MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Between Solitude and Loneliness

with 4 comments


Illustration: Antoine Maillard

At eighty-seven, I am solitary. I live by myself on one floor of the 1803 farmhouse where my family has lived since the Civil War. After my grandfather died, my grandmother Kate lived here alone. Her three daughters visited her. In 1975, Kate died at ninety-seven, and I took over. Forty-odd years later, I spend my days alone in one of two chairs. From an overstuffed blue chair in my living room I look out the window at the unpainted old barn, golden and empty of its cows and of Riley the horse. I look at a tulip; I look at snow. In the parlor’s mechanical chair, I write these paragraphs and dictate letters. I also watch television news, often without listening, and lie back in the enormous comfort of solitude. People want to come visit, but mostly I refuse them, preserving my continuous silence. Linda comes two nights a week. My two best male friends from New Hampshire, who live in Maine and Manhattan, seldom drop by. A few hours a week, Carole does my laundry and counts my pills and picks up after me. I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.

Born in 1928, I was an only child. During the Great Depression, there were many of us, and Spring Glen Elementary School was eight grades of children without siblings. From time to time I made a friend during childhood, but friendships never lasted long. Charlie Axel liked making model airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue. So did I, but I was clumsy and dripped cement onto wing paper. His models flew. Later, I collected stamps, and so did Frank Benedict. I got bored with stamps. In seventh and eighth grade, there were girls. I remember lying with Barbara Pope on her bed, fully clothed and apart while her mother looked in at us with anxiety. Most of the time, I liked staying alone after school, sitting in the shadowy living room. My mother was shopping or playing bridge with friends; my father added figures in his office; I daydreamed.

In summer, I left my Connecticut suburb to hay with my grandfather, on this New Hampshire farm. I watched him milk seven Holsteins morning and night. For lunch I made myself an onion sandwich—a thick slice between pieces of Wonder Bread. I’ve told of this sandwich before.

At fifteen, I went to Exeter for the last two years of high school. Exeter was academically difficult and made Harvard easy, but I hated it—five hundred identical boys living two to a room. Solitude was scarce, and I labored to find it. I took long walks alone, smoking cigars. I found myself a rare single room and remained there as much as I could, reading and writing. Saturday night, the rest of the school sat in the basketball arena, deliriously watching a movie. I remained in my room in solitary pleasure.

At college, dormitory suites had single and double bedrooms. For three years, I lived in one bedroom crowded with everything I owned. During my senior year, I managed to secure a single suite: bedroom and sitting room and bath. At Oxford, I had two rooms to myself. Everybody did. Then I had fellowships. Then I wrote books. Finally, to my distaste, I had to look for a job. With my first wife–people married young back then; we were twenty and twenty-three–I settled in Ann Arbor, teaching English literature at the University of Michigan. I loved walking up and down in the lecture hall, talking about Yeats and Joyce or reading aloud the poems of Thomas Hardy and Andrew Marvell. These pleasures were hardly solitary, but at home I spent the day in a tiny attic room, working on poems. My extremely intelligent wife was more mathematical than literary. We lived together and we grew apart. For the only time in my life, I cherished social gatherings: Ann Arbor’s culture of cocktail parties. I found myself looking forward to weekends, to crowded parties that permitted me distance from my marriage. There were two or three such occasions on Friday and more on Saturday, permitting couples to migrate from living room to living room. We flirted, we drank, we chatted–without remembering on Sunday what we said Saturday night.

After sixteen years of marriage, my wife and I divorced.

For five years I was alone again, but without the comfort of solitude. I exchanged the miseries of a bad marriage for the miseries of bourbon. I dated a girlfriend who drank two bottles of vodka a day. I dated three or four women a week, occasionally three in a day. My poems slackened and stopped. I tried to think that I lived in happy license. I didn’t.

Jane Kenyon was my student. She was smart, she wrote poems, she was funny and frank in class. I knew she lived in a dormitory near my house, so one night I asked her to housesit while I attended an hour-long meeting. (In Ann Arbor, it was the year of breaking and entering.) When I came home, we went to bed. We enjoyed each other, libertine liberty as much as pleasures of the flesh. Later I asked her to dinner, which in 1970 always included breakfast. We saw each other once a week, still dating others, then twice a week, then three or four times a week, and saw no one else. One night, we spoke of marriage. Quickly we changed the subject, because I was nineteen years older and, if we married, she would be a widow so long. We married in April, 1972. We lived in Ann Arbor three years, and in 1975 left Michigan for New Hampshire. She adored this old family house.

For almost twenty years, I woke before Jane and brought her coffee in bed. When she rose, she walked Gus the dog. Then each of us retreated to a workroom to write, at opposite ends of our two-story house. Mine was the ground floor in front, next to Route 4. Hers was the second floor in the rear, beside Ragged Mountain’s old pasture. In the separation of our double solitude, we each wrote poetry in the morning. We had lunch, eating sandwiches and walking around without speaking to each other. Afterward, we took a twenty-minute nap, gathering energy for the rest of the day, and woke to our daily sex. Afterward I felt like cuddling, but Jane’s climax released her into energy. She hurried from bed to workroom.

