Wednesday, June 19, 2013


My friend nailed it the other day. We were talking about the benefits of belonging to a group where people  share spiritual beliefs, and contrasting that to a solitary search for the Divine.

“I enjoy the company of others who share my beliefs,” my friend said. “But in a group I'm apt to monitor what I say and worry about the needs of others. When I'm alone I can give all my energy to connecting with God.”

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be one or the other. It's enjoyable to be among those who have similar goals. In groups we can share experiences and insights, challenge each other to think differently or more deeply, and encourage one another.

But our culture generally supports a person's desire to seek out groups, whereas it may question a person's preference for solitude. Lone wolf, hermit, and recluse are not flattering terms. But as my friend pointed out, it may be easier for us to be our authentic selves when we are alone.

T'ime alone gives us a chance to let our hair down, say what we think, and give ourselves over to emotions and ideas we might not put on display for others.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


Four short-eared owls lifted off the ground and began to circle above me. I was walking early in the morning  on an expanse of high desert sagebrush and lava. It seemed like the birds had taken flight for my benefit. To delight me, to show off, to say hello.

An observer would have seen that my dogs had scared the owls. But if that were the whole story, why didn't they fly off instead of hovering, flying in small circles above me? One young owl dropped elevation on every circle, coming ever closer. When she was directly above my head, only 30 or so feet high, I said, “Good morning, Beautiful.” The owl replied, “Schreee.”

She probably was curious. But don't we investigate things that interest us and flee from what we fear? I realized I was anthropomorphizing, but I didn't want to let go of the idea that the owls were saying good morning.

Maybe they picked up on how beautiful I found them. Maybe they heard my heart say, “Thanks for staying around. Thanks for showing me your great wings and how you can soar.” Out loud I said, “I love you, I love you.

When nature comes close, it feels like it has a message for us. That morning, it seemed like the young owl said, “We are sojourners together. We both love the desert. We love early morning. We love flight and freedom. We are sisters.”

Monday, May 27, 2013


Some spiritual teachers believe there's a fifth dimension beyond the four we perceive—the three spatial dimensions, plus time. They believe people can find the fifth dimension by opening themselves to the presence of God. They say that dimension transcends the others and gives mortals a glimpse of the immortal.

Some scientists, too, are theorizing about the possibility of a fifth dimension (and maybe more) in hopes of explaining unsolved mysteries and apparent contradictions in the laws of the universe.

Many traditions believe the other dimension can be reached through spiritual practice, and point to silence and solitude as ways to achieve that. And while it's natural for us to to want to know more, understand more, and become wiser, we can have a humbler motive for seeking solitude. We may simply need to find refreshment after a period of scurrying. We may need to get away from our routines to enjoy nature. We may want to sort out thoughts, make decisions, or alter plans.

Whether we aspire to spiritual breakthroughs or just want an afternoon off, silence and solitude can be our precious helpers.

Monday, May 20, 2013


When the plane banked, I spotted the snow-capped Wasatch Range out my window. My eyes misted.

Usually when I travel, I catch planes in Salt Lake City, which is four hours from my home, to save money on fares. And when I return and glimpse the mountains, my heart does a flip.

My recent trip took me to Montreal to see my son, daughter-in-law, and infant granddaughter. Their neighborhood has pleasing stone and brick apartments on quiet streets. It's an easy walk to a large park, to fruit and vegetable markets, and bakeries that sell unimaginably good bread. My son and daughter-in-law are great cooks, and they have interesting and hospitable friends. The baby was hard to leave. Still, when the Rocky Mountains came into view, right where I'd left them, I had a familiar feeling of belonging.

What constitutes home geographically can be ocean, prairie, corn fields, bustling urban neighborhood, or quiet suburb. But those of us who grew up with the grandeur of mountains, with their wildlife, boiling rivers, and eagles circling on thermals, developed a deep connection to them.

For us, it is natural to go to the mountains when we are seeking deeper understanding. The mountains can help us come home to our selves. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013


When spring finally comes to northern climates, usually after several false starts, people are impatient to get out and garden. Styrofoam cups containing seedlings line up on counters. Wheelbarrows get new tires. Planting advice is sought on the Internet. The time of dreaming and scheming is over and gardening can begin.

“I am most at peace when I'm in my garden,” a friends says. Though her husband and children help with the work, she often finds herself alone with her flowers and vegetables. She values that as priceless reflection time.

Gardens give us a chance to slow down and notice what we wouldn't when we're in hustle/bustle mode. We close our eyes and listen to the hum of bees. Flower and earth scents fill our noses. We savor the sun warming our bare arms. When determined plants poke their heads out of the soil, we recognize we're in the presence of a miracle. 

