Cathy Hogan appreciating the isolation in Cabo de Gata Nature Reserve
I have lived alone for much of my life, and often in very isolated places.
However, I have never felt lonely or unhappy due to the fact that I have no people to talk to or that my friends aren’t around; therefore, I question the official definition of solitude (right). In fact, the only time I can remember feeling isolated was when I was living in the most populous metropolitan area in the world: Tokyo, a city of 11 million people when I worked there in the early 1990s.
At times I missed home, yes, especially when I worked as au pair in America at the age of 16. But that was because I had been reared in a house of 11 kids and then suddenly, I was living in a foreign country, usually alone with a stranger’s baby.
Of course, this being 1986, mobile phones and Wi-Fi were just twinkles in engineers’ eyes, so my mother phoned my host family’s home periodically.
When I told the weekly cleaner, an old woman, that I was expecting a phone call from my mother, she said in shock: “You have phones in Ireland?” These exorbitantly expensive calls were supplemented occasionally when we managed to co-ordinate a sneaky reversed charge call to a public phone box in Kilkenny.
When I was 18 I worked on a sheep station, as they’re called, in the Australian Northern Territory desert where the flock roamed 60,000 acres. And this was my boss’s smallest of three farms. The animals were checked a few times a year by professional cowboys.
HOME SWEET HOME
I had no radio or television there, and unfortunately for me, I wouldn’t discover the joy of reading or writing for another decade.
But whatever country I lived in my mother used to send me the Kilkenny People a few times a year. She stuffed bars of Cadbury’s chocolate inside, and these were pure liquid when I received them in the 50-plus degree heat.
One summer day my sister Stella came to visit en route across Australia. Unbeknownst to me she went for a jog in the relative cool of the following dawn. As soon as she turned for home, she got lost; there were no fences or landmarks in sight, just desert scrub.
Back at the ranch, I told the station hands that my sister had disappeared, along with the new runners that she had proudly shown me the night before.
Immediately the workers radioed other farms in the vast region in order to form four large search parties on pick-up trucks.
The cowboys and Aboriginal trackers found Stella at two o’clock the next morning, in good shape, apart from being very thirsty and sunburned. She was also barefoot because she had thrown away her new runners during the boiling afternoon, in a pact with God to reject consumerism if He let her live.
THE JOYS OF ISOLATION
Twenty years later, and on the polar opposite side of the globe, I spent six wintery months on the isle of Iona in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. I was caretaker of a mostly closed hostel that had no mobile or even radio reception.
The island pub opened for two hours every Thursday night for the 60 winter residents. I went a couple of times and sat quietly with the few locals who had ventured out that week.
Today, in this pandemic I live on the outskirts of a near-deserted Spanish coastal village hours from a city or airport. I venture outside of the housing estate twice weekly to stock up on food and to do sports. But I have full access to the world online, so I never feel isolated or lonely.Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, said that introverts turn to their own minds to recharge, while extroverts seek out other people for their energy needs.
Solitude is what I seek out most of the time. It calms me and gives me time to think about life and to create stories. But every so often, I crave the fizzing spontaneity of socialising. I suspect I’m what’s called an extroverted introvert.
Sheep, dog, laptop - the multi-tasking Suzanna Crampton hard at work on her farm in Kilkenny
Suzanna Crampton is an environmental farmer, blanket designer and author at Maiden Hall in Kilkenny. I asked her about the place of solitude in her life:
“I breathe in solitude, but am vibrant in company to the point of joyous over-enthusiasm,” she said. “I thrive on good conversations; though there are times in a crowded room that I need to escape for air.
“Solitude is important to me as I conjure up words to express something visual or emotional.
“If I’m interrupted I can lose a worded thread and get quite cross by the disruption. This is when I might pause and possessively type into my phone what I had just composed.”
Every Saturday afternoon I virtually meet to chat, write and read with members of the Irish Writer’s Centre group, Inkies.
Many are Dublin based, others are scattered around Ireland, and several of us are abroad. I chatted with Fiachra, originally from Dublin but living in the US, about solitude and creativity.
DISTRACTION KILLS CREATIVITY
“How can you write and get distracted?” Fiachra asked. “John Banville apologised to his family and friends for ‘not being there’.
Recently my wife and I headed South to Florida for two months. I mostly stayed in and either wrote or read and this was my most productive time.”
Another fellow-Inkies member, Aoife Loy, lives in Wicklow. As an introvert, she finds solitude essential.
