A Summer of Solitude

A summer of solitude

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2006

A summer of solitude

On soft summer evenings and even into fall, Dad would pile Mom and the kids in the car, and we would drive two miles to my grandmother’s 500-acre Wisconsin farm. Gramma and her two sons who worked the farm would be sitting on one of the two wrap-around porches of the old farm house built to house 12 children. She always chose the porch that faced the small lake and the 15-acres of virgin forest. Gramma would be in her rocking chair, and the two “boys” sitting on straight chairs tilted back. After a hard day on the farm, no one said much, if anything. Since television wasn’t invented yet, a lot of silent communication took place. They would soak up the end of the day, watch the cows coming to the barn, enjoy the shade of the enormous oak tree my grandfather had planted when he was first married. We kids might chase the chickens for a while, but then would end up on the porch, enjoying the quiet with the adults. This was summer.

My husband and I oddly replicated those days this past summer. Our houseguests all canceled, and we were alone on 80 acres in a county with no stoplights and a town of 200 people. We didn’t watch a Netflix in weeks. At night, instead of watching television, we listened to the antiphonal singing of the katydids. We didn’t talk, but we felt as if we were communicating better than we ever had. Our minds were quiet as we listened to our private concert. The katydids continued to sing as we drifted off to sleep, and the Virginia mountain air was clean.

I woke up around 6:30 and saw a herd of deer eating my flowers just as they were about to bud; then the deer stood on their hind legs to eat low-growing pears. I didn’t bother to chase them away. They were part of life on the farm. Going to my office to write before breakfast seemed natural. Although I was working very hard, I was not tired. My mind floated free, and there were no deadlines pushing at me.

Our friends felt sorry for us as we stayed in our mountain home. Jan left for a six-week trip to Greece. Ellen sailed the North Channel, and Pat and Larry just returned from Norway. Other friends are leaving for Argentina and Chile. Even here in the mountains, friends I usually saw during the summer were in the United Kingdom, Africa or elsewhere.

My husband and I accepted their sympathy but had the best vacation of our lives. We had what I would call some very good monk time, quietly and without anxiety remembering and re-evaluating our lives. Perhaps we all need more quiet time, whether silently listening to the katydids, watching the waves of the ocean, sitting on a rock in the forest, straining to hear the wind blow through the trees, watching a flycatcher swoop after insects, or even sitting in an empty church.

Nancy Klein Maguire is author of An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order.