Women in Search of Solitude: 10 BOOKS, 1 ARTICLE
Sarton - Grumbach - Shulman - Mills - Scot - Dillard - Karper
Pinions - Dobisz - Ozelsel - Miller

Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton. New York: Norton, 1973.

May Sarton is an important figure among American women writers and feminists, and her Journal of a Solitude is considered a turning point not only in her career but in terms of its influence on the structure and content of similar journals, most obvious being Grumbach and Shulman reviewed below. But the notion of solitude in Sarton is a deliberate polemical one: the woman as solitary and marginalized in society and culture. The Journal reflects a year in Sarton's late fifties, living alone in Nelson, New Hampshire, where she moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts after her parents' death. Nelson is solitary as in the sense of small town, but also socially and culturally isolated. But that is how Sarton identifies herself at this stage in her career and life.

I am bored with my life here at present. There is not enough nourishment in it. There are times when the lack of any good conversation, theatre, concerts, art museums around here -- cultured life -- creates a vacuum of boredom.

However, we (and she) know that the isolation Sarton experiences is built into her life as a writer, feminist, lesbian, single child, alone, a person disposed to deep depression and outbursts of anger ("cosmic mood-swing"). "Solitude here is my life. I have chosen it and had better go on making as great riches as possible out of despair," she writes. She is passionately devoted to gardening, flower-arrangements, productivity. Her solitude nevertheless takes her around the country for presentations and poetry readings, and she entertains visitors regularly, who, however, make her feel "overcharged," "scattered." Hence, while the Journal of a Solitude is best viewed as an autobiographical literary work, we can see glimpses of the failed notion of solitude, of the sad and oppressive view of solitude that most people imagine.

Fifty Days of Solitude, by Doris Grumbach. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Doris Grumbach was an established writer and 75 years old when she had the opportunity one Maine winter to find herself alone for fifty days. Solitude is never complete: she visited the grocer and post office, attended church services in her little town of Sargentsville, but she elected to exchange a minimum of words and deliberately did not interrelate with anyone.

Rather than boring minutiae, however, her record of these days reveals a sharp mind attentive to detail and introspection. Grumbach has the skill and command of literature to summon up anecdotes and telling quotations running from Jessamyn West to Paul Valery to Henri Nouwen to illustrate her thoughts. This informed, intellectual but humane voice is the strength of the book and makes the whole experiment in solitude worthwhile. Look for no particular psychology or revealing daily journal, just a literate and sensitive record of one person's thoughts at large.

Drinking the Rain, by Alix Kates Shulman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Subtitled "A Memoir" on the dust jacket cover, this book is a wide-ranging narrative of a couple of years in the mid-1980's in the life of a well-known writer and Manhattanite spending summers in an isolated Maine waterfront cabin. The three sections, The Island, The Mainland, and The World, hover around the paradox of a passage from James Baldwin which the author quotes twice:

One would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas, which seem to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are... in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. ... The second idea, of equal power, that one must never in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength.

This memoir of solitude on a Maine seacoast does not resolve the paradox, more acute given the author's class and hobnobbery among people of relative substance. Section One shines with hope. Her discovery of self-sufficiency in food (foraging daily for wild greens and fruits, daily clams and mussels), simple quarters, basic furnishings, all off the grid, no running water, etc. are ably described and convey an infectious sense of excitement.

But Section 2, with the Mainland as metaphor for her bourgeois lifestyle, plunges us back into the activist world of posturing and false dilemmas, the noise of urbanity and the chatter of chic angst. (Particularly grating is an old friend met at a Thanksgiving feast, who professes Buddhism as "enjoy what you've got" and then raves about the duck pate.) This whole section is exhausting in relating all the contrived issues the author has collected in her life to date, at the age of "five-oh."

The final section is called The World because it does not resolve the original paradox. It is a little more redemptive but by now the reader may be worn out and a little skeptical, especially with the moose roast at the cabin. It's hard to picture a dichotomous Thoreau, though he too did not resolve his own paradox, but unfortunately our author does not even try very hard by the end. The letdown after Section 1 is never remedied; Baldwin's challenge remains.

