With a busy career as a novelist, essayist, reviewer, and bookstore owner, Doris Grumbach has little opportunity to be alone. However, after seventy-five years on the planet, she finally has her chance: Her partner has departed for an extended book-buying trip, and Grumbach has been given fifty days to relax, think, and write about her experience.
In this graceful memoir, Grumbach delicately balances the beauty of turning one’s back on everything with the hardship of complete aloneness. Even as she attends church and collects her mail, she moves like a shadow, speaking to no one. Left only to her books and music in the midst of a Maine winter, she must look within herself for solace. The result of this reflection is a powerful meditation on the meaning of aging, writing, and one’s own company—and reaffirmation of the power of friends and companionship.
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Fifty Days of Solitude
By Doris Grumbach
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Doris Grumbach
All rights reserved.
Fifty Days of Solitude
In a letter sent to me from Hereford, England, the writer D. M. Thomas explained why he had left his academic appointment at American University in Washington, D.C., so precipitously: "It was a dreadful thing to do—my flight—but I had a sense of being in peril, as a person and as a writer (the same thing).... I knew that if I spent three months being 'the successful author of The White Hotel' I would quite likely become that and that only. I have to be the unsuccessful writer of the blank page before me."
Every ounce of acknowledgment of one's worth, however little, by the outside world, each endorsement of what I have become (no matter how insignificant), puts me in danger. In order to move forward in my work and deeper into the chambered nautilus of the mind that produces it, I need to retreat from praise from the world, from the arena of critical recognition. I must become, over and over again, Thomas's unsuccessful writer, searching desperately for ideas, furiously digging for words and images, laboring to form good sentences to fill the blank page. In any other frame of mind, if I try to write from the exhilaration of the heights instead of the despair of the depths, I am deluded about what I am doing by the falsely elevated view of what I have done.
I had been granted fifty days in the hard winter of 1993 in which to attempt a trial return to the core of myself, staying entirely alone. My companion, Sybil, had gone away to the city to search for books for her store. A strong wind had disconnected the antenna to the television set. I silenced one telephone; the other was left with instructions to the caller to leave a message but with no promise that I would return the call. I was now alone with music, books, an unpopulated cove (the ducks and gulls sensed my desire to be alone and seemed to have gone off to some other protected water farther south), and with that frighteningly reflexive pronoun, myself.
At first I found I missed another voice, not so much a voice responsive to my unexpressed thoughts as an independent one speaking its own words. On occasion, I spoke aloud, only to surprise myself. My voice sounded low, toneless, and coarse. I thought: it would be agreeable to be answered in another, more pleasing tone, even to be contradicted, gently.
There was a reward for this deprivation. The absence of other voices compelled me to listen more intently to the inner one. I became aware that the interior voice, so often before stifled or stilled entirely by what I thought others wanted to hear, or what I considered to be socially acceptable, grew gratifyingly louder, more insistent.
It was not that it spoke great truths or made important observations. No. It simply reminded me that it was present, saying what I had not heard it say in quite this way before. It began to point out the significance of the inconsequential, of what I had overlooked in my hunger for what I had always before considered to be the important, the Big Things. The noise of the world suddenly shrank to what this new voice told me, and I became aware that, with nothing to interrupt it, it now commanded my entire attention. I listened hard to it, more intently than I had to the talk of my friends in the world.
In this way, living alone in quiet, with no vocal contributions from others, no sounds (except music) from beyond my own ear, I was apt to hear news of an inner terrain, an endolithic self, resembling the condition of lichens embedded in rock.
My intention was to discover what was in there, no matter how deeply hidden, a process not unlike uncovering the treasure that accompanied the body of a Mayan king, hidden in a secret room in a tomb within a pyramid. I thought that if everything beyond myself was cut off, the outside turned inside, if I dug into the pile of protective rock and mortar I had erected around me in seventy-five years, perhaps I would be able to see if something was still living in there. Was I all outside? Was there enough inside that was vital, that would sustain and interest me in my self-enforced solitude? A treasure of fresh insight? A hoard (in the Wagnerian sense) of perceptions that had accumulated, unknown and unnoticed by me, in the black hole of the psyche?
I did not cut myself off from the written words of others, figuring that there would be no interruption to an interior search if I heard only the unspoken (but unfortunately not unheard) voices in books. For some reason I cannot fathom I would sometimes pick up a book to read—Moon Palace by Paul Auster, for example—and come upon a reference to the hermetic life. In the middle of that excellent book, the painter Effing (an assumed joke-of-a-name for one of the heroes) is lost in a western canyon, finds the cave of a murdered hermit, disposes of the dead man, moves into his cave, and assumes his life.
