After a year away at school — sharing his meals in a cafeteria, his lessons in a classroom, his off-hours in a dormitory — our son has been back home with us this summer, sharing space with a smaller community of four.
His return has brought the chance to reconnect with hometown friends, to be with us, to see extended family. But what he’s really enjoyed is something that academic life rarely affords: the time to be alone.
In afternoon hours by himself, he’s learned that he’s a pretty good gardener. He’s spread tools across a table and dreamed up new electronics projects. He’s dipped into novels that seem as long as summer itself, and that probably won’t be finished by Christmas. He’s looked out the window, either thinking great thoughts or nothing in particular.
What’s on his mind will remain his secret, since I’ve tried not to break the spell of his solitude by butting in. He needs that stretch of time to learn about who he is, who he wants to be.
I guess we all do, though the collective hive we call modern life, buzzing fretfully with emails and texts, phone calls and Facebook, the blare of sirens and the TV news, rarely allows any soul to be an island apart.
Laments about lack of solitude are really nothing new, as we’ve been reminded this summer with the renewed attention on Henry David Thoreau, widely honored this month on the bicentennial of his birth.
He endures as history’s most famous hermit, thanks to some thoughts on solitude he offered from a cabin on Walden Pond, though in reality, he was no hermit at all. Thoreau often had visitors to his rustic home, and even mentioned quite a few of them in his writings.
But he argued that we can’t give our best to each other if we don’t first learn to be by ourselves, to be entertained and enriched by our own thoughts. “I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls,” he wryly noted.
Since Thoreau — well, even long before him — every generation has brought new champions of solitude. One of my favorite books on the subject appeared in 2002, when Isabel Colegate gave us “A Pelican in the Wilderness.” The unforgettable title is from a quote by the 17th-century English cleric Thomas Traherne: “A Man that studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the House Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness.”
Traherne would find a fellow traveler in Michael Harris, whose new book, “Solitude,” explores a troubling thought: In a world so ceaselessly connected, if we’re granted extended solitude, would we know what to do with it?
He decided to find out, spending a week removed from others.
I’ve packed the book for vacation, where, with any luck, I’ll have time to read it — alone.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.