Epicurean Simplicity, by Stephanie Mills. Washington DC: Island Press, 2002.

Stephanie Mills is an established environmental writer and lecturer with books, articles, and conference appearances to her credit. In this book, her insights on nature, environmental degradation, and the elements of living simply are clear, articulate, and compelling. But, as Mills tells the reviewer, the book is not explicitly about solitude. It, nevertheless, may serve as a diary of happenstance and a guidebook to the viable solitary.

Epicurean Simplicity shows that a life of solitude is not necessarily deprived of people, emotion, or the sensuous (that is, sense-related) pleasures of nature, hence the notion of benign Epicureanism underlying a simple life observed and savored. Mills offers a very autobiographical narrative of life on 35 wooded acres in northern Michigan -- part diary, part writer's journal, part philosophical musing, plus some nostalgia and speculation. She is sensitive to seasons and circumstances. The sympathetic reader instantly shares the natural wonder and pathos Mills conjures, describing trees, insects, gardens, snow, animal friends. These are the sources that fill our senses with delight and a little pathos, confirming the naturalistic philosophy of Epicurus and Lucretius, who bid us set aside artificial speculations and recognize the exquisite beauty and simple wonders of life and nature before us.

Mills calls herself a Luddite shunning technology, hunkering in her cabin with propane and firewood, attending to her own chores, pursuing the small wonders of natural life at her window or woodlands, a simple life of writing and reflecting.  Since publication Mills reluctantly uses a computer and the Internet, in part the result of pressure from editors.

Epicurean Simplicity is not laden with science or scholarship. The tone is conversational, the prose lyrical, the thoughts unflinching. The book is a congenial reflection on the art of living in solitude and simplicity. 

The Stations of Still Creek, by Barbara J. Scot. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1999.

There is more in this book about marriage and mountain climbing than about solitude, though Scot's memoir features a central image of solitude in self and nature. She and her husband own a cabin on the outskirts of Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon, where she retreats alone after a disturbing experience. Her husband Jim, an avid mountain climber, is reported missing in an accident in Nepal, and though soon confirmed to be alright and later back home in one piece, Scot has suffered an emotional jolt that compels her to revisit her life's priorities. Jim is the other major character in her tale, whom she portrays with brutally frankness as aloof and business-like. His safe return from Nepal has only triggered Scot's quest for self-discovery. Jim is rehabilitated at the end of the story during a mountain climb they both undertake -- together, for a change.

The stations theme is, of course, reminiscent of the Stations of the Cross, but here they are emotionally positive, natural settings Scot discovers in the forest around the cabin, dubbed Old Growth Sculpture, Burned-out Cedar Snag, Maidenhair Fern Point, Green Cathedral, among others. But Scot never delves into a philosophy of life and solitude. Rather, at this stage of her life (age fifty-four), the experience of the stations touch a feminine chord that sets the author on a path of reflection and reassessment. She is not an idle Thoreau, but is wrestling with mixed feelings about marriage, nurturing, creativity, and death. Her chronicle touches the female pulse of life, the yin of nature. The book shows how solitude can become a very subjective pursuit, such that an outsider can only watch from afar and hope for the best.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. New York: Harper, 1974.

Women writers in search of solitude or happening upon it in reflection interweave a more private persona into their narrative that is usually absent in the bravado or aloofness of men's writings. But Dillard comes close to mingling the two genres. She lives alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and these magazine articles cobbled into an ostensible pilgrimage in the surroundings of a creek near her home breathe an unsettled and unsettling ambiguity.

"I am no scientist," Dillard tells us. "I am a wanderer with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts." She considers her house in a homely vein: "An anchorite's hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds are simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the rock-bottom of the creek itself and it keeps me steadied in the current as an anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down." She gets the etymology right, but it is entomology that really moves Dillard, with an air of Southern Gothic. Beware the barnacle image! Dillard's view of nature is sheer Darwinian caricature accelerated to the bizarre and macabre. She describes giant water bugs disabling frogs, biting insects bringing down small mammals, the shrewd mechanisms of parasites, muskrat hunting, leeches, ducks frozen on wintry lake surfaces, horrors of locusts. "For most creatures, being parasitized is a way of life -- if you call that living."

