Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A time for everything

Here is a piece I wrote last month for the local paper (I have a monthly column in there). I have been thinking and reading a lot about solitude this summer and fall. I met a master of solitude on Cape Breton Island back in August.

This is his house.

And these are shots taken well within the view from his front porch, where he sits most afternoons and reads.

I have never experienced a long stretch of complete solitude. I admire the hermits and the monks, the ones who renounce worldly things and live close to the rhythms of the seasons. The insights, it seems, come fast and furious out there in the lonesome wilderness, and these quiet people have the time and space to pay attention.

I know I’m romanticizing. My life now is so inextricably tied up in my family that solitude rarely happens. I am deep in the child rearing years. Much as my brain, indeed any parent’s brain, sometimes craves a long quiet, it’s impossible to divert my attention away. I really don’t want to miss a minute of this.

Over the summer our family drove up to the northern coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. We spent two weeks on a cliff-strewn coastline with eight or nine houses dotting its length. And here I met a real, if reluctant, hermit.

His name is Sonny, and he’s a widower in his mid-70’s. He’s been a fisherman all his life, but the fishing has dried up and most of the local people have moved away. He and his silent, unmarried son are the only ones still there. When the summer people leave in September, they see no one until June.

Late every afternoon on Cape Breton, our family would bike past Sonny’s house on our way to a rocky beach cut into the cliff. He’d be sitting out on his porch reading, his day’s work done, ready for a chat. I always stopped for a half hour. I loved to listen to Sonny talk about his life.

One particular day, it had rained all morning, and the sun was just coming out as we biked to the beach. Sonny loved to see the kids going by, because he misses having children in his life. He chatted with them for a few minutes, but they had been cooped up in the house all day and were eager to keep moving.

He told me I was lucky and I agreed. He said the years he raised his own kids were the best years of his life.

“But you have this,” I said, gesturing to his perfect cabin set between the mountains and the sea. I confessed that I envied him his solitude. I banged my bike helmet on my head and said, “I never get a minute to really think. Sometimes it makes me a little nutty.”

He looked at me hard. “Forget all that,” he said. “There’s a time for everything. I had what you have, and now I’m down to this.” And he, like me, waved his hand at the cabin and the view.

I stood there dumbstruck. Chastened. It’s like he handed me my life on a plate. This man who grew up without electricity and held his hands in warm water every dark morning of his fishing life just to get them moving, gave me the best advice of my life.

Forget all that. Of course.


  1. Wow. He's so right of course. It's just hard sometimes to remember to let go of the stress. That chastening was kind of a gift. Thanks for passing it on. The image of the old man on the sea coast will help me to remember it.

  2. Wonderful post and story of the hermit. Solitude can indeed be a blessing, but sometimes that solitude can be a curse when you have too much of it.

    Funny in that I remember how much I craved it when my kids were younger and always needed things from me, but now that they are older I have more solitude. I do enjoy it, but sometimes miss it when they needed their mother more and they were always in the house. Wise words from that man and so true

  3. Wonderful post, thank you for sharing your article. This one really made me smile :)

  4. I have always loved the solitude of the mountains and some areas of the sea coast. Now that my kids are gone, I have a quieter house but not the kind of quiet that one can get deep in a forest or the kind of quiet that is punctuated by the loud noise of nature. My wife does not crave that type of quiet, so my life will always have the noise of urban life with brief (very) periods of loud quiet. Your old man seems to yearn for the busy days of his past and I yearn for the quiet days of his present.


Please feel free to leave thoughts, suggestions, advice or queries. I love comments!