Quiet Solitude or Lonely Isolation?

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I took this photo of books on a shelf in an old remote cabin we explored on Iliamna Bay. The cabin was filled with junk; an old stove turned on its side, clothing remnants, tools, a sleeping bag, cans of food. It was obvious someone had tried to live in this place a long, long time ago.

The row of books looked strange and creepy, like a body in various stages of decomposition; the pages deteriorating and oozing into each other, worn out and exhausted by time and weather.

Immediately Chris McCandless came to mind. Chris was a spiritual seeker who came to Alaska to excavate his heart, like so many others who take to the woods on a vision quest of sorts, testing their ability to survive, asking themselves the big questions and hoping to find answers in the wilderness.

He burns his trust fund money, travels the country, and finally makes his way to the far north, seeking   solitude, self-sufficiency and what he called the “ultimate freedom.” After isolating himself (settling into an abandoned school bus), he shoots game, able to sustain himself for a while, but eventually the harsh realities of wilderness-living set in. Unfortunately, he never made it out alive, having starved to death (after eating a poisonous wild plant).

In the end, McCandless realizes the importance of the very thing he was trying to escape, that of sustaining and nurturing human relationships. Society may have “tied him down” but isolation from others is what ultimately killed him. I highly recommend the movie, Into The Wild (Netflix), about his daring adventures and final demise.

I took a magnifying glass to the photograph of books, trying to decipher what the seeker was reading. You can tell a lot about a person by perusing his/her bookshelf. Or maybe not (perusing my own, there is everything from Reverence to the Anarchist’s Cookbook), but still I wondered.

Who was he? Why did he come to this old, run-down cabin? What was he searching for, living in such a remote place?

Only two of the books revealed their identification. Youth is Wasted on the Young is a collection of quotations and extracts examining the wisdom of aging. Wry comments taken from life and literature capture the wisdom of growing older, and the adventurous spirit of youth we all experience.

“In youth, we run into difficulties; in old age, difficulties run into us.” (Josh Billings noted about Youth). Maybe the seeker was contemplating the rigors of aging; was he middle-aged, or already an old man who chose to live in peace far away from civilized society? Surely it’s not uncommon for people to feel alone and isolated as they age (especially after losing a partner, experiencing an illness, or not maintaining close family ties).  Whoever tried to eek out a life in this cabin was doing so by choice, escaping the perceived confines of their own town and community.

Testing his limits and abilities, living life fully on a razor’s edge, becoming one with nature, or trying to escape a tortured past?  Who knows?

The other book, A Place for Noah, is a story about the challenges the writer, Josh Greenfield, experienced raising a child with multiple handicaps. Noah was born with developmental delays; he did not speak intelligibly and was dependent on his family for all his physical needs. Noah’s brother, Karl, vacillates between his anger at Noah for the sacrifices his family must make in their day-to-day caregiving role and a deep love and sorrow for his brother’s circumstance. Karl does not want his brother to be institutionalized (though he is for a short period of time), yet finds it difficult to fold Noah into the normal activities he enjoys with his family and friends. Noah is an outcast with serious, lifelong challenges.

Both pieces of work reveal this: the experience of not quite fitting in with society at large; a feeling-sense of not belonging to the normal, youth-worshipping culture. By choice or by chance, many of us may at times feel we don’t belong, or we are outside the group, looking in.

Ever feel that way? Maybe it is because we are always changing and evolving in the life cycle, growing into the person we want to be, and at the same time, letting go of old habits and ways of being. At times, one feels off-kilter, in limbo or in suspended animation.

Taking drastic measures to isolate oneself in the wilderness may be a soulful, life-enhancing venture.

But sooner or later, you have to walk out of the woods and hold hands with your fellow man.


0 thoughts on “Quiet Solitude or Lonely Isolation?”

  1. We watched this movie this winter and enjoyed it. Perhaps there is often part of us that wants to live in the solitude, to grow ripe in the silence, and the other part to be nourished by our fellow man. Enjoyed reading this, Monica.

  2. Quiet solitude or lonely isolation…my feeling is that it depends on what you do with the time. If you take the time to recharge your batteries and find you spiritual center it is quiet solitude but if you are running away from others…which, many times is just running away from yourself, then it is lonely isolation. Thanks for stirring up the brain waves.

  3. Cool post and cool find. I bet you're one of just a few people to ever find that cabin. Wish I were that adventerous. I've meant to read Into the Wild for a long time. I think I'll make that a priority and add it to my movie list as well. I'm not sure people need to isolate themselves to feel alone. I think one can feel quite alone even in the middle of a crowd. Perhaps it's because we don't know what we need from other people that would make us whole. Or perhaps we don't know what we need from ourselves. I'm definitely the type of person who needs solitude, but I've been noticing a twinge of loneliness lately, so I started seeking out my friends and hanging out for lunch. Also joined the camera club here in Bozeman. Balance is good. It's healthier that way.

  4. Some people are re-charged by being with lots of people, others are re-charged by solitude. Can't run away from yourself, no matter how hard you try, though many die trying.