Nor is the plant world exempt from Dillard's dark eye: "I see scratched and peeled stems, leaves that are half-eaten, rusted, blighted, blistered, snipped, smutted, pitted, puffed, sawed, bored, and rucked.

Is there a philosophy of life here, let alone one of solitude, harmony, or pilgrimage? Concludes Dillard: "Is this what it's like? I thought then, and think now: a little blood here, a chomp there, and still we live, trampling the grass? Must everything whole be subdued? Here was a new light on the intricate texture of things after the fall: the way we the living are nibbled and nibbling -- not held aloft on a cloud in the air but bumbling pitted and scarred and broken through a frayed and beautiful land." Dillard's frayed soul, left in a macabre solitude, projects itself as a pilgrim in a strange and hostile land.

Where God Begins to Be: A Woman's Journey into Solitude, by Sister Karen Karper, PCPA. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

This is a narrative of several years of life in a West Virginia backwoods, written by a Poor Clare nun experimenting with a new lifestyle. Sister Karen entered her order in 1959 at the age of 17. She was in her twenties when the ramifications of the Second Vatican Council struck her order, as well as the entire Catholic Church. It is not clear if she used the hermit status as a polite way of quitting the order, but it took thirty years to get to the status that was denied a lifetime to Thomas Merton.

For the author of a biography of St. Clare, this book lacks a spiritual dimension and the deeper insight that solitude is supposed to offer to a spiritually-minded person. Much is promised by the title, which the author derives from a line of Meister Eckhart: "There where clinging to things ends, there God begins to be." Further, one hesitates to describe these years as those of a hermit, for it seems busy with human interrelations: two other nuns living nearby, a garrulous old neighbor, the grocery, the post office, repairmen, church, even a monthly return to the Ohio convent to teach. We all have neighbors who live solitary lives, keep to themselves, pursue a silent routine of work and chores -- but they are not hermits.

The author acknowledges the lack of personal feelings in her narrative when several potential publishers critique her manuscript, but the absence of insights of famous Christian hermits or mystics is telling. One reviewer, also a nun, unsparingly criticized the author's affection for her cat as a displaced love of Christ, condemning the book to a shallow egoism.

The author is now Karen Fredette, married and editor of a newsletter for hermits, Raven's Bread. One wonders how the transition from near-hermit and nun to full-time "householder" would work as a sequel.

Wind on the Sand: the Hidden Life of an Anchoress by Pinions. London: SPCK, 1980; New York: Paulist Press, 1981.

This modest 80-page book is the autobiography of an Englishwoman who became an anchoress in the Anglican tradition.

 Pinions (her pseudonym) worked for the Women's Auxiliary Air Force of the UK during World War II and afterwards, visiting many countries and seeing may cultures and peoples. During a stint in Algeria, she experienced an insightful moment viewing the Atlas mountains through a haze, a moment when her hatred of God (she had just lost a favorite brother over Germany) melted into a sense of a transcendent God found in nature, and , later, she says, in people and circumstances.

For Pinions was not brought up religious, and her progress was worthily her own. She read the Christian spiritual classics (Cloud of Unknowing, John of the Corss, Ruysbroeck) and, returning to England, sought out a spiritual director. After a couple of meeting he surprised her by suggesting she become a nun. Pinions entered a contemplative community but found the minimum of prayer and the maximum of busywork unsuitable, and left the order after five-plus years.

"It could be that you have a higher vocation, " a new director suggested, and he trained her to become an anchoress. And it worked. Pinions followed a version of the Ancrene Wisse and Rule of St. Benedict, and with the approbation of the local bishop moved to a small cottage or hut. Her life of prayer and solitude blossomed.

Pinions offers a clear and unpretentious description of prayer based on her experience, ascending from meditation and "prayer of quiet" to recollection, contemplation, and intercession. She offers examples from her daily life and sufferings, and several of her own prayers. Her daily life records her reluctant departure from the cottage after nearly ten years due to a serious kidney ailment, finally residing in the separate quarters of a benefactor after long and unhappy stays in the hospital.

