I am tempted to start this post by whining about the dearth of solitude in modern life. Thanks to cell phones and Blackberries (which I’d rather pluck from brambles) we can now be in constant contact and ceaseless conversation. But since it is Lent, I will resist. The truth is the human herd has always huddled close for comfort and survival. Trips to the village well were for more than water and many other tasks now done in isolation (or not at all) were once communal activities. To leave family and village to seek solitude in the desert, as Jesus did, has always been a radical act that puts survival—and possibly sanity—at risk. Without our social context, without our human constructs, who are we, what are we, where are we?
Old age may provide a hint.
When my father had been widowed for three years, he decided to follow through on plans he and my mother had made to move to a retirement community far from the small town where he had lived much of his adult life. Though there had been subtle signs of slippage, his social identity had been held in place by a host of people who knew Ray Cunningham—the grocer, the pharmacist, the neighbors, the fire chief, the parishioners at the church where he was still rector emeritus. After the move, all of that life, along with the memory and mention of my mother, fell away. Yet some essential core of him remained, wandering in a dream desert, speaking in metaphor about the train he was riding or how rivers get confused when they near the sea. Despite full-blown dementia, he became more emotionally available than he ever had been. In a Lear-like phone conversation near the end, he actually asked for my blessing.
For several years, my mother-in-law has been making valiant efforts to cohere, to pull herself into a recognizable shape for her many visitors. She would sometimes eagerly and other times dutifully take an interest in the family anecdotes I would bring her. There was a long period in which she would punctuate my every sentence with, “So all is well.” Today when I saw her she managed a smile and an intent gaze. I sense that, like my father, she recognizes me, but does not know me as her daughter-in-law, because she has come unmoored from context and is riding that dream river—or whatever metaphor she might prefer. The last time she spoke much, she told me “The shepherd is separate from the sheep. The shepherd deserves to rest.”
I have never spent forty days and nights alone in the desert, but I have gone on solitary retreats that have lasted long enough for me to feel the familiar fall away and sense something nameless emerge. Though I have filled many social roles, to be a writer intent on a (now twenty-year) project, The Maeve Chronicles, that no one asked me to undertake holds more than a hint of desert madness and determination. I will close this reflection with a poem from my first collection Small Bird: Poems & Prayers (copyright 2000 by Elizabeth Cunningham).
If you want me to walk this way,
you’ll have to help me,
but that is supposing you are there at all
and have a will to command.
And if you have who am I
to argue and bargain?
Isn’t it more dignified to say yes
or even no?
You know, it could be that I am only
crazy or, worse, grandiose to think
I am on speaking/listening terms
with whoever you are. Who are you anyway?
My craziness dressed up as god?
And if you are more than that,
what’s your game? Did you call me?
Is there a path? Or just
the stretching desert I say I love.
Yes, this is the desert way.
And it is so beautiful.
I was going to say something about stark
bone reality truth, but
it’s the illusions of desert I love,
the way the mountains seem to float in certain lights,
the way the land looks like sea.
I am seduced by loveliness and mirage,
by the way cloud shadow deepens the plain.
I am seduced by solitude and sage-smelling silence,
by the way my mind slips my skull and soars.
I’ve followed you—or my delusions
to this place of secret water and rattlesnake wind.
There is no shelter here from extremes
of noon or night or my own nature.
I am naked as a newborn, exposed to the elements,
and I could die as easily,
if you desert me.