Nature. Quiet. New life. We recognize gardens as holy spots.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


After a spring rain, a friend and I stood on the sagebrush hill behind my house and took in a wide view of freshly washed sky and greening fields. Sagebrush gave off a heady scent. Near our feet, patches of dwarf forget-me-nots were emerging.

A beautiful scene can lift us from our mundane concerns and help us feel close to the sacred. In our most glorious moments, the gap between ourselves and the divine appears to close altogether.

But many times we feel frustrated in our attempts to achieve communion. Sometimes it feels like a wall as thick as nuclear shielding separates us from the connection we desire.

At such times, it might be helpful to remember what formula for inspiration has worked for us before. For a number of us, as well as for many poets, philosophers, and mystics, an infusion of beautiful nature can point us to something transcendent.

Friday, April 26, 2013


If only we looked forward to keeping company with ourselves the way we anticipate actual company.

We might prepare something special to eat, or tidy the area where we plan to hang out. We might consider what activity we'd most enjoy doing on our own.

Instead, we go off alone only when the tasks we consider important are done, no one needs us urgently, and we can spare the time. Even those of us who schedule regular times of meditation or prayer often see solitude as something good for us rather than times to relish. 

Julie Cameron, who wrote The Artist's Way, a self-help book aimed at helping adults recover their lost creativity, advised readers to take an afternoon a week to be alone and play as a child, swinging on a swing at the park, feeding ducks, kicking rocks or a ball. She believed this to be crucial for getting in touch with the younger, true self.

She wrote, “Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others. We are, in effect, trained to listen to others' versions of ourselves. We are brought up in our life as told to us by someone else. When we survey our lives, seeking to fulfill our creativity, we often see we had a dream that went glimmering because we believed, and those around us believed, that the dream was beyond our reach. Many of us would have been, or at least might have been, done, tried something, if . . . if we had known who we really were.”

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Being alone has small charm for a person who doesn't want to be in that state.  The refugee. The stranger. The newcomer. The recently widowed. The empty nester. The kid  who is left out.

Even those of us who like solitude know that unwanted aloneness can be painful. It would be insensitive of us to not feel compassion for those who long for company.

But that often isn't the problem we face. In a world geared toward groups and togetherness, we sometimes find it hard to be sympathetic to our own need for time apart.

If we do respect it though, we can come back to the world refreshed, ready to offer ourselves to those struggling with aloneness.

Friday, April 12, 2013


At a Saturday writing workshop I asked participants to write on the topic, “I Am a Changeling.”

In the ancient stories, fairies or wicked spirits would steal a couple’s baby and replace it with a different one, sometimes one of theirs. Until fairly recent times in Ireland and Scotland, parents believed this to be an explanation for why a child was mentally ill, disabled, or a poor fit in the family.

Because writers often feel like misfits, I thought a group of them could have fun with the topic. But I had misgivings, too, and wondered if some in the class might have trouble relating to the subject.

I was surprised that about a third of the participants chose to write about how they were, in fact, actual changelings. They felt like they had never belonged in their families. The rest of the writers had stories of their own about being out-of-place in the world.

Truth be told, most of us probably feel like we don’t exactly fit in. Trying to fit costs us a great deal in energy.

That gives the time we spend apart importance. When we’re alone, we can be our authentic selves. When we’re alone, we can be easy with who that is.  

Friday, April 5, 2013


When I read about people in poor, crowded countries who live with 20 or so other people in a small shack I wonder, “Do those individuals ever get any solitude?” When I hear about a multi-generational family that has moved under one roof because of the bad economy, I wonder if family members mourn the loss of opportunity to be alone. 

But maybe I overvalue the importance of solitude. I grew up in the rural Rocky Mountain West amid lots of empty space. As a kid, I and my dog ran free. I left in the morning and sometimes didn't return until dark. I explored fields where cattle grazed, ran up and down mounds of dirt, saw deer on hillsides, visited neighbors' horses, and rode them whenever I got a chance. I came to love solitude and silence. Maybe not everyone has a need to be alone. Maybe it's partly habit, partly cultural. 

Then I come across a quote from a great thinker or poet, like this one from C.S. Lewis. “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy—therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.”

I probably don't need to figure out whether solitude is a universal desire that occurs in everyone. I only need to respect that longing in myself and find ways to accommodate it.

