Rosalie Sanara Petrouske
Lost in Solitude
“The reason that extended solitude seemed so hard
to endure was not that we missed others,
but that we began to wonder if we ourselves were present,
because for so long our existence depended upon assurances
The last vestige of sunlight falls across the wooden tabletop as dusk comes to the hemlock woods in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I have come to spend two weeks by myself in a timber frame cabin, much like the monk Thomas Merton used to do. I sit, looking out at the light touching the undersides of leaves, enjoying the voice of a lone bird trilling high in the treetops. How merry he sounds singing rapturously before the darkness silences him!
One part of solitude I acknowledge is hearing my thoughts echo through the cabin after I turn off the propane lanterns. Even though the thoughts are sometimes frightening, I hear my own voice more distinctly. When I am alone, it is easy to dwell on past hurts and mistakes, or to think about my own mortality. But if I can escape my noisy mind, it is peaceful to have no thoughts at all. To simply be in this place without any expectations, judgment, or meaning. To let each day unfold slowly, revealing itself as the hours pass.
Doris Grumbach, former literary editor for The New Republic, lived in her coastal Maine home for fifty days one winter, rarely speaking to anyone. In her memoir she wrote of solitude:
"In this way, living alone in quiet, with no vocal contributions from others, no sounds (except music) from beyond my own ear, I was apt to hear news of an inner terrain, an endolithic self, resembling the condition of lichens embedded in rock."
Like her, in the absence of distraction, I feel the hidden aspects of my mind quickly become overwhelmed by the possibilities. Like her, I find it difficult to focus for very long. I brought several books with me and find myself flipping from one chapter to another, putting that book down to start a different one, stopping to write a few words, and then returning to the first book, and so on. I am not used to having so much uninterrupted time. Like a giddy child, I cannot decide which “toy” to play with first. And, this lack of boundaries makes it more difficult to accomplish the goals I’ve set for myself.
A friend once expressed to me the limitations of solitude, suggesting that we learn about ourselves mostly in relationships. He says, in relating to another person, we must make an effort to know what it is, exactly, that we want to say and how it will be received. In the reaction of the other person, we see our own strengths and weaknesses. Consequently, he doesn’t think full self-knowledge is possible in isolation, since isolation leaves us unchallenged; however, he says, “There is a great deal of fear relating to others. Fear of judgment, mostly. Yet, being alone can be exhilarating, a nervous, persistent fear.”
As much as I enjoy being alone, I relate to this persistent fear. It is disquieting to think about total aloneness, the absence of relationships, the disconnection from family, from blood. In the encroaching darkness, I will myself to not dwell in this black well of dread. Rather, I focus on how solitude encourages me to feel strong and capable of caring for myself.
“Perhaps, it is about finding balance,” my friend Mary explains. “Too much solitude feels alienating, too little smothering. Solitude makes us work on our connections to ourselves. Sometimes I am fearful of being alone; other times it’s my preferred state.”
This singleness of self-discovery attracts me. It is the kind of solitude I choose. Nevertheless, after spending two weeks in this cabin, I will no doubt be ready to return to civilization - to a hot shower, the call of friends and family, and the lively din of traffic. And with that same certainly I know, that once I leave these woods, I will long for the stillness and quietude of this solitary dwelling, the simplicity of heating oatmeal over a gas flame, pumping water, and hiking for miles with nothing ahead but the promise of another waterfall.
Inside the room, it is now too dim to see very well. Outside, the bird’s solo song has subsided. Reluctantly, I climb on the stool to reach and light the propane lanterns, being careful not to damage the fragile mantles. I watch as the flame catches and curls upward in a blue arc. Returning to the table, I open my journal and pick up my pen.
“I never found a companion that
was companionable as solitude.”
--Henry David Thoreau
Night in the mountains is restful, a winding down of the day, a time to reflect on what has passed, what I have encountered on a long hike through one of the 87 miles of trails in these many acres of wilderness. Today, I hiked the Escarpment trail and only encountered one other person. We smiled, nodded to each other, and parted. Like Henry David Thoreau did at Walden Pond, I too have discovered that I can pass the day without speaking to anyone when I am surrounded by water, wind, and the protective branches of hundred-year old trees, providing shade and cover from rain. The baby squirrel that lives under the hemlock in the hillock behind the cabin greets me when I climb up the path each evening. Tonight, I pause to ask him where his mother is. He cocks his head to one side as if he
understands me and then scampers away. Although I never make it a habit to feed the wildlife, I leave a few nuts from my cache to reward his friendliness.
Speaking aloud to trees, the river, or even my little comrade makes me realize how guttural my voice sounds after not speaking for nearly twenty-four hours. My words creak, rusty and cracking—at first a small squeak, then almost a screech. I clear my throat and begin again, thinking about how day-to- day conversations modulate our voices, and how solitude “un-tunes” them.
Later, I sit watching through a window as the sun sinks behind the hemlock’s lacy branches. The gradations of light and shadow are fragile—the deep rich greens of spring, the light sometimes misty and mysterious, weightless, touching lichens and mosses, and the radiance of burgeoning leaves of trout lilies. I feel somehow worshipful and want to lift my palms together. Instead, I flip open my notebook to try to capture what I see in a poem:
As day lengthens,
a westerly sun slants
of towering hemlocks,
while lower trunks remain
of feathery greenery,
tipped with God-light.
Night takes its time to arrive. At first, the sun moves to the west, and the trees around the cabin cast long shadows, slowly blocking out the light. Somewhere unseen in the highest branches, birds chirrup disturbing the quiet with caws and twitters. Nestled in the hemlocks, the cabin grows dim quickly. The sky darkens to a deeper blue, then to grey, with pink tinting the west. The tall trees blur and blacken in silhouette against the silvery-blue sky.
I came here to seek silence and to write, but nature is never silent. It is simply free of human clamor. Happily, that is enough.
Alone, I can be by myself, enjoy my own company, hear my own thoughts. I listen to my breath going in and out, and feel the beat of my heart.
I engage in my own aliveness.
About the Artist
Rosalie Sanara Petrouske spent two weeks in 2014 at a remote cabin as part of the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park’s Artist-in-Residence program in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This shorter series of essays are part of a longer work, titled “Lost in Solitude,” drafted from the journal she kept during her stay. Petrouske has had poetry and essays published in many literary journals and anthologies including, Passages North, The Seattle Review, Red Rock Review, Third Wednesday, American Nature Writing, and Lunch Ticket. In 2020, she was a finalist in the Jack Grapes Poetry Prize from Cultural Weekly and is the author of three chapbooks of poetry. In 2021, she was one of five finalists for the honor of U.P. Poet Laureate. Currently, she is a full-time professor of English at Lansing Community College.