When I was a little girl, I never dreamed of a husband or children. I never pictured a wedding starring me as the bride with white dress and elegant bouquet. I never pictured the groom. I couldn’t see our first dance, the exotic honeymoon. No matter how hard I strained, I could not get excited about the issuance of babies with cute faces and soiled diapers.
Instead, I dreamed of a goat.
It could have been a sheep or a ram. I’m not sure I knew the difference back then, or which image may have lingered in my mind after my mother finished reading me the stories of Heidi in the Swiss Alps and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. But at a certain age — the one where people start to ask you what you want to be when you grow up — the where seemed to be a lot clearer than the what. Whenever I pictured my adult life, I pictured a hillside high above a rural town. On that hillside, a small cabin where I would live. Next to that cabin, a goat.
As I learned about the world, and even began to travel a bit to Europe in my early teens, this vision became more specific. The cabin was situated on a hillside in France, in Provence, in a remote valley a short walk from a glittering view of the Mediterranean. I would get to know my neighbors and offer them tea when they passed by my open door. We would speak French together. I would write. Occasionally I would have a male caller, just one. The details of what we would do in the cabin were hazy. The male caller could come and go, but the main thing is that he knew when to go. The goat would be my main companion, and the source of delicious and nutritious milk, just like for Heidi. I would learn to love goat milk. I would relish my solitude.
It may not surprise you to learn that I was an only child. Growing up, this made me different from most of my classmates. They fought for their parents’ attention and had to share a bedroom. I woke up alone. From early on, I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Rice Guy. I wish I could tell you I remember what I imagined he looked like. But I do remember how he made me feel. Being with him was safe and gentle. I think we must have spent endless hours together in my bedroom, on my frizzy green carpet, chattering and playing. Mostly I think I chattered and he listened.
When Mr. Rice Guy wasn’t needed, I spent the bulk of my time inside books. But I also liked to do nothing at all — just look out the window at the alleyway behind my house, and daydream. I had friends over for sleepovers, which was fun because I owned all kinds of games, and you couldn’t play Candy Land or Clue without someone else. But I was always a little glad when they left and I could sink back into the quiet of my room. I didn’t have to share my stuffed animals. This was a perk, but it also meant that some of them went neglected, which I remedied by carrying a different one to bed with me on a rotating basis. I didn’t want them to feel alone, although I rarely did.
Alone. That word seems like a threat, mostly. What do we do with children who misbehave? We send them to their room, alone. Tell them they’re grounded, the punishment being to deprive them of companionship and force them to “think” about what they’ve done. These days, we take away their electronics so they can’t play games, go online or post updates on social media. The message: Time with others is a treat we earn. Being alone is a reprimand.
We find so much comfort in the presence of others, sometimes without realizing it. Even having someone in the next room is a comfort. But when the house is still and there’s nothing else to do, the self confronts. And we would do almost anything to avoid hearing what it has to say.
What lives alongside solitude? Boredom, potentially. Anxiety, often. And the concept of loneliness has an overwhelmingly negative connotation — the absence of others is plain and uninspiring.
“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fortunately, we have many tools at hand to prevent us from slipping into a 3 a.m. of the soul: they’re our laptops, iPads, smartphones, books, magazines and TV remotes.
On my last evening, I built a fire and sat next to it, eating my meal. I looked around at the five other empty chairs and did not feel any desire to fill them. 'This is as close as I come to feeling holy,' I wrote that night.
One of my favorite studies about the experience of solitude and loneliness — there is a whole subfield of social psychology devoted to it — took place in Atlanta in 2015. It surveyed 185 adults, aged 20 to 81, to determine their reactions to the experience of momentary solitude: those interstitial parts of the day when there’s downtime with nothing to engage in.
The study’s authors had the idea to analyze not just people’s stated feelings about solitude, but their physiological reactions to being alone. Specifically, they measured levels of cortisol — the “stress hormone,” activated when the body perceives a threat. Seven times a day for ten days, they had participants submit saliva samples — at random moments, when a beeper went off. Sometimes when the beeper went off they were alone, other times they were not.
Overall, cortisol levels were higher when people were alone, as opposed to being with others. Even if they said otherwise in the questionnaire, their bodies were stressed. But there were some interesting variations. People over 51 had a different response; their cortisol levels were lower. In fact, several studies have suggested that as we age, we mind our solitude less, and we may even prefer it — a neat trick as we approach a time of life where we may be facing more of it.
