor cafés, nor even lying together in rumpled sheets.

→ Marginalia