“The World Is Too Much With Us”
Black as a mahogany Madonna, my neighbor’s cat rests among the scarlet-flowered salvia bushes, several feet from the bird feeder. She invites no one. Should a neighborhood cat wander in, it is swiftly repulsed. From my window I admire—with a trace of envy—the independence and the undeviating sense of purpose of my uninvited guest as she settles into her instinctive nature. Motionless for hours, she has found her place of a defined aloneness.
I continue to battle for mine in the eleven years since the death of my husband, Art. I confront the unrelenting pull of conflicting desires: those that yearn for the comfort of friends, and those that ache to be alone in the silence of my room. Only in the silence do my thoughts and I hear each other, as the unquiet world outside rocks to its cacophonous beat, energizing the young and exhausting the elderly. At a restaurant yesterday, I was unable to hear my companion through the buzz of voices and the unceasing din of cutlery against plate. She suggested that I deactivate one of my digital hearing aids, and I was, once again, grateful for modern technology.
Such gratitude, however, is tempered by opposing thoughts as I catch myself whining about the prevailing addiction to cell phones, iPods and blaring car stereos—items without which their owners remain confined to the rigors of silence. Shopping on Fourth Street in Berkeley some years ago, I rested on a bench outside a café where a middle-aged man was relaxing in the sun. We exchanged neighborly smiles and I delved into my purse for my list. “It’s a perfect day,” he said. Perusing my list, I answered with an enthusiastic “Gorgeous.” Then I heard, “How about meeting for lunch?” My thoughts zipped from shopping to a more pleasing venture and, with my most gracious smile, I turned around to answer. By now, my neighbor had walked a few feet away from the bench and appeared to be looking off into the distance, talking to the air. It took a few seconds before I realized that I’d been upstaged by a cell phone.
Nowadays, the cell phone is a permanent attachment to our anatomy. A facilitator of our fractured lives, it is also the enabler of unending verbal dramas, often accompanied by expressions of frozen anxiety. We are thus exposed to the sometime intimate lives of our neighbors—an embarrassment for me, since in my youth it was considered a mortal sin to eavesdrop.
To some degree, I empathize with the present generation of noisemakers, since in England, in the twenties and thirties, I was up there among the noisiest. But our noise was different. In those days, telephones operated with the assistance of overworked operators who plugged you into your connection, which emitted more static than audibility. Radios tended to splutter and crackle for only a few hours each day, broadcasting a single station. Coveted by the masses, they were mostly owned by the moneyed classes. Television didn’t arrive until the 1940’s. And if an aeroplane appeared, we would watch, with awe and disbelief, this mysterious object with wings, floating high in the sky with its ominous rumble. That was our noise.
On a more personal level, I’d dance at our local Palais-de-Dance where the band drove its rhythm right through the roof, dine at jam-packed, intimate cafés in Soho and drink illegal drinks at clamorous night clubs, following the noise whenever invited. Then, I could take it or leave it. Now, there is no leaving.
Toward the end of World War II, Art and I left an embattled London for the United States. We arrived in Manhattan where I was captivated by the skyscrapers reaching heavenward, the endless abundance of exotic foods, and the warmth of its inhabitants. The following year we moved to Massachusetts, where I caught my first glimpse of quietude. Early one November morning, Art and I walked around Walden Pond in Concord. We were completely alone in that pristine, hushed place, heavy with the pending silence of winter. Holding onto Art’s hand, I became the traveler whose head received information, but whose heart felt a fear in that unaccustomed solitude. For me, aloneness translated into lonely, lonely into abandonment, and abandonment into unknown dangers. The next day I went to a book store in Cambridge, bought Walden and read every word of Thoreau’s account of his life in the woods. It was then I began to listen to myself.
I was blessed with a mother-in-law who loved me, despite us being opposites in personalities. Alice was a self-effacing woman of quiet obstinacy, who trod gently and expressed few contrary opinions. Art and I were often troubled by her seeming passivity. When the children were young, Alice would visit us regularly. Upstairs on the couch in our living room, she’d observe our daily drama, sitting for hours in silent contemplation with a book of poems on her lap. She frequently quoted her favorite line from Browning—“The best is yet to be”—which I interpreted as a certain helpless renunciation of the moment. I was critical then of what appeared to be her premature drifting into a self-imposed exile, into a state of nothingness.
Sixty years later, less judgmental and hopefully slightly wiser, I watch as I, too, withdraw from the events of the day, and I understand now that this moving inward is not a retreat into a meaningless void, but rather a shift of energy into self. In my youth, time was a given—born with the universe, unending. But, as my own pace slows, that of time—the arbiter of existence—speeds up like a whirlwind, snatching away yet another one of my priceless days.
In my old age, I sense an emerging farewell. The music softens, the dance slows, and the road—no longer forward-seeking—circles back to its beginnings and beckons primordial images. I am dressed in a blue pleated tunic, sitting at a wooden desk on the first day of kindergarten in the small day-school run by two maiden ladies. Holding a piece of chalk in my hesitant fingers, I struggle to form the letters of my name, as Miss Austin—surely the role model for Dickens’ bleakest teachers—stands with ruler in hand, all too ready to rap my knuckles in disapproval. I smell the paraffin oil stove in the corner of the room. I am back with the ‘who’ of me, the self I left behind as I maneuvered my way through the seasons of my years. I think of how, through the twistings and turnings of survival, the ultimate prize is this reconciliation with the original, unvarnished self.
These days, I increasingly turn down invitations from close friends. I worry that I’m shutting up shop too soon, that it’s dark inside with no lights. It is a tricky balance, dependent upon both energy and intent. The need to be with my aloneness demands a certain solitude. I remember a friend who used to invite me frequently for tea: a voluble, charming host. He’d make the tea, and I’d bring the cookies. As he grew older, though, after about an hour together, sometimes less, he’d softly suggest that perhaps I’d better leave, since he was concerned about my driving through heavy traffic. I now understand this as his way of reclaiming his solitude.
Moving into self is not always a gentle voyage. Alone for a few days, immersed in writing or just being, there are times when—without warning—my comfort begins to unravel; fear insinuates and I am trapped in the aching loneliness of a sojourner on a silent, icy planet. It is the price the trickster-gods, in their hubris, extract from us humans who dare to choose. Sometimes I panic. Sometimes I simply wait for the spell to pass. But eventually the emergent sun melts the ice and, once again, I am back home hugging a solitude of my own design.