On Solitude


Ah, here is the final affliction I must bear. Greetings, solitude.

Dear solitude, what have you come here to teach me? Before in my life, I have always chosen you. Now you have chosen me, you have singled me out, and the lessons seem too hard to learn. My first flirt with you was in high school, when I isolated myself from my mother and my father and my little sister. I lived in the basement of that house on 1st Street in Geneva, Illinois, and I took you into my arms like a woman I have lived with for a decade and have come to rely on for warmth.

Now you stare at me and it is you who have chosen me. I don’t think I want to welcome you back, but there you are, standing out in the street, and I hasten to welcome you in. I’ve found that I’ve become lonely. I didn’t know it could be like this, I didn’t know I would ever be able to understand the ache of wanting to hold so badly my nephew’s hand. I didn’t know it could be this cold, I didn’t know I would hold onto that discordant note of a Jackson Browne song for so boldly long.

I have hoped to discover who I am when I have been given all the time alone in the world and I find that I am someone stripped of his friends. They are here and there, in their own lonely states, all very many phone calls or weeks away, all very many emails that we are both failing at replying to, all very dead, all very changed, all very someone else, all very very much in Europe.

In July, I turn thirty. I would like to reflect on a journal entry I wrote ten years ago this night to shed light on how I am feeling now. It was the first time I turned to books as friends. That night, I invited a friend over to my apartment to write papers together. The window was open and a great noise was coming from far away. None of us agreed about where it might be coming from and we tried ignoring it, but failed. We were two weeks out from graduation—no, twelve days—and we were both having a hard time of focusing on the papers at hand. I was writing a paper on Greek exegesis of the young man who sheds his cloak in the Garden of Gethsemane. The main point I wanted to make was that he shed his cloak, because he did not want to embrace the Passion of Jesus with him. He shed the same death cloak that Jesus’ dead corpse would be covered with. I see now how I have very much been that young man these past ten years. Maybe this young man, whoever he was, shed his cloak in such an emotional rush, because he realized the disparity between what he had planned for his life and the life that did not present itself to whoever might follow Jesus. I know I have felt this disparity in my bones many times. I break out in a cold sweat. Lord, let it not be me! I will be the first to shed my jacket, at the tug of fate on my sleeve. At the first tug of time on my sleeve.

I have been shed of the jacket of my friends, the outer garment of my friends. And I have run away naked, I know, and here I am standing on the edge of Gethsemane, looking into the darkness, the flickering torches disappearing down the hill and towards Jerusalem, but my toes are on the edge of the outer city limits. And I look on at that entourage of fate that passed me by and I find myself, naked, covering myself, and the disciples of Jesus—here is Peter, James, and John—coming towards me with my jacket.

“Here,” Peter says to me, “You left this.”

I see in Peter’s eyes that he knows he is just like me. He knows that he is guilty of not understanding the way. We have our own ways of going about misunderstanding. And there we find one another, both having shed our closest friends.

But that night, ten years ago, my friend and my two roommates (what a strange time in my life!) went out to go find the great noise coming from outside. I chose not to go with, thinking that maybe I could find some other friends to spend my time with, or else devote myself to finishing that paper. I called a few people, I roamed about, I poked into my neighbor’s apartment. No one was anywhere. It was just me, I realized. My brother, who I thought surely might be in town, was in Seattle. And my other friend, Evan, turned out being in Indiana of all places. You see, someone was dying.

Now as I realized my plight, that tingling feeling began emanating in the core of my being. It was that feeling of solitude that so rarely creeps up on me. It is usually a feeling that I go out and get and reject, leave behind, shed my friends and all others. But here I was, having been torn away from my outer garment. And what did I do? Well, what could I do? All the sudden, I wanted to do and feel everything I possibly could. I was full of the desire to get married, but just as much was I filled with a desire to go out and drive very fast in a car, but also cry—no, weep—and call my mother, or my dad, speak to someone who knows me intimately, take hallucinogenic drugs, sympathize with the dying, reach out and grasp on for something, whether it be a cigar or many drinks, get drunk, read the Bible, pray, be taken back in time, go forward, write a journal entry about myself ten years in the future, write my book finally, avoid my paper—but also write it—read as much as I could, fall asleep, steal flowers, work out, learn how to bake bread, prophesy and dream dreams and go to church and then to a bar and dance, roam the streets at night, knock on the doors of strangers, watch a movie, play video games, listen to all the music I have ever loved, stare at myself for hours in the mirror, strike a pose, burn all my clothes and start over, cook a great soup, despise myself for not having accomplished enough, fix a friend’s life, not die, die, become all men at the all times, understand…but the one thing I desperately did not want was to have solitude choose me.

This is what happens every time that solitude chooses you. Solitude is that force that pushes you everywhere where it does not dig in. Solitude breeds in us every desire, no matter how divorced those directions might be from one another. You refuse to accept it and you will accept anything else, as long as it is not solitude. Solitude bares all its teeth, and each tooth is a different canine desire. And you refuse to enter into that empty, hollow silence inside the stomach of its heart.

I am so surprised that I have made it this far in life. At twenty, I did not believe I would ever make it to twenty-one. And now, I just might make it out of my twenties. Who am I? Am I all that I have done? If that’s the case, I haven’t done enough. Why did I choose to be alone? I sacrificed everything on the altar of projects, on books, on visions and ambition, but no one has ever given me any money. And heck, why should they? No one has ever read any of my books.

But this journal entry, looking back at the past thirty years of my life, could be a pessimistic one. Instead, I have no reason to be pessimistic about what God has done with me. Or, I should say, how he has held me. At sixteen, I was overcome with imagination. At seventeen, image. At eighteen, ambition. At nineteen, death. At twenty, fear. And that was the year that God broke me, the year I submitted. My life has not been the same ever since and I am still learning what it means to be holy, but I know that there is no other way I would rather live my life. Yes, people do not know about my books—but did God ever want that? God has blessed me immeasurably, he has rescued me from every pit and false machination I could ever have devised for myself. And now when the old devils come roaring back, I point at them and say, “I know who you are, I know who you are! You are the one who tried destroying me!” And he points at me and says, “What were you going to do with me, Caleb of Illinois?” And I say to him, “Be silent. I will not let you speak.” And he is quiet and God takes the demon out of me. The past decade has been the decade of exorcisms. Praise the Lord. I have not died yet.


  • “‘No one has ever read any of my books.’ I read all your damn books!” -old crotchety Mike, 2076, right before he has a heart attack and, with fading consciousness, poops his pants on purpose just to leave one last gift to the world

    Liked by 1 person

  • I think this quote goes to the heart of the Desert Father’s movement between loneliness to solitude.
    “Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked:
    ‘What do you seek?’
    ‘Enlightenment,’ replied Daiju.
    ‘You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?’ Baso asked.
    Daiju inquired: ‘Where is my treasure house?’
    Baso answered: ‘What you are asking is your treasure house.’
    Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends:
    ‘Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.’[Zen Flesh, Zen Bones]


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