A review of the literature suggests that free will is the decisive factor here. Getting to choose solitude makes a big difference in how we handle it, and whether it contributes to our well-being. Yet there is a fragile line between the solitude that heals and the one that salts the wound. Many other studies have shown how involuntary solitude and isolation can prove not only anxiety-inducing, but dangerous — from a slightly higher risk of heart problems to deep-seated alienation, especially among vulnerable teens.
For me, a great deal has been lost of that little girl who knew how to be alone. Some writers (or future writers) crave a room of their own: I craved a life of my own. Served up in short, bracing doses, I discovered early on that isolation — the extreme version of solitude — can offer me the only hope I can ever have of knowing who I truly am and what I actually want, absent the “shoulds” of the world.
But as an adult, even when I have it, I’ve become used to filling the silence rather than letting it speak to me.
I fall asleep and wake up next to my smartphone. The first thing I do, before I get up to go to the bathroom, is reach for the phone. I look at Google News and let algorithms tell me what to think and care about. I bite my nails without noticing. My habits have become more pronounced amid the ongoing national perma-emergency in our politics. The daily outrage drives the double-time news cycle — confronting me, all of us, every day.
It’s not just my time that’s being nibbled away by my devices, not to mention the whole superstructure of adulthood. It’s my mind. Recently I noticed that I was having trouble generating original thoughts: problematic for a writer. I worry that, at 38, I have become a dullard. That my inner creative world has shrunk to the occasional glimpse from a car’s window while my smartphone chirps directions, always preventing me from exploring an intriguing side road or getting lost.
“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” asserted Adrienne Rich. You can silence your cell phone. But the “fertilizing” quality of silence, as she called it, won’t reach a distracted mind.
Even with all my electronics put away in a drawer, my apartment shouts at me from every corner. CLEAN ME OR YOU WON’T SLEEP WELL TONIGHT, says the carpet. READ ME, YOUR CAREER DEPENDS ON IT, screams my pile of unread magazines. Even with the sound turned off in the movie of our lives, there’s always the director’s commentary. See what happens when you glance at a bookshelf. Or notice the details of your child’s room.
When was the last time I was truly solitary? I couldn’t conjure it. I’m not talking about the default experience of solitude when we’re doing laundry, checking email or driving somewhere with the radio on. Some people harvest solitude for content (for instance, choosing to listen to a podcast) and others for insight (I include meditation here, because although it can be very helpful, it still has intentionality). None of these things are bad ideas — they’re part of everyday life, mine included. But I wanted to explore around the margins, where the instinct to fill time loses its edge. My appetite for solitude may be greater than some others’, but in its ideal form, I don’t seek to harvest it for anything.
Yet I am the first to admit that solitude — what I define as true solitude, the state of being alone without needing to do anything in particular — feels dangerous.
“So afraid one is of loneliness, of seeing to the bottom of the vessel,” wrote Virginia Woolf, who saw the bottom of the vessel more than once. An overwhelming number of writers have detailed the contributions of solitude — and even loneliness — to the creative mind.
“What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours — that is what one must arrive at,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in 1903, offering advice to Franz Kappus, his tortured young protégé. But even Rilke struggled to enforce his own solitude with the demands of family and the necessities of travel. And that was before YouTube.
I realized that I urgently needed to turn off the narrative channel of my daily life. So this summer, I made a little experiment. I would go away on a retreat, disconnect from everything familiar. I would rent a cabin in a part of California that was strange to me, and, to the greatest extent possible, be alone. I didn’t want to go on a meditation retreat with a group of strangers. I wanted to unfurl, alone, without any fixed agenda. I wanted solitude, even if it was attended by troubling doses of boredom and loneliness. And the only way to do that was to remove myself from my “self.” Only then could I hope to access the deeper well of inner silence — true isolation — and explore what it had to offer.
The term “solitude,” though, continued to bother me because it didn’t quite describe what I was missing. A friend of mine came up with the concept of self-visitation: the active work of peeling away those aspects of life that distract one from oneself. It is conscious, methodical subtraction, without any expectation of a payoff or reward. True self-visitation contains no epiphanies; it is simply the communing familiarity of self in space and time.
But with the layers stripped away and no one to step in and tell me how to think or who to be, what version of myself would I be left with? And, whispered a voice I was ignoring, what if she doesn’t have anything interesting left to say?
Looking online, I found a one-room cabin up north in a town I’d never heard of, Forestville. It had no electricity, no Wi-Fi and no indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse and an outdoor sink and shower. Meals could be wrangled on a butane burner. Trying not to think too hard, I booked it for three nights.