Later, largely bedridden, came a chance interview in a religious newspaper, followed by a BBC interview. Correspondence came, from a trickle to thousands of letters from around the world. Pinions happily answers each. Correspondents usually seek a bit of counsel, which, she offers in a spirit of joy, kindness, simplicity, and courage. She would never seek to convert anyone, she writes, and sees the oneness of humanity as the key to understanding Christian virtues.

The life of Pinions reflects a friendlier concept of the anchoress than the austere medieval image of enclosure or cloister. Though she kept her temporary vows as a nun and during her hospital stays would reply to enquiries about what she did that she was a nun, Pinions crafted a new lay (female) religious function in the church, sustaining the anchoritic tradition while offering the spiritually-minded solitary a viable model of life adaptable by her own recommendation to anyone so disposed.

The title comes from a glimpse of a whirling sandstorm during the period when she was to experience a kind of epiphany in Algeria. The cover subtitle to the New York edition is "The Story of a 20th Century Anchoress" and contains a foreword by American writer Annie Dillard.

The Wisdom of Solitude: a Zen Retreat in the Woods, by Jane Dobisz. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.

The charisma of this little book is the author's amiable assembly of events in her 100-day solitude within the themes of insightful koans and stories of Zen masers. The book is not a rote diary's succession of random thoughts or events but a reflection on a succession of realizations about self and reality, an anecdotal conversation with a person who has acquired a certain wisdom even as we watch.

 The details of what the deserted cabin was like, the kind and quantity of food, the sensations of winter and abiding solitude -- plus the routine of sitting, walking, bowing (a vigorous exercise), wood-chopping, all following the instructions of a Korean Zen master, are presented with modest and grace. There is nothing here to frustrate a non-Zen reader or anyone inexperienced with solitude. Dobisz was a novice herself, and so the experiment in solitude as enlightenment is clearly and warmly communicated. She writes:

By making my focus smaller and smaller, everything is getting bigger and bigger. ... There's a vast space around things in which anything is possible. A sense of rapture permeates even the smallest activities of the day. ... The true way is always right in front of you.

Twenty-five years later, Dobisz is now Zen master Bon Yeon leading retreats in the Boston area. URL:

Forty Days: The Diary of a Traditional Solitary Sufi Retreat, by Michaela M. Ozelsel. Brattleboro, VT: Threshold Books, 1996; Boston: Shambhala, 1999.

Author Ozelsel was born in Germany, grew up mostly in Turkey, and studied at U.S. and German universities, becoming a professional psychotherapist and lecturer. Not only is this first-hand account of a Sufi halvet or retreat unique because it is written by a Muslim woman well versed in Sufi and Islamic literature but also because the author is familiar with scientific methods and psychological foundations. She strengthens her narrative with an appendix of over a dozen brief commentaries.

The retreat transpired in a tiny unfurnished (except for her mattress) Istanbul apartment during a cold winter, with intermittent electricity and water. Her fast paralleled the Ramadan fast but with less food. Ozelsel kept a daily record of her mind and spirit, integrating her sole reading for the retreat: the Quran, Mevlana (i.e., Rumi), and Ibn Arabi, plus her audio cassettes of  of ilahi (dialog prayers) and zhikr (repetitions of God's names), the latter functioning like mantras, accompanied by physical movements of head and body.

The details of her solitude range from early despair to tears of joy. Ozelsel carefully monitors thoughts, emotions, and bodily phenomena. She marshals quotations from her reading sources that help structure the insights she relates, as well as informing the reader about the depth of Sufi tradition. The many commentaries on the psychology  of ritual, the teacher, the mental and physiological phenomena experienced, and discussions about the functions of the halvet are an informative addition. The book is a unique view of solitude and spirituality, and Ozelsel is an excellent guide, writing with heart-felt intimacy and refreshing honesty.

"Alone in the Temple: A Personal Essay On Solitude and the Woman Poet," by Leslie A. Miller, in Kansas Quarterly, vol. 24/25, issue 4/1, 1992/93, p. 200-214.

