Girl Reading. Harold Knight. 1932 source
I need a day like that every once in a while. A few hours of solitude, of desultory reading, and thinking. When I worked I took my solitude where and when I could find it. During term time, on Saturday mornings, while the first load of laundry chugged away downstairs, I’d settle in with my tea and book for an hour. Sometimes Hubby would come out to the sun room and sit across from me with his own cup of tea, until I closed my book, and just looked at him. Balefully, no doubt. Not in the extreme sense of that word, not menacing or anything. Well, okay, maybe a little. Then, he’d sigh and go away.
On the Christmas holidays, after the rush of shopping, and partying, and baking, and eating, and visiting was over, Boxing Day was my day of doing nothing. I remember one year the weather was perfect for skiing, so Hubby set off, and I settled beside the Christmas tree with a cup of tea and a book. The usual. I remember I read the whole of Richard Wright’s Clara Callan that afternoon. I love that book. And in the summer, I’d spend a whole morning while Hubby was out golfing or gardening, just reading. I still do that actually. But back when I was teaching, I needed those solitary hours free from the clamour of students, and administrators, and colleagues, and the pile of marking that never seemed to go away.
I read a lovely article in The Paris Review the other day, I Have Wasted My Life, by Patricia Hampl, in which she explores the idea of being alone, and “being let alone.” In our world of information overload and constant connectivity, even when we’re alone, we’re rarely “let alone.” Hampl has had a lifelong fascination with the idea of solitude. She says: “When we are swept up by the demands of family or a job — whatever it is that outlaws solitude — perhaps it is especially then that we are most in love with what solitude seems to provide, what it promises. It promises freedom.”
In her article Hampl goes on to ponder the meaning of a favourite James Wright poem, in which the narrator of the poem lies in a hammock, describes his bucolic surroundings, and then ends with the somewhat surprising and enigmatic line: “I have wasted my life.” Hampl says that she has pondered that line for years, changing several times her interpretation of Wright’s meaning.
In her closing she reflects on the wise words of her husband, who in the last week of his life unwittingly handed her the key to understanding the poem. Maybe the narrator regrets he has known too little solitude in his life, that “to be alone in this way is not to be insular but to open finally, fully to the inrushing reality of the world.”
It’s a beautiful article, thoughtful, and poignant. And so refreshing to read in this world of cyber-silliness. Especially when I consider that my connection to The Paris Review is through Facebook. Ha. How ironic that Facebook, time-waster extraordinaire, and the very bane of the idea of privacy, delivers such jewels as Hampl’s article to my screen.
|Woman Reading by a Window. Julius Garibaldi (Gari) Melchers. 1905 source
The idea of women who are alone, or who want to be alone, is a theme in literature that has fascinated me for years. Hence my interest in Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner whose characters are often spinsters. But it was three books which I read years ago which sparked my interest in the idea of women alone, of women needing to be alone. The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe, Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, and Abra by Joan Barfoot. I’ve written about these books before on the blog, in a post on spinsters, and one on being alone, so this time I’ve just included the links if you’re interested. What fascinates me about these books is the courage of the characters, or maybe the desperation, that moves these women to set aside their lives, and start again from scratch on their own. For the characters in these books solitude, as Hampl says, “promises freedom.”
My mum says she remembers when she was growing up her mother, my grandmother, used to retire to her upstairs bedroom with the door shut every once in a while. Sometimes for a day, sometimes longer. Mum says that Grammy never said if she were ill or not. She just closed her door. I imagine her in her room, lying on the bed, napping and reading, and maybe sighing a little at the luxury of a few hours of privacy. In her house the possibility of privacy was slight, what with three daughters, five sons, my grandfather, two hired men who worked with Grampy and boarded with my grandparents, plus the odd visiting relative from “up country,” or maybe a cousin who came to Fredericton and needed a place to stay while they found work, or even one girl cousin of my Mum’s who lived there while she attended school. I imagine my grandmother losing herself in her books, and maybe dreaming of escape, like the characters in the books I’ve read. But she settled for her few hours, the small portion of solitude she could manage in her busy life, and then she came downstairs again.
Now that I’m retired, and the demands of a busy job are a thing of the past, I don’t have to stake out any particular day as mine to do as I please. Because every day is mine. Pretty much. I have the luxury of solitude when I want it. So, I let the weather, or circumstances, dictate which days. It might be a day when I’m at home, and Hubby is busy elsewhere, running errands, or out skiing or golfing with friends, and I have the house to myself. Or a day like yesterday, when neither of us was going anywhere, snow and sleet were pelting the house, and out of frustration and boredom Hubby had two naps.
And me? I sighed, and put the kettle on. And proceeded to occupy the couch in the sun room. I listened to the geese trying to land on the river in the wind, and to the ice pelting against the windows, and shushing off the roof… “open fully,” as Hampl puts it, “to the inrushing reality of the world.”
Sometimes I even glanced at my book.
What about you, my friends? Any thoughts on solitude? On women being alone? Or needing to be alone? On books? Snow in April??