As I made ready to leave, I made some other decisions. My phone could come with me in case of emergencies, but would be turned off and locked in the glove compartment of my car. No laptop. No alcohol, no caffeine. No music. And no books — I would need to leave my books at home. The only companion for my mind would be a journal to write in. Not with any writing goal in mind, just to record my thoughts if I wanted to.
“But won’t your mind start to spin when you’re alone?” asked a friend. I shook my head, but I didn’t really know. I would deal with the dark night of the soul if it came to pass, at 3 a.m. if need be.
Another friend looked at me in horror when I told him I wouldn’t be bringing along any reading material. “Not even one book? Can’t you hide one under your floorboard, like a box of crackers in case of emergency?”
I waited until the last minute to pack for my retreat, cramming the morning full of work deadlines. It’s a simple hour and a half to Forestville from where I live in the Bay Area, but I arrived three and a half hours later than expected. I was still checking my phone and answering emails up to the moment I pulled up on a Monday afternoon. My host, the owner of the property, was there to greet me. To get to the cabin, he helped me carry my bags down a long wooded lane, over a soundless creek tamed by the heat. The only other house on the property belonged to him, and I couldn’t see it through the trees once I settled in.
It was even smaller than advertised — just a bed, desk and chair, a side table and a narrow armoire, stuffed with linens. The outhouse was 100 feet away, which I suspected would be interesting at night. No goat, alas.
Looking around, I thought of Henry David Thoreau’s description of looking at his simple cabin, his pond, his woods and his bean field. “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself,” he wrote.
The first thing I did was to take down the heavy mirror behind the bed, which trailed a skein of absconded spiderwebs as it left the wall. I put it on the floor, facing inward. I didn’t want to witness myself witnessing myself. I carefully washed my produce — two apples and two tomatoes — in the outdoor sink that, I discovered, drained straight to the forest floor. I brought them inside and lined them up on a windowsill with my two lemons in a little pattern. There.
I fetched a pot to make hard-boiled eggs over the butane burner and it had two living spiders in it, one of which did not want to leave the pot and merely surfed the water. Suddenly, I felt a sharp sting on my lower back — and immediately decided I had been bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, my superparanoia. (It turned out I had no bug bite at all.) I had a brief, panicky moment when a bee buzzed past my ear and the sound made me think I had missed a text on my cell phone. Actual panic — my heart was pounding when I remembered my phone was turned off, in my car.
In brief, I was nearly insensate of the pleasures of my new home that night. I could tell it wouldn’t be a silent retreat. I could be as quiet as I wanted, but I was staying in someone’s rural backyard. I lay on my back far into the night and listened to trucks buzzing by on the main road and a demented dog barking in the distance. Absent other distractions, my mind immediately started to cannibalize what I had last fed it, devouring the finer plot points of Sherlock and replaying the opening bars of Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 over and over again. Then I started to catalogue all the ways in which I had caused friends or family members to feel neglected, hurt or let down over the years.
The next morning was so bright and cloudless that when a hawk passed for a moment above where I sat with my journal and morning tea, I wondered who’d turned out the lights. I claimed a wobbly bistro table with peeling green paint on the narrow deck outside my cabin. Twice a day I brushed away the leavings from the redwoods and coast live oaks that hung over the deck. The oaks shed their leaves constantly. I could hear them ding onto the metal roof as I lay in bed.
I walked the property, then took in my private fire pit. It sat in a clearing with six brightly colored Adirondack chairs around it, clearly awaiting the company of friends. I watched some dusty salamanders sun themselves on the circle of rocks and dart across the ash, and wondered if I would make myself a fire, and whether it would be sad to sit in one of those jolly chairs and stare at the flame, alone.
Illustration by Elissa Turnbull
What on earth would I find to fill my days with, my friends wanted to know. It seemed like a strange enough question to me as I sat at my green table, long enough to watch the transit of the sun to what must have been high noon, judging by the heat. I watched two skittering brown squirrels chase back and forth between a pair of elegant oaks on opposite sides of the laneway. The trees had grown toward each other until their branches crossed like broadswords.
In the woods, what you notice fills you to the brim. I could have sat far longer, but there always seemed to be something to do — although nothing that needed doing beyond basic survival. Of course, there was the meal prep and cleanup, the daily troubleshooting — What substitutes for a colander? — the dressing and undressing and showering. The journaling was optional. (I suppose the showering was, too, but I’m not an animal.)
