“Chosen solitude is about agency, self-reliance and gaining clarity.
When the churning mind-waters settle, I can begin to dip into the wellspring of my life.
If I stay quiet long enough, I begin to forget myself.”
—Kirsteen MacLeod, In Praise of Retreat
For most of us, March has brought with it a difficult anniversary. After a full year of pandemic life, we’ve been asked to reflect on what weathering the once unfathomable has meant to our general well being. We’ve also been forced to grapple with the enormity of our grief—over losing what we love, who we were, and the way things could have been.
For me, this grim milestone has me reflecting on the fact that I had what feels like two distinct pandemic experiences. The first—eight months where I didn’t have childcare—was characterized by near constant “mundane” busyness, by sheer exhaustion, by the countless complex sacrifices of caregiving. In the second more recent period, a preschool spot for my daughter allowed me the precious hours to work (and breathe and rest) again. But despite my immense gratitude for that space, I found the new daily quiet had an unanticipated effect; it turned up the volume on my loneliness.
For more than half the pandemic I had no reason to get good at being alone because I was never actually alone. I had no time to listen to my own emotions, couldn’t find the room to really unpack how I was feeling about our new reality. Even in the rare moments I was away from any work or domestic demands, the weather was warm and case counts low enough that I would use that time to meet a friend in the park for a distanced visit.
As Kirsteen MacLeod writes in her new book, In Praise of Retreat, my experience suggests “staying distracted is easier than being quiet,” and that I’m now dealing, at least in small part, with what so many have endured all along—the immediate need to cultivate the benefits of solitude.
So how exactly do we embrace and enjoy being alone during a time where it doesn’t feel like a choice? How do we celebrate escape from the buzz of daily life when the daily life we knew has been taken from us?
Regardless of your own pandemic experience, it likely feels strange to be reading a book on the search for self-imposed quiet after a year in isolation—a fact that the author readily acknowledges.
“When I was writing this book there was no crisis,” MacLeod tells us in her epilogue. “I was courting possibility, exploring how our retreats—to make space for nature, spirit, imagination and embodiment—give our lives amplitude and meaning.
In Praise of Retreat’s examination of the practice of conscious escape and solitude is indeed thoughtful and wide-reaching, with thoroughly researched sections on secluded forest cabins, lengthy pilgrimages, and the rise of meditation and yoga retreats. A number of famed hermits and renowned solitary thinkers make appearances (Thoreau and Dickinson, of course,) while MacLeod generously relays her own personal successes and failures hiding away from the busy world.
And yes, while it’s hard not to read this book through the lens of being stuck in your house for a gazillion consecutive days, there is actually an unintended helpful how-to feel to MacLeod’s endorsement of pleasure in simplicity and silence, wherever it can be found.
“Our current emergency is not a retreat because it’s unsought,” she explains. “Yet as I revisit this book, I’m struck to find ideas from our chosen retreats apply in times of crisis—including this raw moment, when many have been forced to step back from active and social lives amid fear, instability and tragedy.”
As I’ve written here before, I’ve been walking a lot since the winter began. It started begrudgingly, as an effort to maintain some sort of level of physical and mental health, and to try to enjoy a season I have long despised. (Team Summer forever.) But since those first reluctant steps, my daily winter walk has evolved into something I actually like. I invested in warmer clothes and better shoes, picked a time that was consistently convenient, and now couldn’t imagine 24 hours without my scheduled stroll.
I realize now that I have long resisted the balm of nature, and the subsequent quiet of solitude. I’m ashamed to admit that pre-pandemic I mostly viewed the outdoors—great and otherwise—as an inconvenience. Now a committed nature lover, MacLeod articulates this common disconnect by letting us know there was a time even she “lost touch even with the seasons unless they delayed my commute.”
My new found enthusiasm of course has to do with the many benefits of being outdoors, but also with the limitations the simple act of walking puts on me. I can’t do chores, can’t stare at a screen, can’t take care of anyone, can’t do any actual work (barring a few phone meetings, I confess.) But it’s also paradoxically a pocket of time where I feel the most free from the constraints put upon me by the circumstances we’re all living through, where I’m able to think and gain some much needed perspective.
“When life chafes, or we are disrespected and chained, it’s an appropriate response to hit the road,” writes MacLeod. “To match our steps to our heartbeat, align the self and the soul’s desires as we walk.” Here MacLeod is speaking the larger historical context of the pilgrimage, but this, like so much of what she observes In Praise of Retreat, is relatable in terms of the common pandemic urge to simply get outside, to soak up nature, and to move.
Many people I know have found recent solace in simply wandering alone outside, even with a ridiculous wind chill. Others have taken up skating, or miraculously embraced a long winter run. Still more have found a new or renewed appreciation for what my preschooler calls “going to nature”—the undeniable therapeutic benefits of being submerged in the natural world, even if it’s achieved by a simple stroll in a local urban park.
“We are part of the living world, a small part, though our powers of destruction are outsized,” writes MacLeod. “Why do we forget that we are animals in nature, that we are nature?”
In retrospect it was predictable that long days inside without the distraction of toddler demands would run the risk of descending into anxiety’s familiar song. Quiet can make it easy for that irrational refrain to sneak up on us, even when there’s still lots to be done. It seems it's only when I consciously unplug, when I consciously lean into being alone, do I realize that the world is so much bigger than the smallness my mind is so adept at creating.
There’s of course another obvious reason to praise the idea of disconnecting, especially for those who care about books. While the writer’s retreat is not a new concept, a writer finding a genuine way to disappear short-term may in fact be more vital than ever. The near constant buzz of technology makes unfettered creativity difficult to access, and distractions near impossible to avoid.
“In our busy, social, connected world, where even ‘successful’ professional artists often don’t earn a living from their work, threats to finding the time and space for creative practice are multiplying,” MacLeod warns. That reality may in part explain why so many writers I know have had difficulty putting pen to paper over the last twelve months—it feels like there’s been nowhere productive or safe to retreat to.
The work of being alone, of escaping both external and internal noise, is very real, and hard, and necessary. We live in a time where we tend to, as MacLeod puts it, “over-venerate the active and the social,” where intrusions are relentless and demands never-ending. Even as so many of us feel the very real threat of loneliness, In Praise of Retreat does an excellent job of conveying the ever-present value of cultivating soul-feeding solitude by choice.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Stacey May Fowles is an award-winning journalist, novelist, and essayist whose bylines include The Globe and Mail, The National Post, BuzzFeed, Elle, Toronto Life, The Walrus, Vice, Hazlitt, Quill and Quire, and others. She is the author of the bestselling non-fiction collection Baseball Life Advice (McClelland and Stewart), and the co-editor of the recent anthology Whatever Gets You Through (Greystone).