Solitude, like New York, is a good place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. A little quiet reflection goes a long way with me. Like the lighthouse in the photograph, solitude warns me away from the dangers that lurk just below the surface of my life and keeps me in the sea lanes of deep and open water. Without an occasional dose of solitude, I might well flounder, maybe even hit rock bottom and sink.
On the other hand, give me too much solitude and I might sail off into the sunset, never to be heard from again. Wordsworth might well rue a world that is “too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending,” but without a little engagement in that world, what do writers have to write about? So to me, solitude is both my curse and my best friend, the yin and yang of my craft.
Solitude is the art of being alone without being lonely. If loneliness is the glass half empty, solitude is the vessel half full. It’s where I go to read or think or write; an oasis in the desert; a warm, dry cave of self-content; a prosperous voyage on a calm sea. If loneliness is imposed, solitude is chosen. You get the picture.
In a world in which we are constantly bombarded by all manner of stimuli, it’s no wonder that we see (Wordsworth, again) “little in Nature that is ours.” Maybe old WW should have spent a few hours (as I once did) overlooking The Strait of Juan de Fuca, the watery international boundary that separates the United States and Canada in the Pacific Northwest. On the eastern side, the San Juan Islands, an archipelago of little pearls to the north of Seattle, dot the passage that is the Salish Sea’s outlet to the Pacific Ocean. A couple of miles across the strait lies Vancouver Island, Canada’s equally lovely littoral. Despite its proximity to the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” a stretch of nasty local coastline known for unpredictable weather and dangerous shoals, the Strait is a popular waterway for both maritime and mammalian traffic. The last time I visited Lime Kiln State Park out on the tip of San Juan Island, the largest island in the eponymous group, two large pods of orcas cruised by on a cool, foggy morning. It was a sight and sound I will never forget. “Holy” was the adjective I used then to describe the moment I saw those creatures (Wordsworth, for the last time) “rise from the sea like Proteus and heard them, like Triton, blow his wreathed horn.” A few other friends stood nearby, equally transfixed. For each of us and for all of us, that moment was solitude at its finest.
Now don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to withdraw from my earthly circle of family and friends to go live, hermit-like, away from it all. I need to connect with people as much as I need my occasional dose of solitude. But doesn’t one make the other all-the-more sweet? In other words, Musers, as Honore de Balzac said, “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell that to.”
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”