(1/4/21) spaces for solitude

the study carrel, the piano hall, the morning walk, your personal barefoot wilderness

During my freshman year of college, I spent a lot of time in two rooms.

1 - A quiet study carrel at the campus library. Some wise spirit had etched the following phrase into the desk: “Everyone asks about what they want to do and how they want to do it. No one asks what what they do does.”

2 - A grand piano at a lecture hall near my dorm. I'd sneak in here almost every night around 11pm to practice for a couple hours.

These two rooms provided great inner space. In them, I discovered the value of solitude in the small crevices of daily life.

In solitude: not everything has to be planned; not everything has to be documented; not everything requires commentary. I can’t escape my circumstances. I have to deal with all the ways I lock myself up in my own fixed story.

I immerse myself fully into my experience.

In solitude: I pursue questions, I chase the barely visible tail of curiosity, I’m not merely attempting to keep myself busy.

Spaces for solitude resist efficiency.

I'd go to the study carrel with a notebook and something to read. Sometimes, I'd spend hours on the Cicero assigned by Father Schall. Other times, I'd jot little short stories or a handful of rhyming couplets or some abstract doodles in the margins.

I'd go to the grand piano with a stack of sheet music and scribbles on the grand staff. Sometimes, I'd work on a Rachmaninoff piece that left my knuckles sore. Other times, I'd explore different progressions and melodies, or work on my own stuff.

Entering these spaces, I had a rough notion of how I wanted to spend my time. But the stillness of the carrel and the piano hall created the potential to get swept away without a plan. And these digressions magically found a way to reconnect with what I had intended to work on.

Spaces for solitude cultivate connection.

At the study carrel, after an extended heads-down period, I'd lift my head up. A friend walked by, we made eye contact, we spent the next hour shooting the shit.

At the grand piano, sometimes a kindred spirit would already be there before me, running her own scales and working her craft. I’d sit and listen. She’d tell me about her dreams of attending Juilliard and playing at Carnegie Hall.

These chance connections transcended small talk. Solitude presented the opportunity to connect with people rather than with their masks.

So the carrel and the piano hall constantly reminded me that life attracts life. The more alone I became in my solitude, the more I noticed how full of life my solitude was. And how devoid of life many other aspects of my day had been.

Spaces for solitude force a reckoning.

At the carrel, I struggled to understand the text. I grew bored and unsure of myself. At the grand piano, I struggled to figure out a tricky passage. I similarly grew bored and unsure.

My initial reflex was to pull out my phone and text a friend. Make some plans. Busy myself with anything other than being with this discomfort.

Time passed by and all sorts of neuroses bundled up into cocktails of torment. I grew restless and dissatisfied.

In moments of being alone, I was forced to reckon with myself. It was just me, my sensory perceptions, my thoughts, my emotions, my memories, and my concepts about all of these things. In the backdrop of a piano or a book or some tubes of paint.


From this empty space, an insight. I inexplicably knew how to proceed. I dived back in with vigor.

Solitude in the age of busy

“Development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfill his highest potential.

[Without solitude], human beings easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings.”

Solitude, Anthony Storr

Several years ago, my calendar was a filled grid of 30-minute, 60-minute, 90-minute blocks, planned in advance for specific purposes. And I was proud of this calendar.

I had daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, all cascading up to quarterly goals and yearly goals and five-year goals and decade goals and life goals. I had sucked serendipity and discovery completely out of my life.

I had instrumented every moment to achieve whatever it was I was seeking to achieve. But I constantly felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was pretty disengaged from the people around me.

Despite this seemingly crystal clear direction, I still felt like something was wrong about it all. So I took time off from work and rented out a cabin out in Shenandoah Valley.

My goal? To figure out why I felt so exhausted.

Naturally, I started by doing nothing. I watched a wasp try to break in through the mesh window. At night, I stared out into the dark uncertain wilderness, worried that a bear would claw me to death in my sleep. In between, I cooked some meals on a single burner stove. I made some s’mores. Went for walks in the woods.

I got super bored. I spent long periods of time in silence and inactivity. In random fits and bursts, I wrote. Followed by long stretches of silence and inactivity.

Soon after, I packed up and left. As habit would have it, I looked at my calendar. It was completely empty. I felt some space in my mind for the first time in a while.