When I talk about solitude, I am really talking also about making space for that intense, hungry face at the window, starved cat, starved person. It is making space to be there.---May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude.
I like to think that as a writer I'm an extrovert, spending most of my time at my keyboard or notebook out and about in the world, so to speak, and not all that interested in chronicling the inside of my own head.
A delusional thought for a blogger, and a three-minute random browse through my archives would turn up a dozen proofs of how I'm kidding myself.
But at least when I'm down here I do more looking outward than inward. I make sure of that.
Every year when we come to the Cape one of the first things I do, if not at the bookstore around the corner our first night in town, then at the library the next afternoon, is find a book I haven't read yet about Cape Cod. Then I settle down to read as much as I can of it in a night to fill my head with all the information I can about the Cape, reminding myself of stuff I already knew and, with luck, discovering lots I didn't, about the people here, the history, the geography, the flora and fauna, and the weather.
This gives me a checklist of things to keep my eyes open for, and the rest of the vacation I'm on the lookout for whatever it was that I picked up from that book. I don't always find the same things the author found, but I find something.
The first book that inspired and guided me this way was, naturally, Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau.
I read that one the first time when I was in college and it inspired me to drag two of my friends down here one October weekend and follow Thoreau's path up the beach from Eastham to Provincetown. That's about a 30 mile walk, and slow going on sand. And it turned out that one of the things I failed to learn from Thoreau, although it seems impossible that I missed this, was that he hadn't walked the whole way in two days. He had done it over the course of several visits.
I staggered into Provincetown all alone, my two friends having given up, left the beach, and put out their thumbs just before Wellfleet.
I can still recreate that walk step for step, though, and an awful lot that I've learned since about the Cape I learned trying to find in other books the names and explanations for all that I saw along the way.
I re-read Cape Cod just before the blonde and I got married and I brought it along on our honeymoon, along with the book that is still my favorite, Common Ground by Robert Finch.
His Outlands is just about as good.
Finch is to my mind the best of the Cape Cod writers, although John Hay is a close enough second that I find I often prefer to re-read his books to Finch's. That may be just because I think I've committed Finch's essays to memory and I "re-read" every time I take a walk here.
Over the years I've put together a small library of about twenty books about the Cape and I've probably read about half as many more that I've borrowed from the real library. I could read a hundred more and not feel I've come close to being done, but, amazingly, and dismayingly, I've had a hard time this year settling on a book.
I thought I had one. Darwin's Audubon by Gerald Weissman. The books I choose to read don't have to be specifically or exclusively about Cape Cod; they just have to have a Cape connection and offer me some guidance in finding my way around here and knowing what to look for. Weissman is a physician, biochemist, and professor of medicine who writes generally about science and medicine, but he used to work at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and the essays in the first of his books I read, The Woods Hole Cantanta, although not all about Cape Cod, were informed by his experiences in Woods Hole, both as a scientist and a summer resident.
But Darwin's Audubon hasn't grabbed me so far. The Cape seems very far away from the essays I've read. It's interesting to know that Darwin thought of Audubon as being a scientist and not just an artist with an eye for birds and relied on his work when writing The Origin of the Species. But it's not information I've been able to take to the beach with me, even when I've been watching the birds there.
I almost switched to A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson. But it didn't take much skimming for me to realize that this was not a book about Cape Cod, it was a book about being Joan Anderson alone with herself on Cape Cod, and I was not part of the intended audience, the book's aimed at women who want to be alone with themselves on Cape Cod.
Might have been unfair of me to dismiss it out of hand as a woman's book, but it didn't help that the book jacket made clear that Anderson has developed a cottage industry based around her books of self-help for women who have suddenly found themselves, mostly by way of divorce, apparently, alone with their thoughts for long periods of time and who like it that way.
What is it about women, I asked myself as I put A Year By the Sea back in its place on the shelf in the bookstore, that makes them so enamoured of the idea of solitude?
And why are they so interested in telling each other about it?
Seems an oxymoronic pursuit.
Men don't do that. Solitude drives men mad. Maroon a man on a desert island and he'll either go out of his mind in a hurry or he'll find ways of not being alone. He will come home with long tales of the lives of breadfruit.
Strand a woman on a desert island and after she gets over her ecstatic feelings she'll build a desk in the most secluded spot she can find and spend her days writing with a pen made from seagull's feather in ink made from berry juice about how she's amazed herself with all the wonders she's discovered while exploring the depths of her own heart and soul.
And after she's rescued her book will be the bestseller.
This was a ridiculously sexist thought and just plain stupid of me, considering that the very first grownup book of nonfiction I ever read was Walden.
And it was especially dumb when one of the classics of Cape Cod literature, Henry Beston's The Outermost House, a love letter to solitude if ever there was one, was right there, face out on the shelf.
As it happens, I don't particularly like The Outermost House, too much of weather reporting, both outside Beston's shack and inside his head, and at any rate in some ways it's not a chronicle of solitude as much as it's the story of a would-be recluse who's a failure at his calling and spends most of his time on the lookout for interruptions to his solitude.