For several hours afterward, I went back to work at my desk. Late in the afternoon, I read aloud to Jane for an hour. I read Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” Henry James’s “The Ambassadors” twice, the Old Testament, William Faulkner, more Henry James, seventeenth-century poets. Before supper I drank a beer and glanced at The New Yorker while Jane cooked, sipping a glass of wine. Slowly she made a delicious dinner—maybe veal cutlets with mushroom-and-garlic gravy, maybe summer’s asparagus from the bed across the street—then asked me to carry our plates to the table while she lit the candle. Through dinner we talked about our separate days.

Summer afternoons we spent beside Eagle Pond, on a bite-sized beach among frogs, mink, and beaver. Jane lay in the sun, tanning, while I read books in a canvas sling chair. Every now and then, we would dive into the pond. Sometimes, for an early supper, we broiled sausage on a hibachi. After twenty years of our remarkable marriage, living and writing together in double solitude, Jane died of leukemia at forty-seven, on April 22, 1995.

Now it is April 22, 2016, and Jane has been dead for more than two decades. Earlier this year, at eighty-seven, I grieved for her in a way I had never grieved before. I was sick and thought I was dying. Every day of her dying, I stayed by her side—a year and a half. It was miserable that Jane should die so young, and it was redemptive that I could be with her every hour of every day. Last January I grieved again, this time that she would not sit beside me as I died.

–Donald Hall


Written by MattAndJojang

June 26, 2018 at 12:36 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Hi Matt,

    Thank you for sharing this moving story. There is a quiet, but earth moving cost to, both relationships and solitude. Both situations have their joys and sorrows. Can I be so bold as to share a verse I wrote after encountering a Solitary Christian. During our discussions, despite his feeling of fulfilment in his Solitude and life long seeking of the face of his Creator, he confessed to the side of his soul that still longed for companionship.

    I dream of kneeling at the altar next to the one I love.
    A confession to my Creator and to my Love of all that is past
    A humble ask to start anew
    Not only in my life but with the one that I cannot live without.

    The music of the lamenting pipes
    So sad yet cleansing to my soul
    Sorrow for what has past and hope for joy for what is to come
    A few days or years in the arms of one who understands and wants to share

    I have dreamed so, so oft of this sorrow and joy
    Maybe just the tears are enough to quench my thirst.
    A perfect vision and likely far from the real.
    Yet to yearn once more I must, if only to feel alive.

    So if she were to kneel beside me,
    I will well up with tears of unbounded joy
    And I simply say to her, “Your past is your business
    And your future will be my privilege”.

    God bless you loads

    Senan of Somerset

    Senan of Somerset

    July 1, 2018 at 8:56 pm

  2. Hi, Senan!

    What a beautiful poem! It captures beautifully our longing for companionship, friendship and love.

    I, myself, am fortunate to have both worlds, so to speak. I have a wife who understands my need for solitude. At the same time I am blessed with her presence and love, which has been a source of encouragement, strength and comfort, especially during the dark moments of my life.

    There is a thin dividing between solitude and loneliness. And, if I many hasten to add, even those of us who have been blessed with a companion and soulmate are not immune from moments of pain, loneliness and grief. Alas, such is the human condition.

    “The music of the lamenting pipes
    So sad yet cleansing to my soul”

    However, for those of us who can find the patience to bear our moments of loneliness — that could be a purifying and liberating experience.

    The spiritual life in Christianity (as well as those of the great spiritual traditions) is often couched in the language of life and death. Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” St. Francis of Assisi says: “It is dying that we are born to eternal life.” Zen masters speak of the great death and, from compassion born of this death, they wield the sword that cuts off delusion and gives new life.

    To my mind, for the most part the great spiritual teachers refer to death in metaphorical terms, which means that they’re talking about the death of the ego. In the language of Christianity: there’s no resurrection without the cross. To put it plainly, there can no real joy and freedom without letting go of our selfishness and self-centered desires. And nothing cuts so deeply to the fabric of our ego than the moments of loneliness that sometimes seems to overwhelm us. But for those who can, bearing our times of pain, loneliness and grief can be a very powerful form of spiritual medicine that can purify and deepen our spiritual life.

    Thank you for sharing…



    July 3, 2018 at 4:51 pm

  3. Hi Matt and Senan,

    I have read this post and comments in solitude of my little nook of a office in my home. The birds chirping outside my window. I’m grateful that you both and Donald have shared the solitude of inner life. It seems to me to be a gift that once opened enables us to connect on such a intimate level.

    It is how I believe God wants us to be with Him and each other. The world would sure be a different place if people would not be afraid to slow down and embrace the moments of solitude that come our way.

    Thanks again and all the best,


    Christopher H

    July 22, 2018 at 11:00 pm

  4. Hi, Christopher!

    We live in a noisy and fast-paced society. Many people have forgotten to slow down. Many, too, are afraid of silence. I remember this story told by a friend of mine who is a monk. He told me that once a young man came to their monastery for a private retreat. They were surprised when he told them he was leaving. He was only in the monastery for a few hours. He said: “I can’t stand the silence!”

    So sad.

    Personally, I find that my times of solitude and silence are times of refreshment. It’s a time to reflect, to commune with nature and to deepen my relationship with God. Paradoxically, too, it is in solitude and silence that I find the strength to be a loving and compassionate person. In the words of Thomas Merton, one the great spiritual masters of the 20th century:

    It is in deep solitude and silence that I find the gentleness with which I an truly love my brother and sister.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and visiting our blog…



    July 24, 2018 at 6:57 pm

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