At first he is happy:
Then, very suddenly, this sense of calm abandoned him, and he entered a period of almost unbearable loneliness. The horror of the past months engulfed him, and for the next week or two he came dangerously close to killing himself. His mind swarmed with delusions and fears, and more than once he imagined that he was already dead, that he had died the moment he had entered the cave and was now the prisoner of some demonic afterlife.... After two weeks, he slowly began to return to himself, eventually subsiding into something that resembled peace of mind. It couldn't go on forever, he told himself, and that alone was a comfort, a thought that gave him the courage to continue.
There was much in that paragraph to consider, although Effing's situation differed from mine: he was hiding out from those who would surely come looking for him. But for the rest, I wondered how long I could live a completely eremitic life without losing track of reality, another way of saying that I became mad. Would limiting my social contacts to animals, as Dian Fossey did to her beloved mountain gorillas, save me from obsession and madness or perhaps, as in her case, drive me further into it?
I wondered how long it would be before the wonderful calm that commanded my mind at the start of isolation turned into unbearable loneliness. I knew what Effing learned (and Helen Yglesias reminded me of in the correspondence we carried on during my fifty days, she in Florida, I in Sargentville), that being assured of an end to the period of solitude made it possible to bear it with composure, even pleasure.
One of Effing's accomplishments in his year in the cave was to realize he had to devise a disciplined life. For two and a half months he painted, all day, every day, the magnificent landscape beyond his mountain. For the first time in his professional life he stopped worrying about results, "and as a consequence the terms 'success' and 'failure' had suddenly lost their meaning for him. The true purpose of art was not to create beautiful objects, he discovered. It was a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one's place in it, and whatever aesthetic qualities an individual canvas might have were almost an incidental by-product of the effort to engage oneself in this struggle, to enter into the thick of things.... He was no longer afraid of the emptiness around him."
Order, sequence, is a secret of being alone. Rising at the same time every day, making and eating breakfast while reading Morning Prayer, showering and dressing, making the bed and straightening all the rooms in which I was going to live during the day and evening. For me (but surely not for most people) this was essential: if the porch was disordered I could not start to work. This absurd obsession reminded me that one of my daughters is much like me in this respect. She needs always to have the mudroom in her country house clean.
Early in the morning it was cold in my study. I spent time building a fire in the woodstove, clearing my desk of bills and correspondence. Then I worked on the novel I was about half way through. The rest of the day was equally ordered: lunch, rest, work, music, reading, preparing and eating dinner, listening to the news occasionally, more reading, bed. What was inexorable about all this was the sequence of events, not to be changed or interrupted. Because if it was I was thrown back into a kind of silent, miserable chaos which nothing could dispel except to start over again at some point.
About work: Effing was right. For the first time in my writing life I gave no thought to whether I was succeeding or failing, whether what I was putting down "worked" or did not. I found I was content to examine what I was doing, in the same way that I was being taught something about the silent life. D. M. Thomas, Effing, and I were using the time to understand, to face the blank page or canvas, for instruction in ourselves, unconcerned with the judgments of others or indeed, their existence.
The New Yorker contained an obituary of Peter Fleischmann. It described him as "a quiet publisher," who retired when the magazine was purchased by Advance Publications (surely in this case an ironic title), and "did not talk about his separation from his beloved magazine; he simply became even quieter." Seven years later, he died. "The quietness ended in silence."
In that last sentence quietness is a mortal quality, silence the trait of death. Both existed in my isolation and solitude, so perhaps they were part of the training, as a night's fine, uninterrupted sleep is a foretaste, a trial run, for what is to come: the pleasure of death.
According to Edmond Hoyle there are twenty-three different kinds of solitaire, more than all other card games together. Sometimes solitaire is called Patience, seemingly a characteristic of playing alone and not a necessary one for games requiring more than one person.
When I was too tired to read, I played solitaire. I knew only three varieties, two of which were not described in Hoyle. I played against the bank, as I conceived my opponent to be, a solid, institutional-sounding conceit, or against the luck of the shuffle or the "tableau," the word Hoyle used for the way the cards are laid out at the start, some in rows, some in columns. Sometimes I addressed this invisible antagonist as Lady Luck. Hoyle allowed me any personification I chose to play against. He suggested Beelzebub.
I liked the idea of pitting myself against the devil (second in command after Satan in Paradise Lost) and decided, in line with my need for order and completeness, to try all the one-person games described by Hoyle. I chose them in order of my liking for their names: Accordion. Canfield. The Four Seasons. Scorpion. Fortress. A few required two packs of cards (Napoleon at St. Helena, also called Forty Thieves or Big Forty, and Spider and Tournament); they had to be ruled out because I had only one. There was something suitable about playing solitaire with a single deck of cards.