But still I have this prejudice. Women writers want to be alone with their thoughts in order to write about their thoughts. It's not that men don't want to be alone with their thoughts; it's that they want to write about the things going outside their windows while they are thinking.
Partly this prejudice is based on what the women I know have said about their desire to be alone. It seems to me that women have a harder time finding time to themselves. The demands of their marriages or partnerships, their feelings of duty to their parents and children and friends won't leave them alone.
Their very friendships with each other offer no relief.
Women don't seem to have the ability that men have of being friends without talking.
If I were more persuaded by evolutionary psychology I would say that this is because of the way gender roles evolved in hunter-gatherer societies. Gathering is a very social activity, you have to talk about what you're picking, compare your finds to others', plus there's time to talk and no reason to be quiet as you're not going to scare away the nuts and berries. And the children are along and they need to be entertained and scolded and fussed over.
Meanwhile, a man who couldn't keep his mouth shut while out hunting was a postive danger to himself, the rest of the party, and the community.
But whether or not what people had to do to survive 10,000 years ago has a determining influence over how people behave now is beside the point. The point---my point---is that it seems to me that women's lives are to a greater degree than men's a matter of contiunal enforced sociability, so it shouldn't be any wonder that the desire for time alone, for quiet, for the chance to keep company solely with one's own self and listen, for once, only to the voices inside and not to the chatter of others, should be strong and attractive to the point of compelling.
It's hard for me to imagine a man walking out of his marriage just to be alone for a while, as Anderson did.
But I can not only imagine women doing it, I've known women who have or who have wanted to.
My prejudice that women who find themselves alone at last are then compelled to write about it, which is a way of saying talk about it, is based on one woman.
I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my "real" life again at last. This is what is strange---that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time along in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and "the house and I resume old conversations"
I've had a longstanding prejudice against May Sarton, and it's because for years I kept confusing her with Anne Sexton.
My prejudice against Sexton is probably unfair too, but what I've read of her and her work have made me think of her as a dangerous narcissist and narcissism, even when it's expressed through sexual adventuring, is boring. I don't like Henry Miller either. Somehow I got it into my head that Sarton was Sexton, or very much like her, so I avoided reading her poetry, her novels, and, most energetically, her journals.
But on top of my anti-Sarton as Sexton bias, was my belief that her journals were women's books, like Joan Anderson's, extended descriptions of what she observed after a day staring into the mirror of her own soul.
The value of solitude---one of its values---is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation with dear Arnold Miner, when he comes to take the trash may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.
I've often thought of spending a year on the Cape. I've been here for parts of all four seasons, but I would like to be here for the whole of all of them, to observe each one through the course of its development and watch as one blends into the next. When I think of myself doing this, after having won the lottery so that I can afford it, I see myself living not here in Chatham, but farther out, up beyond Wellfleet, but not all the way to Provincetown, somewhere around Truro, I guess, which is to say I see myself in a small cottage in what's the loneliest and most untrafficked part of the Cape even in summer. In the winter out there, without having to try too hard, you can go a week without seeing another human being.
This is a dream of solitude. And, bet on it, I'd be writing about it the whole time. Now, it's not the alone-ness I want. I want the lack of distractions so that I can concentrate harder on the things I usually only get to observe cursorily and in passing when we're here on vacation.
I don't see myself as being truly alone even. The blonde and the boys are there and not there, I feel their company even though I don't see them beside me. They're probably down here in Chatham, and I'm dropping in on them regularly, which sounds like I'd be cheating on the whole experiment, doesn't it?
But it's almost impossible to be alone anywhere, even if you're dilligent about withdrawing into solitude.
And now it is time that I laid aside, at least for a few hours a day, the world that pours in here from outside, and resumed my own life in this nunnery where one woman meditates alone. But there is no way of "laying aside" a knock at the door.
May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude is really a chronicle of solitude contstantly interrupted. She opens the book by telling about her friend and handyman Perley Cole's slow dying in a nursing home and her visits to him there as she did her best to keep him company in his last days. Entry after entry that follows is about Sarton's escaping either from solitude into company or from company back into solitidue, so much so that how to manage being with company seems to be the real theme of the book.
By now you've probably guessed that I've found my Cape book.
Sarton wrote Journal of a Solitude in New Hampshire, and except what cultural and geography and history New Hampshire and the Cape share in being parts of New England, there isn't anything specifically about here that I can learn from reading about there.
But I'm learning a lot, nevertheless.
About writing, which is good.
About the stupidity of my own prejudices, which is better.
The blonde likes to sleep in a bit when we're down here, rising just in time to organize us and get us out the door to whatever adventure we've scheduled for the day. But this morning she was up early for her. I suggested that she take the opportunity to go for a long walk or a bike ride.
She was suspicious of my solicitude.
"Why are you pushing me out the door?" she wanted to know.
"I just thought you'd like some time alone," I said, with loving understanding. "I know how you women crave and need time to yourselves."
"It's not women who build Fortresses of Solitude," she said.