J.D. Salinger & me: Embracing moments of solitude
The entrance of my childhood home was a series of mint green cement steps covered in a kelly green carpeting that resembled turf grass. I sat on those stairs many times growing up, but the location stands out to me most looking back on the summer of my junior year in high school.
I spent that summer reading, writing, drawing and painting from that very spot; my supplies spread out on the landing at the top of the stairs. A small roof covered this area, so I was out there even in gentle thunderstorms and rain showers, until the blustery wind would drive me inside, clutching my creative treasures to my chest to keep them dry.
I don’t know why I picked that spot, but I was there frequently. Occasionally, friends would bike or drive by and stop for a moment with puzzled expressions on their faces. They’d ask what I was up to and if I had any interest in joining them at the mall or on a drive to the beach or the park. I’d smile and politely decline. Then I’d lower my head, refocusing on whatever I’d been doing the moment prior to their arrival — a signal that our conversation was over. They’d quietly drive off and I’d find myself alone again.
My immediate family fared the same. I kept our conversations brief and being outside most of the time, I wasn’t readily available to help with indoor chores around the house. Eventually, they grew tired of having to find me to do things and they gave up, leaving me to my own devices.
The aloneness was bliss — is bliss — and something I seek out from time to time because a part of me has always thrived with a J.D. Salinger approach to life. Like him, I sometimes wonder, “why can’t my life just be my own?”
Every once in awhile I need to put the world, and the people in it, aside and crawl into my own secluded space.
What I do during those moments of self-imposed solitude tends to vary. Sometimes I read mountains of books. I’ve journaled and cataloged hundreds of pages of random thoughts, favorite quotes, and advice over the years too. One time I spent a week of spring vacation drawing and researching all the plants I came across in my parent’s yard. Then there are the times when I’m not actively doing anything at all. I’ve sat on the front steps of the lake cottage where I now live, staring off at the water for hours and thinking of nothing in particular.
These aren’t moments where I’m seeking (or ever find) any great revelations about life. There are no light bulbs that alight over my head. I realize no grand philosophical somethings that change my perspective or worldview. I make no decisions.
Nothing at all comes of these moments, and that’s the entire point. These are the times when I’m simply here, quietly experiencing whatever happens to be in front of me. I’m not overthinking. I’m not wondering. I’m not asking questions.
I’m not creating — I’m simply existing.
Unlike Salinger, mine is a temporary respite. Eventually I come back to the world. I’m in the process of doing that very thing after being “away” for a week and a half.
It started on a Saturday after completing an essay I’m rather proud of (but have yet to publish). I flexed every creative muscle I had for days to create that piece. By the end, my brain was fried and my head felt like it weighed 50 pounds. I spent everything I had and there were no words left in me.
The day after I finished the final edits, I did nothing. I didn’t write. I didn’t journal. I didn’t visit any of the online sites where I tend to publish my work. I didn’t even think about writing at all. I put it completely aside. Instead, I spent the afternoon lounging and watching a random list of Netflix documentaries.
At some point my husband inquired about a walk in the woods, and that’s when it hit me. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to do anything. I especially didn’t want to talk about anything in detail.
Oh, hello, Salinger. I see you’ve arrived.
Admittedly, it’s harder to embrace reclusiveness when you have a full time career and family (or friends) that rely on you daily. And if you’re a caregiver for an elderly parent, like I am, it’s even harder.
But regardless of circumstance and the obligations that come in turn, I do have a fundamental belief that people ebb and flow just like the tides. We have our moments of high energy / high performance and then things shift and our inner couch potato (or great, reclusive writer) appears.
Everything in the universe has its equal opposite. So the ebb and flow of our personal energy is nothing unusual. The problem is that many of us only value and honor one side of ourselves. Society only values one side — the productive, assertive, producing side. No wonder we live in a world of tension, burn out, anxiety and depression.
I believe in honoring both sides of my self, and that’s why I have a Lazy List.
I developed my Lazy List a year ago after coming out of a low energy period and realizing what a mess the world around me had become. Bills were late, I wasn’t prepared for a deadline at work because I had failed to note it on my calendar, and I had failed to order school supplies for a special project for my daughter.
Instead of feeling optimistic and energized as I normally would swinging back from a restful ebb phase, I was frustrated, stressed out and rather overwhelmed. I told myself I should’ve stayed hidden in my room with a book. Why did I choose to come back to the world?
The answer is that I don’t want to be a full time recluse.
After digging out of the immediate piles of must do’s and late notices, I decided to set goals to keep me on track. Basically, I decided to force myself to maintain a higher performing routine. I bought in to the nonsense that society sells us — that life is better if we’re constantly driving towards something, pushing ourselves harder and harder.
But my problem wasn’t a lack of goals, objectives or plans. It was that my energy fluctuates whether I like it or not. Pushing harder only resulted in crashing and burning harder.
I looked at everything I try to accomplish in a given week hoping to find a solution. It was then that I realized there are two categories of tasks in my life — the laundry list of small, simple things that come up over and over, and the larger more significant activities related to major goals or projects.
I tend to avoid the small tasks when my energy surges because I find them boring and seek out bigger challenges to tackle; tasks that will provide me with bigger successes and a larger sense of satisfaction. But when my energy is low, I consistently slack off on the major things associated with those long term goals because I find them overwhelming and frankly, I’m too lazy in those moments to put that much effort into my day.
I created my Lazy List in direct response to this realization. It includes all the small, simple repeat tasks like cataloging my notes, catching up on reading, categorizing emails and cleaning up my inbox, updating my calendars, journaling, scheduling meetings for upcoming weeks, yoga, and sorting the mail.
There are many benefits of doing these little tasks when my motivation is waning. First off, they don’t require the major effort of problem-solving or too much back and forth interaction with anyone else during a time when I’m not feeling very social. I can do these activities for five minutes or an hour, depending on my mood. The final advantage is when my energy surges again, these tasks have me better organized and ready for bigger plans.
As for the more significant stuff like creative writing, creating new content at work, brainstorming new project ideas, problem-solving, socializing, intensive exercise, and executing on long term goals, I tackle those things when I’m feeling that optimistic, high energy motivation (which, in truth, tends to be my more frequent state of mind).
The other night as I sat in bed quietly cataloging notes on a book I’d just finished reading, I found myself growing increasingly distracted. Then the idea came to me to write this essay. As I thought it through, two other writing ideas came to mind. I jotted them down, put my notes aside and went to sleep.
At three a.m. I woke with an idea about a work project. Again, I grabbed my notebook off the nightstand and scribbled a few comments so I wouldn’t forget my thoughts. Drifting back to sleep, it dawned on me that things were about to shift. My energy and motivation were returning.
Like in times before, I woke that morning with the sudden urge to go, go, go! Yet even on these days when I’m certain I can take on the world, Salinger is still with me in the background.
I still follow his advice to “know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly.”
Today my mind might be dressed for action. But I know that my books, my notes, and my spot on the stoop looking over the lake are waiting for me when I need them in quieter moments.
For now, though, I flow.