As Seattle grows upward and inward, it’s harder than ever to find those stolen moments we need for ourselves.
“The paradigm experience of solitude is a state characterized by disengagement from the immediate demands of other people — a state of reduced social inhibition and increased freedom to select one’s mental or physical activities.” — Christopher R. Long and James R. Averill in “Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone.”
CITY SOUNDS DRIFT down from a ceiling portal at the Henry Art Gallery as 15 people — most of us strangers to each other — sit quietly, experiencing solitude together.
Our bellies swell as we breathe deeply, eyes closed, hands resting on our thighs. Car brakes screech. Buses thrum past. Garbled lunch conversations rise and fall. Lyndal Johnson, the group’s meditation leader, tells us to let the sounds pass, and focus on the air passing through our nostrils and filling our lungs.
Suddenly, a phone rings. Someone is trying to reach Johnson, who had pressed the wrong button to silence the device before the 30-minute meditation began. She grabs at her pocket to turn it off while the woman seated to her left stifles a laugh.
A breeze circles the room as Johnson reminds us to “be present for your experience as it unfolds moment to moment.”
The woman next to me drifts off and snores softly, her head tilted back against the wood-slatted wall. She wakes to Johnson’s gentle voice announcing the end of the meditation. Eyes open slowly. Most everyone smiles as they file out of the room.
Later, Susan Dryer, a retired drama teacher and librarian, tells me she spent the half-hour reciting a scripture she learned during a silent retreat at a Benedictine monastery where she learned to meditate three years ago. She also directed a Buddhist prayer to another woman in the room: “May you be happy in a deeply contented way; may you be safe and free from harm; may you find peace; may your life unfold with well-being.”
“By the end, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and a feeling that what I started three years ago was coming full circle,’’ Dryer says. “I was able to be aware of the moment, the light in the room, warmth, grounding of my feet, cool breeze on my face, my breath.”
Finding the kind of peace and presence that Dryer experienced, in the city, can feel a little like chasing a rainbow these days: It’s always around the next corner.
In years past, awe almost forced itself on us. A short walk or drive, a glance out the window, a head tilted upward or eye cast westward toward the Sound was all it took to connect us to the natural world. The Olympic and Cascade mountains, brilliant sunsets over stretches of open water, trees in shades of green too numerous to name. These are our grounding points. They rivet us in place, make our eyes bigger, our ears sharper. We experience them, and surrender whatever thought was in our head, becoming fully present and accounted for.
As the city grows upward and inward, and casts shadows on once-airy streets, we have to work harder for that connection. Downtown, and in some of our neighborhoods, sun and sky are harder to come by. We’re more hemmed in, our attention diverted by perpetual construction, crowded public spaces, soul-sucking traffic, and devices that beep, vibrate and ring at all hours, demanding our attention.
WE’RE LOSING CONTROL of our attention, and with that loss of agency comes a diminished quality of life, says Mara Adelman, a retired Seattle University professor who has written and lectured widely on the need for solitude.
“We’ve lost time for reflection,’’ Adelman says. “We’re missing out on our passions, which take time to cultivate. It’s the time for epiphanies, the ah-has, the time to take the road not taken, to quit the job or retire early, or whatever. And I think those lost moments, sometimes they go into hours, sometimes days, sometimes years. And then people literally die with a life full of regrets.”
People interrupt sex to answer their cellphones. Their boss calls during intimate moments, family dinners. You’re on-call all the time.” - Mara Adelman
We’re sitting on her friend’s balcony, perched over a well-tended yard that ends at the beach in Magnolia. As we talk, ferries crisscross the Sound, along with pleasure boats that are seen but not heard. The expansive view is a testament to why this remote corner of America continues to draw people.
And yet it took me nearly an hour, midmorning on an average Friday, to travel the 10 miles to get here. If there were any showstopping sights along the way, they were lost to brake lights, orange detour signs, GPS, and worries about arriving late.
Most of us can’t walk off into the woods for two years, two months and two days, a la Thoreau, or hike the Pacific Crest Trail for weeks like “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed. But Adelman says we can be more intentional about carving out time for ourselves and finding solitude in what she calls “stolen moments.”
“We’re not saying go off for months on some mountaintop. We’re talking stolen moments. You can convert moments — waiting in line, which I hate doing — into moments of taking a breath, being present. It’s when you’re waiting in line, stopping at the stop sign, you know, when you’re walking to work and you realize that ‘I got from A to B and have no idea how I got there. Maybe I’d like to experience that.’ That’s living life fully and mindfully.”
We can find solitude at the Henry Art Gallery’s Skyspace on the University of Washington campus, or on a bus, staring out the window at the clouds. We can find it at a stoplight, where we can literally stop and experience the pleasure of a deep breath. We can pause to savor a single bite of a meal that would otherwise be shoveled in haste at a desk before the next meeting, she says.
Adelman says we’ve lost agency, lost control of our attention and our time. Studies show adults spend about 29 percent of their time alone, most of it at home. Most say they’d like more.
