Since some were unable to read from the electronic version of Still Point, here’s the essay. You might, however, want to go in and look at the visuals. The editor, Christine Cote, does a remarkable job.
The Solitary Watcher
Solitary and lonely are not the same although often confused. It is possible to be lonely when one is solitary, but it’s also possible to be un-lonely, in other words, content. A loner, perhaps one could say.
I grew up in an old and solitary farmhouse on the Great Plains of Kansas with five siblings, two parents, and a grandfather. That’s hardly a lonely life. And yet, as I look back at my childhood, I see myself solitary, wandering pastures, or out on a tractor, alone, plowing a field. Being left-handed and a dreamer, my solitary times often included falling over or off, in one way or another, and once tangling a plow in the fence and tipping both plow and tractor. Those sorts of tasks rarely meshed well with solitary dreamer.
Sitting by a window, staring at our backyard’s willow, the small fountain, the grass, or up on the farm, which we yet own, and staring out over the tallgrass prairie, works well for me. I’m reminded of the joy Thomas Merton took in his solitude: But my chief joy is to escape to the attic of the garden house and the little broken window that looks out over the valley. There in the silence I love the green grass.
Of all the things Merton knew and taught and wrote, solitude was the breath in his life.
Some of the earliest stories about me, from when we lived on a farm in Arkansas before we moved to the Kansas farm, tell of my wandering spirit, especially when I’d go visit Miz McNeil who lived on the farm next to ours. We left Arkansas sometime around my fourth birthday, so my wandering habit began early.
Miz McNeil grew peanuts. I loved peanuts—for that matter, still do—and Miz McNeil fed me peanuts when I visited. Peanuts roasted or boiled in the shell. One day, she decided to send me home with a supply, so she levered peanuts into my pockets; however, I had holes in my pockets, and do to this day from jamming my hands in too fast too often. The peanuts went into my pockets and out the holes and down my legs to shower around my feet.
Miz McNeil, clever woman, tied strings around the bottom of my pants legs and kept filling my pockets with peanuts until both pant legs were filled. Probably laughing as she did so. I waddled home. These were roasted in the shell peanuts, if you’re wondering, as boiled peanuts can get soggy.
On the Kansas farm, across the field west from the house, I’d wander down to the spring where Dad’s Uncle August and Uncle Louie once built a still. Three stone walls were all that remained. But the spring was there, and a pipe, pushed by an unknown hand into the bank at water’s edge, poured cold fresh water into my cupped hands. Matted pads of watercress grew in the pools between rocks. I carried a plastic bag in my pants pocket for those trips. If I brought home fresh watercress for Dad, he forgave my absence from whatever work was going on.
I learned to watch the sky from those wanderings, and the way light shifts and slides over a wheat field ruffled by wind. Annie Dillard says it best: There is a muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind. When thunderheads piled at the horizon and the light turned thick and coarse, it was time to head up the hill to shelter in the safety of family and house as the energy could turn wicked and threaten in the space of moments.
Solitude becomes more pricey in a city, but it’s possible. When I lived in New York, I had a small apartment on the second floor of a brownstone on West 85th Street. With windows. I’d sit with my first coffee as early sunlight tipped over the edge of the women’s residence across the street. The building, while long, was no more than three stories, and I’d watch from my solitary perch as women left in summer dresses, unencumbered, or in fall’s blustery wind, umbrellas tucked under arms.
One morning, a fierce storm tossed the branches of a small tree growing in a small patch of earth at the sidewalk’s edge. The tree survived the storm, but trashcans were tossed into the street. Trashcans in New York lead perilous lives.
Poets know solitude and weather: The four elements doze and wake./Who knows, behind the dark cloud/a small star may be playing. Adam Zagajewski. I met him once, at a reading, in a press of people and space. No time for anything but a thank you. He was kind. He signed his book for me. But I have his wanderings and his words for company.
Zagajewski liked walking in cities, too. I lived a half-block from West End park so could walk solitary among trees, but walking the sidewalks, pausing to look up at glowering gargoyles perched on ledges as people-streams sloshed around me, was just as alone. It’s easy to feel alone in a city. The iconic painting, Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper shows it. A couple sits at the coffee bar, not looking at each other, a single man sits apart, his back to us, and the barista bends over an invisible sink.
But I prefer walking country roads. The only thing to watch for is a blacksnake, its head lifted on a twig, sunning. Blacksnakes, our dad taught us, are a farmer’s friend. They eat rats. On a country road, I can allow my thoughts to wander in time to my steps. I watch for the red-winged blackbirds crossing my path, for the meadowlarks skittering away in the prairie, for the white-faced cows, lifting their heads from grazing to look at me, curious.
I watch the sky and the light to know when it’s time to turn back.