This is the first time that I have the honor of curating the Essential Reading list. This month our editors and columnists are reflecting upon the theme of Solitude. I just finished Life Drawing by Robin Black, which is about a middle-aged couple, both artists, in a struggling marriage who recently moved to the country in search of solitude and tranquility, for the sake of their art and for their relationship. This novel is about what happens when that fragile peace is destroyed by new friendships and betrayals. This book got me thinking about how the quest for solitude, if taken to an extreme, can become a way of escaping our past and our bonds with others.
Creative Nonfiction editor Susan Ito shares her thoughts on solitude: “When I think solitude, I think of Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman. It’s her account of spending a winter alone (well, with a wonderful dog) in a house in nearly deserted Nantucket. She goes through periods of loneliness, self doubt, and real suffering, but through all of that I was also able to appreciate the bliss and the absolute gift in that solitude. I envied her her experience when I read it. It’s the companion to another memoir, The Stations of Solitude, another contemplative book of self-discovery. I think the precursor to that book, though, was Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who runs away from home and lives inside a hollow tree in the Catskill Mountains. (It later became a Disney movie, which was released when I was about eight.) This also fascinated me and moved me deeply, even as a child. Whenever I passed by a big tree, I’d think, ‘I could live in that.’ As mothers, and especially as writer-mothers, solitude is scarce and absolutely necessary. I totally encourage all of us to find, and make the pockets of solitude that we can.”
Literary Reflections Co-Editor Andrea Lani pictures the desert when she contemplates solitude: “I think of Edward Abbey’s classic Desert Solitaire. I first read this book as a young woman and it made me fall even more in love with the red rock deserts of the Southwest that already felt like home to me. I only recently learned that Abbey scrubbed his wife and young son from the desert, to make his time there appear, well, more solitary. I suppose I should be outraged by this, but I’m mostly amused: ‘Oh, that cantankerous old Ed.’ Besides, what parent hasn’t imagined herself alone in the wilderness, if only for a moment? (Although I do wonder how many moms could get away with excising their children from such a work.) I ended up settling in the Northeast, rather than the Southwest, perhaps following Ed’s admonition to, ‘Stay out of there. Don’t go. Stay home and read a good book. . .’ But when I need a mental escape, I envision myself in a tiny stone house on the edge of the desert, completely alone. I think Ed would approve.”
Amanda Jaros, Blog Editor, describes one of her favorite books, Anne Labastille’s Woodswoman: “The book is about a woman who, after a divorce, turns to a life of solitude in the Adirondack wilderness. She builds herself a cabin in the woods, outhouse and all, and settles into an existence with trees, wildlife, and only the occasional trip to town. It is about her daily life and her observations of her forest world, but, as with any good book, it is about so much more. This story was one of the first I ever read where a woman stepped alone into wilderness. She had plenty of emotional and physical struggles there, but she also confidently persevered. The way she thoughtfully and reverently carved out a life for herself in the woods was and continues to be a huge inspiration for me.”
“Birthing the Mother Writer” Columnist Cassie Premo Steele suggests another book about a search for solitude: “I closed on a new house with my partner on July 28, and while I was packing, I found a book called Garden of Bliss by Debra Moffitt. I hadn’t remembered how I’d gotten it, but I knew I’d been saving it for when we had ‘a house of our own.’ Once we settled in, the first thing I did was dip into this book—late afternoon, western facing chair in the bedroom—before picking up my daughter from school. And it was magical! There is so much in the book that resonates with what it means to be a creative, spiritual woman on a quest for solitude and peace (if only for a few minutes a day before the housework, cooking, caretaking, begin again!) A must-have for every Literary Mama’s quiet time! Bonus happy ending: my partner had given me this book last May when it first came out. I hadn’t remembered. Sometimes we need people in our lives to give us things—and time to accept them when we are ready.”
“Dear Marjo” columnist, Marjorie Osterhout, remembers a book that she received long ago: “I read A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh as a young woman just embarking on life. I was just out of college and so afraid of real life that I could barely get of bed. What did I want to do with my life? What career should I focus on? What if I screwed up? How could I get a job without knowing anyone? How could I afford one decent suit, never mind a professional wardrobe? And oh my God an apartment? I was almost literally paralyzed by fear. I talked the college into letting me supervise the summer residents so I could stay in my old dorm room, eat a lot of bologna sandwiches, and cry. Gift didn’t save me. My old roommate did, by talking her boss into hiring me without meeting me, then pounding on my door with two good dresses and a refusal to leave until I got the hell out of bed, brushed my hair, and followed her to the bank where she worked. Then, after my first day on the job, she took me to a not-bologna dinner and gave me Gift. It was instant calm. For the first time in months I was able to breathe deeply. Gift showed me that I didn’t need to answer all those questions at once, that the path to those answers was an actual path rather than a place. And it gave me a starting point: journal writing in thoughtful and solitary contemplation, which was entirely different from staying in bed and crying. What a mind shift—from being alone with fear to being solitary with peace. I choose peace.”