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Furious activity is no substitute for understanding. H.H. Williams

As this season of Lent comes to a close, I'm remembering a Lenten discipline I took on several years ago. The Episcopal priest where I attended church suggested instead of giving up something for Lent, to take something on. I love food—its flavor, scent, and texture, but often bolt it down, giving it scant attention. I decided that during Lent I would savor my food.

Next day I made a favorite breakfast, a cheese omelet. I noted how pretty it looked on the plate and picked up my fork. But an interesting news story was playing on the radio and I strained to hear it. I shut the radio off and picked up my fork again. I remembered then I had to turn on my curling iron so I could get ready for work. I dashed upstairs.

Back at the table, I sat down and took a bite. Oh! What about the clothes I'd forgotten to put in the drier the night before? I dashed downstairs.

That's how it went. Up, down, up, down. I'd had no idea how splintered I allowed myself to be during meals. It took me a full week to learn to sit still and eat breakfast as my sole task. The benefit? Food tasted wonderful.

I'd meant to take on all meals during that Lent, but breakfast was all I could manage. After Lent ended, I kept the practice of eating breakfast mindfully. But it can still be challenging. This morning, NPR began an interview with someone I admire and I didn't shut the radio off. I could have delayed eating until the interview was over; instead I absentmindedly emptied my plate.

I think I had a good breakfast, only I can't remember what it was.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gregarious by nature

We're a gregarious species and want to be with others, especially at certain times. When in labor. When hearing a grim diagnosis from a doctor. During a heart attack. At the moment of death. Encountering a grizzly. When fighting hypothermia.

We want companionship during less dramatic moments, too, like when we celebrate accomplishments or count desert stars on a summer night. But, whoa! We start equating alone with bad. The desire to be with others pushes aside another natural yearning—to find solitude.

We believe, for instance, that people should not be alone on holidays, so generous people try to include others in their celebrations. We can hardly imagine that a stressed person may prefer to sleep till noon on a day off, stay in pajamas, and eat a frozen dinner.

Our uneasiness with silence keeps us connected to radios and headphones. We lose our ability to enjoy a purple and orange sunset if we are by ourselves. In its extreme form, people become terrified of being alone.

In crowded places in the world, finding space apart is difficult. Here in the American West, it doesn't take us long to find an isolated spot where we can hike, think, and pray. Time after time, I find that when I give solitude the same respect that I give togetherness, I'm rewarded with a renewed spirit.   

Saturday, March 16, 2013


I have a school teacher friend who everyone describes as inspiring. She recently accepted a position coaching other teachers. But when I suggested she has a passion for teaching, she resisted the idea. 

“It's important to me,” she said. “It's my calling. But I don't have a passion for it.”

We associate passion with hot feelings. We are passionate when we tango, passionate when we cook with curry, passionate when we join protests. But we may balk at using the term to describe a longtime commitment, and it's almost impossible to think of applying the word to our search for silence. 

Silence is cold. We know that from reading fiction. Characters confront each other with chilling silence, tramp in silent, frigid fields, or tremble at the icy silence of a deserted hallway. It's weird to consider that some of us actually have a passion for silence.

When first exploring that need we often experiment with silence observed in community. Participants come back from such events with a desire to incorporate times of silence into their everyday lives of work and family, but it isn't easy. Our culture associates silence with recluses or the oddly religious who live in monasteries. We feel strange asking our close people to grant us times of silence, and worry it will hurt them if we crave solitude. 

But with effort, we can rehabilitate the word silence, in our own minds at least. We can embrace that it's cool. We can embrace that it's hot. We can give in to our passion for it.

Friday, February 22, 2013


The writer Eudora Welty said that understanding one place helps us understand all places. She gave this advice to fiction writers, urging them to set stories in places that were real to them. Readers would be able to recognize authenticity even if the place were unknown to them.

Do her words apply to inner spaces, too? If we come to know our interior neighborhood, can we carry that knowledge with us into our everyday lives, where it will serve us no matter how far we travel?

Mystics of various religious beliefs, and those without religion but a hunger to explore their souls, tell us that finding time apart is essential to discovering the inner self. Being alone with Nature offers a magnificent opportunity, but so can sitting in a quiet room with no electronics intruding.

It's a queer idea, and getting queerer all the time, to plan time alone divorced from email, radio, TV, ipads and phones. Our previously busy lives have somehow become more frantic. It's a challenge to eat even one meal mindfully. We feel uneasy turning down social opportunities so we can have time alone, and even we who are natural introverts feel sheepish about our need for personal space.

Yet, if the urge to be alone with God, Nature, and our thoughts calls us, we'd be wise to answer “yes.” The quality of our regular lives may depend on it.