“Before lockdown, I often experienced burn-out as a result of being too busy to allow myself quiet-time,” she said. “Saying that you’re an introvert can still be met with nonplussed expressions - irritation even - as though you’ve just announced that you’ve got no social skills, or you’re just shy, underconfident and need to be pulled out of your shell.
“To me, it means that I find being alone important to recharge and to feel energised – others might get that from socialising,” she added. “If I’m distracted, I generally won’t find that unthinking flow state.”
Elaine Reardon (above) lives in a forest in rural Massachusetts where deer, coyotes porcupines and bears share her yard.
“My most creative time is in the morning and I like to be alone,” she said. “In my art group, it’s fun to paint together, and we can commiserate and critique, but it’s not a place to get a large amount done, and the chat always knocks me out of my creative space.
“Music and natural sounds are fine,” she added. “Our writing group, Inkies, feeds my soul. When I’m not alone, I won’t create, or I do it badly.”
“Our language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”
- Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now
Heloisa Prieto is a Brazilian author in our group.
“I am an introvert,” she said. “I enjoy quiet hours, but I also like to speak to my readers, so my life is divided between quiet moments and lots of literary encounters, and I enjoy them both.
“My great grandmother was born in Bilbao in the Basque Country and when she settled in Brazil, she had 14 children. So, we had lots of parties and conversations with my father’s side of the family.
“When I left home and began writing professionally, I sometimes felt the need to go to coffee shops to hear people chatting; initially I couldn’t concentrate in the quiet.
“Some years ago, I met a Japanese zen master and author, Dosho Saikawa. We became great friends and he invited me to meditate for hours at his temple here, in São Paulo. I learned to enjoy the communicative silence that happens when people stay together without speaking.”
When the pandemic hit last year, I had been writing, what I hope will become my first novel, but it soon became impossible for me to concentrate on fiction.
Instead, I turned to journalism to help me to process and share the trials and tribulations that so many of us were feeling. Six months in, I realised that the pandemic wasn’t going away any time soon and that I was powerless to change that. And then I gave myself permission to return my focus to personal fulfilment.
Soon I managed the right balance of creativity and productivity, with the added bonus of taking up new group outdoor activities.
I asked my writing friends how the pandemic was affecting their creativity.
“I thought about my great grandmother a lot, because she often told me about how she had survived the Spanish Flu,” said Heloisa. “As a child, I was taught never to take anything for granted because, according to her ‘death can take one away any time at all’, so her teachings helped me to cope.
“My writing kept on flowing as usual, and our online writing workshops were truly inspiring.”
Suzanna has had more ups than downs over the past year.
“My photos and videos improved as I tried to give people a visual place to escape to from their urban life during the lockdowns – a view of natural country life via my YouTube channel,” she said.
“I was lambing in March 2020 and had the highest number of bottle-fed lambs ever. So, I decided to video my feeding them every day. This was so successful I am now earning a small income from my YouTube channel, Zwartbles Ireland.
“Initially my writing suffered because I couldn’t get into that comfortable internal space of the unknown in order to be creative. I have since managed to grasp that mental nettle and am writing again; much to the relief of my agent and editors.”
Aoife found that the pandemic had a positive effect on her creativity.
“Before 2020, I was very distracted, and I was juggling a lot,” she admitted. “Being forced to strip life back to the bare minimum has allowed me to spend more time reading and writing, which I had never carved out a lot of time for before. I find creativity cathartic and a great escape from these uncertain times.”
Despite the isolation, Cathy celebrated the virtual premiere of her first play, Panic Stations
I wonder now what exactly I did all day during my unplugged periods of self-imposed isolation in the past. I imagine that those quiet and slow stints in my life would be unbearable, or even inconceivable to people who complain about today’s lockdown restrictions, despite their unlimited data, movies, and newsfeeds.
I once heard an author say that they were a world champion at middle-distance staring. I am certainly a contender in that contest.
Loneliness is a lack of something; solitude is where we meet ourselves, devoid of the layers and dynamics that we naturally adopt in other’s company.
It’s an essential space and time where we process, reboot, and de-stress, where we dream and create. It’s a gift that is impossible to utilise when surrounded by chatter, whether that be in real-time or online.
Solitude is your patient friend, waiting to offer you solace.
Follow Cathy’s blog on Facebook Blog: @CathyHoganSurvivingCoronavirusSpain or on twitter: @cathyshogan
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