“If people do anything, they need to re-establish their boundaries,’’ she says. “The Industrial Revolution sped up our sense of time, but we still had spaces — private/public, front-stage/back-stage, work and play. Now, those boundaries are eroded. They’re fuzzy boundaries. People interrupt sex to answer their cellphones. Their boss calls during intimate moments, family dinners. You’re on-call all the time. So it’s not a matter of less time or more time, it’s now they’re conflated so it feels like you’re always on-call because you are always on-call.”
Several years ago, Adelman challenged her Seattle U. students to give up all media for four days during a course titled “Restorative Solitude.” The students logged their media consumption before the experiment, and were surprised at the compulsive habits that occupied their time.
One student, who claimed an aversion to solitude at the start of the class, contacted Adelman years later to say she had changed his life. He told her he had embraced solitude, and became more alive in his life.
Yet, we also avoid solitude, mistaking it for loneliness or fearing it will put us nose-to-nose with sadness or the consequence of choices we’d rather not face. We allow distractions to control our time, and embrace the cult of “busy” to avoid feeling or reflecting on our lives, Adelman says.
THE COMEDIAN Louis C.K. posits that being a person requires the ability to “not be doing something. … The ability to sit there; that’s being a person.” People are so afraid of feeling that they won’t keep their hands off their smartphones even when they’re driving, he says in a talk-show bit.
“People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard,” he says, describing how a Bruce Springsteen song once made him pull over to the side of the road and surrender to a wave of sadness so powerful it made him sob.
“Sadness is poetic,’’ he says. “You’re lucky to live sad moments” because they clear out room for joy.
Adelman says there’s a lot of truth to that.
“The happy emoticon is almost emblematic of our society,’’ she says. “You have to put on a happy face, otherwise, you must be depressed. It’s a profound commentary — and (sadness) is what makes you profound. Being profound means you can move to the dark space, the sadness, the grief, and hopefully work with it, and come back with some insight.”
Opening ourselves to those experiences, she says, requires us to spend time alone in reflection.
LIKE MOST OF US, Debora Moore has a smartphone. Unlike most of us, she’s in control of it. There’s no compulsive checking of Facebook or email, no texting or tweeting.
When the phone chimes faintly during an hourlong conversation, she doesn’t even glance at it. When she does pick it up, it’s to show photos of her favorite forest escape and the flowers she has studied around the world during her travels, many of them taken solo.
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“I take a lot of photos, but there comes a point where I need to see with my naked eyes. I take my glasses off, and look. It’s like my mind’s eye,’’ says Moore, an accomplished glass artist whose oeuvre consists of objects drawn from the natural world.
For the past several years, she’s been exploring orchids. Her deep communion with flowers and fauna has turned her studio into something of a botanical garden, with rich, earthy glass sculptures dripping off the walls.
“I’m trying to bring a little of the outdoors into my space in the city,’’ she says.
Moore, married with a child and grandchild, is absolutely intentional about preserving her attention for the things that matter to her.
She sketches for hours alone, perched on an overstuffed purple chair from which she can see the length of her light-filled studio in Seattle. She takes long walks on trails in Seattle parks, and heads to the Pacific Coast to wander in the forest.
“I sit outside. I sit inside. I lay on the ground. I sit on the beach. It’s just the fact of being outside, all that oxygen and energy,’’ she says. “That’s when I can center myself, when I’m in the forest. I feel so grounded. I feel so at peace with everything around: the trees, the moss, the lichen. The ocean air … Every idea, everything that I need to work out problem-solving wise with glass, I do on the coast.”
Her husband usually accompanies her, but her explorations are always solo, she says.
“Studying bark is a thing you can only do by yourself,’’ she says. “My husband and I can walk around. We can physically be there together and enjoy each other’s company and still be alone in our thoughts.”
Moore says she was born with a deep need for solitude. Her entire creative process, up until the time she is joined by a team in the glassblowing shop to give form to her ideas, involves time alone.
Her favorite time of day is 4 a.m., when she drives empty streets to a glassblowing shop. She’ll make tea, light the kilns and absorb the quiet.
“That’s the time I can really feel the solace — the solitude. In the early morning hours,’’ she says.
Moore says she wasn’t able to be alone until fear fell by the wayside. About 15 or 20 years ago, she was terrified of traveling alone. But then she had no choice but to make an arduous solo trek to set up a glass-art installation at a casino in Gary, Ind. She arrived at the casino exhausted and emotionally spent, only to encounter a hostile foreman who was not particularly interested in helping her. When the installation was complete, Moore says he gave her wrong directions to the airport for her return flight to Seattle.
Alone on the south side of Chicago, she realized she was lost and stopped at a gas station for directions. The alarmed clerk instructed her to get back in her car, and to follow him to the freeway. She made it back safely to Seattle, and soon after booked a solo trip to Thailand.
Now, she often travels alone, gathering ideas for her art.
“You’ve got to figure it out, find out what you love to do,’’ she says. “Time is worth more than money or anything else.”
Now that’s worth spending some time alone to ponder.