A Month by the Sea: Finding Solitude

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Sunday before last [editor’s note: It’s now been quite a few Sundays before last], I stood on the airstrip of this little island of ours and watched a single-engine prop plane take off and disappear into the clouds. I felt very much like a heroine in an old black-and-white movie—and suddenly very alone. For Philip was on that plane, a kind pilot friend having offered to spirit him back to the city for the work week, and I was facing the prospect of camping all by myself for six whole days. Not that I was adverse to the plan—it was one of the things that’s making this time by the sea a possibility, and I am grateful, not only to my husband, but to our friend, whose generosity both simplified our scheme and gave Philip a good, old-fashioned adventure. (“You’ve got to see the marshes from the air,” he keeps telling me. “You’ll never look at them the same way again after viewing them from 1000 feet.”) Nor was I necessarily opposed to the prospect of so many days of aloneness: Solitude and I are old friends, and here was certainly an opportunity to renew her acquaintance in an entirely new way. Nevertheless, it was hard to think of being here in this loved place without the one whom my soul loves, and as I stood there under a leaden sky, with the wind snapping my skirt against my legs, a funny little desolation crept over me. I listened until the plane was out of earshot, then I walked slowly back across the runway to my car. The Airstream seemed so empty, even with a nine-month old puppy in residence—if 24 feet of aluminum-sheathed trailer can echo, I swear they did that day. And so, I did what any rational female would do: I sat down on the sofa and had a little cry.

After that, I pulled myself together and made a Plan. I was resolved to demonstrate my love and thanks by having much to show for these days—I honestly cannot think of another time in my life when I’ve had absolutely nothing to do but write. Bonnie and I quickly established our little routine, which included, among other things, a nightly FaceTime chat with Philip (fun for me and wholesomely confusing for her!), as well as a morning hour in bed with coffee and journal (well, Bonnie didn’t journal that much—she mostly licked my face and sloshed my coffee). I grew comfortable with the systems, like angling the awning at the threat of rain, and lighting the pilot lights on our Princess stove each morning, and I made a master list of daily requisites: reading, prayer and intentional silence, walks and bike rides, and, of course, writing. I outlined my novelling goals in no uncertain terms: One-half chapter a day. Period.

On Monday I picked up a lovely, perfect moon shell—not at the shore, as one might imagine, but at the base of a tree in my own campsite. Was it left there by another pilgrim into silence, some other lone soul learning again or anew the language of solitude? It reminded me of the words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, from her slim jewel, Gift From the Sea: “Solitude,” says the moon shell. Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the day, some part of each week, and each year . . . the core, the inner spring, can best be re-found through solitude.

I told one of my best friends before we came down here that I was really looking forward to re-finding my solitude. I’m often alone in the round of my life at home—but being alone is not nearly the same thing as being alone with yourself. To be alone with yourself, there first must be a purposeful silencing of the mental chatter with which we’re all so tempted to swaddle our brains in this busy, productive world of ours—and that can be a terrifying thing, particularly if one has forgotten how healing and helpful the deep silences can be. For the only true aloneness, of course, is aloneness with God, open-handed and empty of pretense. How easy it is to base our standing in grace upon our own efforts, howsoever boldly we might declare otherwise. I don’t think I realized how much I’d been congratulating myself over small successes and writhing under habitual failures (that sharp word, that condescending thought, that deadly ingratitude!) until forced to confront the facts in the seclusion of my own soul. All week I carried an image in my mind of a fretful, fussy infant soothed into sudden and unavoidable comfort by the encircling warmth of strong arms which, unlike even the most faithful human embrace, will never let go. My soul is even as a weaned child, said the Psalmist. Be still and know that I am God, said the Lover of my soul. All right, I said, with the wind and the waves and the sea birds circling overhead as witness. I have no other choice.

