Solitude by George Merrill

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I walk frequently, more so recently. The prevailing anger and dissention in the atmosphere I find debilitating. I walk to settle my mind. I feed my soul by reconnecting with the beauty and goodness that permeates the world.

One path I like runs along the perimeter of St. Michaels. The other day, while walking, I saw a large dog trotting along by itself. The dog had a beautiful coat of thick white and gray fur. He watched me walk by, interested in my presence. It’s unusual to see a dog alone or not on a leash. I felt momentarily cautious when, after I passed him, he ran to me. He scrupulously sniffed me out – I guess I smelled acceptable because he then pranced around and started jumping up on me. I gently urged him down. I stroked him under the chin, mumbling totally mindless endearments. I knew that he heard music in my words, sensed my pleasure in the meeting and so the words were really peripheral to our encounter. The dog knew that I liked him. Words weren’t necessary.

I walked on while he wandered off into a stand of trees on the side of the path. I kept thinking of his gray eyes. This dog’s eyes were beautiful to see, like the soft and unblemished slate gray one sees on the undersides of clouds on sunny days. Was it the friendliness of the dog that determined how I felt about his eyes or were they simply lovely eyes?

Occasionally I’d turn around just to see if he were following me. I hoped he was. I saw no trace of him so I assumed he was off to make another acquaintance. For a moment, I felt let down.That day was particularly cold. I was alone on the path. Typically, there would be others I’d acknowledge with a nod – fellow walkers, many of whom would be walking their dogs. This was mostly a solitary occasion.

Solitude is an occasion for heightened awareness; Strangely, in solitude I’m made aware of how connected I am to all the life around me. I don’t believe I’m reclusive – I do not like feeling lonely. Solitude, however, is different from being lonely or feeling isolated; on the contrary, in solitude I find the space – inner and outer – to experience my solidarity with the life around me.

There’s something about meeting a creature other than human while alone; it could be a bird, bugs, foxes and even turkeys that have recently proliferated the woods around St. Michaels; it’s as if the meeting of the two worlds is unencumbered by distractions, or the need I might have to attend to another person who’s with me. We can be with each other, these strangers, in every sense of the word. Adam must have had great fun naming the animals.

Years ago, during the great ice storm on the Shore I had a similar encounter with a deer. Ice was building up everywhere, making paths slippery and downing tree limbs. It was dangerous. My neighbor Dot, who’d lost one leg to diabetes, was eighty plus and housebound. I walked through the woods to her house to see that she had food and kerosene for her heater. Power was sure to go. A deer appeared on the path in front of me. Ears as erect as antennae, she stood in the path and looked straight at me. I stopped. I moved toward her. She backed up, but didn’t bolt as I expected. Then I stepped back, and she moved forward. She seemed young and appeared to want to play. She appeared to limp.

I started muttering endearments to her: “Hey Bambi, what’s a gal like you doing out on a day like this?” She cocked her head to one side as if she hadn’t heard me correctly or thought I was a nut. With a kind of retreat and advance, we stepped toward and away from each other in concert until I made my way to Dot’s house. The deer retreated back into the woods.

Dot was in good shape. “Thanks, George, but got plenty of kerosene, bourbon and cigarettes,” she assured me. No better way to face the elements, I’d say.

Walking back through the woods to my house, I saw how the storm grew worse. The wind increased, the rain froze on all it fell upon. Rain ran down on the inside of my slicker chilling me. Walking was treacherous.

There was the deer, as if waiting for me. She was off to the side now. I walked slowly, babbling to her all the while, but not stopping. She didn’t move, but watched me pass by. She followed me for a few steps. Before entering my house, I saw she was looking at me, as if to say, ‘Stay out and play with me for a while.’ I waved goodbye and went in.

The wind howled that night. I heard trees falling; first a painful groan and then a thunderous crash. It was nasty.

In the morning, the sun shone. It illuminated the accumulated ice on tree limbs, on everything, and the world appeared as if sculpted by a glazier. Everything sparkled brilliantly in the sunlight, a scene set against a deep blue sky.

I went outside looking around. By the small stream between Dot’s house and mine, I saw the deer. She was dead. She had a twisted hoof. I could see she was crippled. I don’t know how she died.

I stooped over her. Her eye, deep and dark, reflected a billowing white cloud high above her as if she could now see something well beyond the constraints that life had imposed on her. She saw an open and free space that went on forever. I had a regret. I wished that the day before, I’d stayed out a little longer and played with her.

Solitude, in unexpected ways, makes us friends with those with whom we share this planetary space.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Carol Schroeder says:

    How well I identify with this essay. Walking through the woods by myself is what I love to do. It is then that I feel most in touch with the “world.” In fact, even traveling to another country alone makes me feel that way. The experience is all “mine” and not dispersed by another’s presence. Making a solitary trip can turn what might have been a joint trip with someone else into an accomplishment of my own. And I look back on those walks and trips differently from the trips I have made with others. Of course, both types are very valuable. Encounters with animals like deer or rabbits and with strangers occur all the more or only when one is by himself.

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