Solitude has always been problematic for women due to social role and ascribed psychology. Solitude has been a man's privilege, defined by men as a reward for creativity and retreat, like the ebb and flow of battle. The virtue of Miller's essay is to point out the concept of "capital" in men's use or insistence on solitude, versus the aspirations of creative women who stand alone in the "temple of Silence," but find it empty. Here Miller evokes a scene from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, highlighting the dilemma of the aspiring Anna, who happens upon a statue of Silence, like a female Greek muse, deliberately abandoned (or hidden away) by her late husband in a corner of the estate's barn.

Miller makes some excellent points about solitude and creativity:

As a writer, I can't help noticing that solitude is something some people have more of than others. It must be valuable, a resource. I stress here solitude as an alleged enabling force for the artist, specifically for the writer as artist, solitude as time to read, to ponder, to be distracted, to be "half conscious," inward, even selfish, to write and to have respect from others for the enabling seclusion. In many ways this sort of solitude implies many other conditions as well: for example, economic independence produces leisure time, which in turn produces solitude or the opportunity for it.

Insofar as solitude makes the product (writing) possible, it can also produce power: for example, the production of a book of poems in the field of writing also produces a certain amount of legitimacy or power for the writer, so solitude becomes indirectly linked to power by making it possible. Class may produce solitude by producing economic independence. Gender may also be a factor in the production of solitude; the solitary male poet adds himself to a long and respected tradition of cosmologies and epiphanic moments of solitary communion with nature; the solitary female poet, however, adds herself to a slimmer tradition fraught with suicides, agoraphobia and a seemingly unnatural aversion to bearing children.

Miller notes the advice of (male) poet Rilke to an aspiring young (male) poet, and the parallel advice of poet Robert Bly. Both think of a poet's desired solitude in terms of the privilege of men to assert their need for creativity. On the other hand, women poets, such as Cynthia MacDonald, honestly reflect upon the difficulties of the woman poet, who must tack on creativity to a mundane and circumscribed social role, in contrast to men poets who are free to carve out a profession and pursue their dreamed necessities.

Women poets reflect the dilemmas of their search for solitude. Emily Dickinson saw poetry as just a key turn away from conventional life. Not so facile for others; Miller mentions Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Edna Millay, and Carolyn Kizer as poets of anguish and struggle. French writer Colette is more ingenious, even if obliged to a negative resourcefulness. Miller notes:

Locked in a room by her elderly husband, Willy, to write the Claudine books which he graced with his own name, Colette was forced to create novels. In the process she also created herself and a marketable product that would always ensure her right to the enabling solitude.

Much of Miller's essay describes her attempt to find a situation that would offer solitude and space for her own poetic creativity. She found it in the spare and mundane work of hotel clerking, during which long hours, especially at night in roadside motels, offered plenty of solitude, if not inspiration. Her odd jobs here remind the reader of the hapless women workers in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, except that those women had long lost aspiration for creativity -- assuming that society had ever been so kind as to have nurtured that possibility. But Miller scrabbled through the tough, boring hotel jobs and directionless ill-conceived marriage, eventually completing a doctoral degree, wrote several books of poetry, and earned tenure teaching at a university.

At the time of writing this essay, however, nothing like this was certain in Miller's future. She was still at the hotel clerking stage. And she knew what a difficult and solitary course must lie ahead:

To be female and to demand such things as retreat from life and from loved ones is difficult and different. To assert the need for retreat when one is young, a wife and not yet a verified artist seems selfish, stubborn, even crazy. And insisting on such selfishness is hard enough without the guilt that accompanies it even in twentieth century America. In many ways, when a man effects such a retreat, his actions are not only honorable but a kind of "symbolic capital" in that others will respect them, if he is an artist, a "sensitive man" as in the case of Rilke. In this sense it becomes "gender capital," accruing interest for the male, costing the female. The image of the male poet in retreat can be attractive to society. But the image of a female poet in retreat is somehow against nature, a liability that can lead to emotional bankruptcy.

But solitude is both a condition of creativity and a state of spirit, and Miller's dogged pursuit of her aspiration shows what can be done, even if being "alone in the temple" is not just a physical aloneness but an assigned status that must be vigorously denied.