I took strenuous hikes on the Sonoma coast. It transpired that there were many important things to do: to pause, overheated, every few hundred yards on an uphill climb and notice, as I tried to catch my breath, how the spines of sword ferns have a soft coating that belies the brittleness of the leaves. I paused to taste wild blackberries and savor their tartness; to meditate by a creek, and caress the moss next to my feet; to pick a clover from the mounds that grew up around the redwood fairy circles, and chew the stem to enjoy their secret lemon flavor; to observe how the sun filtered through the ferns, stenciling the roseate soil with a living photo negative.
I noticed and did things without noticing or doing things, just because I was curious and it felt good. It turned out that I liked my mind after all.
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself,” wrote Michel de Montaigne around 1572. When I was on forest time, the world belonged to me. I stopped feeling anxious. The most significant questions pertained to the timing of dinner and bedtime. I learned to gauge how much daylight remained by eyeing the corona of blue in the sky above my cabin clearing, rather than the crepuscular creep along the forest floor. Still I misjudged a couple of times and ended up brushing my teeth and showering after dark, with a flashlight, having a giggle at my own expense.
I wrote without effort, often at night in bed with my journal propped up on my knees, straining with a candle in one hand and a pen in the other. On my last evening, I built a fire and sat next to it, eating my meal. I looked around at the five other empty chairs and did not feel any desire to fill them. “This is as close as I come to feeling holy,” I wrote that night.
But I hadn’t thought about what would come next. Within 45 minutes of leaving Forestville the next day, I had bitten off two nails and was taking mental notes of all the things I needed to accomplish as I zoomed down Highway 101. I had a long and guilty reunion with my laptop that afternoon.
I had been hoping to portage some elements of my retreat life into my 'real' life, but I forgot that the same person — me — is always there, struggling and striving and kicking and generally making a mockery of attempts to honor my goals and stay aligned.
My reentry was wobbly. As easily as I had settled into my solitude, I felt myself losing the thread. I cried a lot. I had trouble sleeping, trouble working. For a time, I stayed off Google News. In the car, I forced myself to sit in silence and avoid listening to the radio. I meditated in the morning. I lit candles at night. But little by little, I felt my old condition settle in somewhere near my solar plexus: that state of dullness mixed with hypervigilance.
The world felt immense and harmonious when I spent my days hiking in vast places and sleeping in a very small one. But now, with access to everything in the world on my computer, in the Bay Area, and at the supermarket, it felt like I had fewer choices. The air in my lungs felt compressed. I didn’t experience the same sense of possibility.
I had been hoping to portage some elements of my retreat life into my ‘real’ life, but I forgot that the same person — me — is always there, struggling and striving and kicking and generally making a mockery of attempts to honor my goals and stay aligned. I should have read my Montaigne more closely: “Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust do not leave us when we change our country. . . . Neither deserts, nor rocky caves, nor hair shirts, nor fastings will free us of them,” he wrote.
It took only three days of self-visitation to remind me that my internal compass still points in the direction of true north, just as it did when I was a child. But how do I keep it in my sights when I’m getting spun in circles? And, when I find it again, how can I follow it without walking out on my life, when there are so many things that deserve my attention — a project that’s due, a friend who’s in pain, this country’s civil rights, our environment?
How can I live in the world, engaged and open-hearted, while cultivating my inner silence and need to withdraw?
Montaigne thought it might be possible to do both. “Real solitude,” he wrote, “may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is enjoyed more handily alone.” Thoreau returned to society after two years, and when he was at Walden he had frequent visitors — he describes his small cabin filled with up to 30 people at a time. He was no hermit, but walked frequently to town along the railroad tracks and recounts his conversations with all manner of folk who knew the woods.
There is something reassuring about these questions, and the fact that they have been with thoughtful writers for such a long time — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, May Sarton, Emily Dickinson, Louise Bogan and hundreds more. They all sought a balance between the version of themselves they gave to the world, with its traumas and distractions, and the need to belong to themselves, cultivate their autonomy and create something original and true. They weren’t just talking about how to write, but self-visitation in the everyday.
My childhood vision has come true. I never did marry or have children, and I have yet to even cohabitate with anyone, although I have had several meaningful relationships. I don’t own a hut on a hillside, but I do have a male caller. He, like me, relishes his solitude and knows how to respect mine. I intend to take a self-visitation retreat every year. In the meantime, I will do my best to keep my door open and, after all the visitors leave, get back to the page, alone.
Julia Scott is a writer and radio producer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Best American Science Writing, and on the BBC World Service. She lives in Oakland, California.