  5. Oh, yes. I've seen that movie. He did everything slowly, meticulously, thoughtfully. No room for hasty mistakes. Quite an accomplishment. That man was living in true freedom…happily alone.

  6. I have done this since October. Sioux City has no connections for me and I have finished my memoir here. While I love the birdlife and the lush forests, I have wilted somewhat. I just got back from dropping off a load to move back to Denver. In three days, I went to Red Rocks, mowed and pulled weeds, got a hair cut, partied with three sets of friends and finally drove back to Sioux City. I can't agree more. We need connection. We need foundations of some sort.

  7. Most of the people I know here are from somewhere else. They've come here by choice (except for military) for different reasons: adventure, having the wild right outside your door, a freedom unreachable in other places (I've always had the sense that "anything is possible" here). But still, "family" is forged…connectedness is protected and cherished; holding hands is essential.

  8. I admit to a certain fascination with this kind of solo adventure . . .even though I'll never do it. One of the National Geographic issues I kept (yes, I was a subscriber) had a cover story about a woman who goes through the Outback by herself. It had a profound effect on me. I'm feeling compelled now to read it again . . . maybe write a post inspired by yours.

  9. I'm interested in the NatGeo journey; I hope you consider it. I too, hold quite a fascination with the subject matter. I once stayed at a remote cabin on a lake for 4 days in the winter (with plenty of provisions). What I was after then was exploring fear: I wanted to see what would come up and how I would handle it. It turned out to be a quiet, peaceful engagement with the natural world…the best part was the absence of talking.

  10. I remember being so disturbed by this film–I couldn't get over the fact that he was so close to civilization yet he was stranded by the river and unable to save himself. I do enjoy being alone at times–even crave it occasionally, but don't think I could handle not talking to someone longer than a few days. It certainly is something to ponder…Very interesting post, Monica–got me thinking!

  11. What a wonderful 'find' in the woods. And such an interesting trip for the imagination, to see the books and wonder about the person who brought those books there. I agree, books can be a window into someone's life and thoughts. Makes me want to take snapshots of other peoples bookshelves.

    As for isolation as a way to find enlightenment, it's an age old tradition. I have to say I find alone time necessary for my soul but I couldn't isolate myself like those people have.

    Great post!

  12. What's of most interest to me throughout your post and the comments is the assumption of choice. Some choose the isolation and wilderness, some stay put, some work out a little of both.

    And yet, as I age, I've found myself becoming increasingly alone – family down to an elderly aunt and three cousins, friends taken through death, the usual mobility of our society taking its toll and so on. In such circumstances, learning to see solitude as a gift can be quite a challenge. My envy of people with large families and stable, long-term relationships grows sharper with time.

    On the other hand, at 66, I clearly am on the downhill slide – not in terms of the quality of my life, but surely in terms of its length. It would be reasonable to think I have 20 years left – and that's where I grow short of breath. Every minute counts – what will I do with it?

  13. I ponder this often as well, as far as looking hard at the next 20 years; it's a very odd sensation observing the body age, and friends and family members gradually slip away due to illness or death. All of my aunts and uncles on my paternal side have passed. At the same time, it's a joy to watch our neighborhood change, with new families moving in; we have the chance to watch them grow up (and in Alaska, where most people are from somewhere else, friends become an enduring family). What to do with the rest of your life–especially poignant for those of us observant of the fact that there are more years behind than ahead.

  14. When you say an "age old tradition" it brings to mind monks who spend years in dark caves, meditating. I think it can be a successful endeavor if the conditions are right and a person is being fed and cared for. I've often wondered what it would feel like, and where your mind would go and how long it would take to experience a "breakthrough" during long, silent periods. Interesting to ponder. Thanks, Susan.

  15. Into the Wild was a riveting movie, and it was interesting reading your thoughts about solitude and connection. That age-old struggle to find a workable balance between intimacy and autonomy, to be true to ourselves without losing the support of our friends and families, to be part of a group without losing our sense of self, our identity.

    Your post also made me think of a book I read by Joan Anderson, A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman. The author spent a year living by herself (for the first time in her life) in a summer cottage on Cape Cod. Her kids were grown and her husband was off pursuing a career goal. She did have some contact with people while working in a fish market and bumped into a fascinating older woman on the beach who became her friend and mentor. She spent so much time connecting with the natural world on the beach and once even swam with some seals. The experience transformed her and she eventually reconnected with her family and friends, a much different person.

  16. I read A Year by the Sea many, many years ago, and it was in a way, transforming for me. I admired this woman's courage to spend an extended amount of time alone (mostly) and have always wanted to duplicate her journey, just to see what would come up in my thoughts and actions. What is bubbling in the psyche underneath the surface of our lives? What fears, dreams, judgements, & resolutions would reveal themselves? And then what to do with them. Fascinating. Thank you so much, Barbara.

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Welcome to the creative playground of Image, Sculpture, Verse.  I live in a river town nestled in the Chugach Mountain Range of Southcentral Alaska.



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