My husband and I spend a lot of time together. We like each other and feel a genuine enjoyment in each other’s company. Most people think of us as a couple that does things together: exercise (sometimes), read, cook, eat, attend events, grocery shop, complete the crossword puzzle. I can’t tell you how many times one of us says, “I need to go to Target to get soap,” and the other answers, “I’ll come with you,” for no other reason than that it sounds fun to run the errand together.
But we’re not co-dependent. I hope.
In our marriage vows we cribbed from Rilke, and I promised my husband “to be the guardian of your solitude, to offer you comfort in my absence as much as my presence.” And he promised me too. I’ve been thinking about that vow lately. As a general rule, we should return to vows the way we make children say the Pledge of Allegiance regularly, ritually. So often in marriage, the vows are spoken once and never revisited; they function as an occasional formality rather than everyday mindfulness. Vows should be the keen needles on our daily compasses.
I don’t know that I’ve been great about protecting his solitude or about honoring my own.
We included solitude in our vows because we both need it. We’re introverts, but more than that, we recognize solitude as spiritual nourishment. Many great minds have articulated the importance of solitude better than I can, everyone from Albert Einstein to Henry David Thoreau to Emily Dickinson to Paul Tillich to Otis Redding. For me, solitude provides space for idleness–which the creative mind craves and needs. I haven’t written on this blog for three weeks because I haven’t had time to do nothing, and therefore, I have had nothing to say. Solitude also provides time for difficult soul work and a prescription-strength antidote against anxiety. Solitude is different from loneliness; more often than not I feel most lonely in the presence of others than I do when I’m actually alone. Solitude is also different from “taking time for one’s self” if such time-taking involves passive entertainment like watching bad television or mining Facebook. Solitude is full immersion into our own humanity, and so it is a prerequisite to compassion. Most importantly, solitude is prayerful by its very nature–it is the one room in our lives that God will enter.
It shouldn’t be that hard to ask for and find solitude, but in our modern lives and in a shared home, it’s really, really hard. Cell phones provide us the ability to be available at all times, and therefore, we decide we should be available. Radios and televisions and earphones and PA systems offer us the distraction of noise whenever we want it. Leaf blowers and alarms and dishwashers decimate any uncomfortable silences. Plus, I’ve got a baby on the way. How do I find and guard my and my husband’s solitude? More than day care or car seats or parenting theories, this question weighs on my mind. I know we won’t be good parents unless we first answer this question. At least I won’t.
At school, my students have trouble with solitude. As Einstein said, “Solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature.” Teenagers don’t want their own solitude–at their age they’re rightly negotiating the social world–and they also don’t respect mine. They assume my lunch and free periods are available to them and that my classroom has open doors like the all-night IHOP I used to frequent in my own youth. The other day, during a 15 minute “break period” between classes, students began showing up to my room with food, with conversation, with backpacks and for the first time in my life I found myself saying, “Get out. Go somewhere. This is my break time too and you’re interrupting it.” They were appalled. That was probably not the best way to go about guarding my solitude. A better way, I’ve found, is taking walks. I’m lucky that my campus boasts a mile or so of tree-lined, hilly walking trails behind the football field. When I’m most bombarded with emails, deadlines, and meetings, I disappear back there for a 20 to 30 minute walk. The day I found out I was pregnant, I walked through those trails and spoke to my unborn baby, pointing out the sunlight through the leaves and the squirrels dancing across branches, enticing that embryo to stay with me and to want to enter the world. Then I taught 3rd period, and I was a better teacher for having given myself the time alone. I never see anyone on those trails except the occasional maintenance worker–here the school offers us a sanctuary and we’re all too caught up in the buzz and frenzy of achievement to notice.
Where in my married life and in my life as a parent will I find the hidden trails to walk in? And how will I plant the trees and carve the paths of a quiet, solitary place for my husband and son? How will I keep my vow? Because I really love to be alone. I LOVE it. I like going to dinner alone, to the movies alone; I like staying in my house all day alone; I travel better alone than with others. And my husband loves to be alone. And my son, whether he loves it in his youth or not, will have to learn solitude early if we want him to be able to build a meaningful life for himself.
Sometimes very early in the morning, I’ll wake up to the sound of my husband’s solitude. He’ll have left our bed an hour or more earlier, in the dark light of morning, and he’ll be reading on the couch with Max curled at his feet or lightly strumming his guitar or staring out the window. The quiet in the house will have an energy like the blue halos around the angels’ heads in old paintings. I’ll think, he’s walking through the trees. I’ll try to let him by resisting the urge to call out for coffee or turn on the sink to brush my teeth. I’ll feel a surge of love for him and for the mystery of his interiority, the sacred and secret gardens inside him through which I’ll never walk. I want to comfort him with my absence.
More often than not I fail. I interrupt him and bring the whole damn noisy world with me. I’m highly verbal, and I’ll start talking for no reason. Later, I’ll snap at him about how he’s eating or why he hasn’t remembered to set up a doctor’s appointment. I’ll get agitated by all that world-noise, and I’ll fail to protect my own solitude. He might fail to recognize that I need it. And so it goes.
Vows are tricky things: you have to live them everyday and it takes a lifetime to figure out how.