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  • Writer's pictureBethany Lynn Alvey

Contemplative Practice I: Solitude

This is Part I of a series on Contemplative Practice

The stillness I talked about last week is one strand out of three: stillness, solitude, and silence. They are sisters, and often go together. There's a bit of a wobble when only two are present. I can be still and alone, and my mind is anything but silent; it is LOUD in there. I can be silent and still in a crowd and others wonder if I am shy, cold, standoffish, or even angry. I can be alone and silent but my body is busy, busy, busy, and I gain beyond the exercise (definitely not a waste!)

On the rare occasion I forget my need for solitude, my mind a body start to drop not-so-subtle hints. I get anxious, irritable, and worn. I have a hard time focusing, my creativity is sapped. My husband has gotten pretty good at catching when I could use some time alone. He'll pause and look at me pushing my way through the day, then ask, "Would you like me and Leo (our pup) to give you some alone time?" And relief washes over me - at least ONE of us figured out what was going on. He's the more empathetic of the two of us, and generally the more insightful. I smile as I watch him play with Leo as they get ready to go on a long walk, and as the door closes I feel my shoulders relax.

I take a moment to just feel the space around me - there's no one nearby. The still life of the house becomes more animate - the hum of the HVAC system or the refrigerator, creaks in the roof as the sun warms the wood. And the stillness that I was trying to muscle into existence all day long just arrives. I may not move at all for ten, twenty, thirty minutes. And it's the solitude that allowed the stillness to enter.

During the weekdays I teach elementary school music. And wow, there is no solitude, or stillness, and definitely no silence (even though they're cute and funny). And they're so happy being around one another - its no wonder after a couple years of virtual learning. Being in a classroom full of people must feel like such a relief! I wonder how they'll experience solitude as they grow into adults. I wonder if solitude will ever feel restorative to them, or if only a few of their generation will find that unique joy. I'm sure they'll have a lot to reflect on in 2050.

But I remember being their age and - almost daily - walking into the woods behind our house alone (well, with our two dogs). I spent so much time there alone! I had a wild imagination, and loved to read, and climbing through the wooded hills to the creek was my favorite way of acting out the stories I'd read, thinking about them, imagining how the characters felt.

I also prayed, a lot. Not in a "Dear God, please give me x, amen," kind of way, but a rambling, thoughts and conversation going nowhere kind of prayer. My hours at the creek were my native contemplative solitude. And like all parts of our childhoods, one day I went to the creek, and it was the last time.

So now I find solitude in other places - traveling solo, gifts of solitude from my husband who takes our velcro-dog out for some playtime, a drive. And in those pieces of solitude, the pieces of me gravitate back toward one another. The dividing walls of compartmentalizing melt away and I become a bit more whole. I become aware of a different sort of Company - quieter, unassuming. This Presence needs nothing from me, and I know it. The buzzing parts of me were looking for this Presence the whole time. Smaller presences can be so much louder, so much bigger, so much bolder. This Presence doesn't need to prove itself. Immanuel is. And in the solitude, I soak up With-ness.

Then I hear the jingle of the leash and the sound of the key in the door, and as Leo bounds in with all his energy demanding scritches, water, play, snacks, my smiling Husband opens his arms. We stand in the kitchen embracing, and he asks me, "did you have a good afternoon?" Yes, I did.

Because solitude does not mean I am alone.

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