I was taken aback the first week of our sojourn by the crippling fear that seized me every time I sat down to write. It was really amazing, something I had to painfully press through. I’m realizing, the older I get, that the toll of “too much” on my inner equilibrium is getting steeper and steeper, an expense I can ill-afford to perpetuate. And it always manifests after a season of soul neglect as a serious discrepancy in the inspiration department. There were so many negative voices to drown out when I was trying to write I could hardly hear myself think. But somewhere round about Tuesday of the second week, a curious thing happened. I was writing away (rather grimly, I’m afraid), when my imagination caught the faintest prick of light, like a lone firefly amid the murky shades of a dark wood. I hesitated, pencil poised thoughtfully. Then, seeing as I had absolutely nothing to lose but a few pages of bad prose, I followed it. First one fairy lamp appeared, and then another, and another. And before I knew it, I was in love with my story again, writing furiously each day, often till after 7 at night. It just felt so intoxicating to be anchored in the scenes once more, to know that old excitement that presents itself in my heart as physical pain. And it felt so good to fall into bed at night, with a stout mug of chamomile tea and a fat Elizabeth Goudge novel, knowing I’d worked as hard as I was able. Ever so much more work to be done, of course, but we’re moving forward again. And I know it wouldn’t have happened without the gift of this time, this place, and the healing spaces of solitude.

Near the end of the week, I rode my bike early to the beach and watched the tide come in. There, alone in the warm sunshine, with the surf pounding in my ears and lapping almost to where I stood, I heard at last the water music that Kreeft was talking about, that endless song which God breathed into His sea, that one lullaby that never grows old:

I love you, I love you, I love you . . .

Bonnie and I were wild to see Philip on Friday night. I cleaned the Airstream within an inch of its life, put a bottle of wine in the fridge, and strung pretty paper flags on the awning. (I even ventured off my island for a grocery run!) When I saw our little roadster, Happiness Runs, draw up alongside the Airstream, we both exploded out to meet him—Bonnie Blue jumped as high as Philip’s head! I may have been slightly less demonstrative . . . but no less happy to have him back.

A joy all the sweeter for an enriching, soul-centering foray into Solitude.

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


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  1. Tom Murphy

    Lanier, may I visit your little island for a silent retreat?
    Or is it too sacred of a space for others to enter?

    I take two silent retreats a year at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and I prayer walk daily at sunrise. I am severely monkish at heart.

    Silence and solitude have become my meeting place with the Lord and I can’t seem to ever quite get enough…

  2. Julie Silander

    Thank you for this, Lanier. Every time I pick up a book by Goudge, I’m saddened a bit that she’s not with us and still writing. But many a time, I’ve thought, “But it’s ok – because Lanier is here and working away.” I’m so looking forward to reading that novel.

  3. Cara Strickland

    Oh Lanier, I felt like I was right there with you.
    And it made me smile when you mentioned Anne Morrow Lindbergh, your story was so evocative of her and Gift of the Sea.
    I know that feeling of falling in love with the work again. I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks, and having the space to do that as well.

  4. Lanier

    Thanks, all, for such kind words. 🙂

    Tom, Jekyll Island is a state park off the coast of Georgia, so I can’t lay any *official* claim to it. 😉 It’s certainly been a healing place for me, though. You might also want to consider neighboring Sapelo Island, only reachable by ferry. 🙂

  5. Leslie Sheridan

    “For the only true aloneness, of course, is aloneness with God, open-handed and empty of pretense. How easy it is to base our standing in grace upon our own efforts, howsoever boldly we might declare otherwise.”

    Mmmmmm……. that entire paragraph was hard and necessary for me to read. Thank you.

  6. April Pickle

    Thank you bunches, dear Lanier. This is a gift.
    It brought to remembrance an experience I had in Galveston several years ago. I was seven months pregnant, and looked and felt like I was carrying a bowling ball the size of a beach ball, and I was angry that we had to go to the coast with my husband’s family after we had just returned from a trip to D.C. One night I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk in the dark, and then it happened. The sun came up, meeting a sky filled with just enough clouds to make the most gorgeous sunrise I’ve ever seen. Colors and shapes filled the sky in all directions, and I felt like every part of my beach-ball shaped self was being hugged by God. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

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