I found myself keeping a record of the games I "solved," or won or made or broke, all terms used by Hoyle. As it happened, the devil broke my game far more often than I did his. I went to bed telling him, aloud I think, that I would get back at him next time we played.
In this way, my solitude was buttressed by games named for it (the Latin solitarius, alone), accompanied only by invisible, powerful Satan against whom I could never successfully compete.
For a time, sad news ripped the tapestry of my solitude. In the mail came a long obituary of my friend, the novelist and poet Kay Boyle, dead at the age of ninety. At once, the empty house seemed populated by her. Her beautiful, heavily lined face, weary, hooded eyes and omnipresent white earrings were everywhere I looked. I found her in my bedroom, seated beside me at my desk, at the kitchen table. Nothing could dispel her person. But oddly, I could not hear her voice.
Searching for it, I turned to my collection of her books and spent one evening, and then another, reading the best of her early novels, Monday Night, many of her fine short stories in the collection Fifty Stories, and two excellent novellas: The Crazy Hunter and The Bridegroom's Body. I wanted to hear her elegant, light, fictional voice, and now and again I thought I caught it in her prose.
When I saw the inscriptions she had written in these books, with her characteristic back-leaning, dark-black strokes, the kind of slant that suggests a left-handed writer, I wept. Try as I might I could not remember if she was left- handed. I could not recover her lovely, kind speaking voice, although I remembered being always aware of it when I was with her. It was as if the heavy silences in the days I was now living forbid such sound to return. It was the price I had to pay for stern exclusion of other voices; when I wished to hear a beloved one in my mind's ear I could not.
We value most what we have begun to lose: Sight. Hearing. Hair. Teeth. Mobility. Height. Friends. Old age is somewhat like dieting. Every day there is less of us to be observed. It differs from dieting in that we will never gain any of it back; we must settle for what remains and anticipate further losses. I was not being philosophical about this realization, because I was not adjusted to this state of affairs. I saw it as a bald piece of information to be handed down to the confident, the worldly, the strong: in other words, the young.
Three days without a word to anyone. I have written each day to S., so I feel as if we have spoken, but since there were no answers (she is a poor correspondent), I am not sure. I picked up my mail at the post office and made a point to smile and nod to Carol, the new postmistress, but did not speak. I did not intend to be rude. It was that I suddenly was unsure of my voice, considering it might sound odd from misuse, or not knowing how it would sound.
I read my mail at home and entered future events and appointments in a new date book which contains, at the start of each month, reproductions of Edward Hopper's paintings and watercolors. Now I knew how I would illustrate my solitude. Hopper must be the only American artist with the power in his pencil and brush to portray aching loneliness on a canvas. I looked at Early Sunday Morning for a long time. Painted more than sixty years ago, it shows a long, two-story (Amsterdam Avenue, New York City?), red-brick building, the street-level stores dark, their canvas awnings furled, the only lit object a barber's pole in front of a shop. Upstairs, the beginning of dawn reflected in the windows, I sense the presence, in their absence, of sleepers behind the partly drawn shades and half curtains. And on the edge of the deserted yellow sidewalk stands a fire hydrant, a gray-black sturdy stumplike fixture casting a thin black shadow to parallel the longer one from the barber pole.
No one to be seen, although I know they are there, asleep, the way I know my neighbors are there, each at least two or three acres away from me and shielded from view by woods. The desertion of Hopper's street is made more bitter, intense, by the strict, straight, long line that boxes in the rectangular strip of dull, early-morning sky above the second story.
Another oil, Two Puritans, painted fifteen years later: Two white, old (Cape Cod?) houses side by side, one smaller than the other but with the same roofline, the same type of windows, similar doors except that the smaller one is permitted the luxury of a red cover over the door and a stern, red-brick chimney. Both have low white fences with no sign of gates. The larger house has thin, separated curtains on the front windows; otherwise all the windows, in both houses, are black to the eyes of the spectator.
But what makes this painting almost unbearably poignant are three gaunt trees that stand in the small strip of grass in front of the house and the fences. Not a branch protrudes from them; the painter has cut them off before the branching takes place, if it does. It is possible that nothing happens above that point, that they stretch on and on in their barrenness into the gray sky. They are motionless, sharp, concentrated signs of absence and desertion, within the house as well as without.
Excerpted from Fifty Days of Solitude by Doris Grumbach. Copyright © 1994 Doris Grumbach. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- Fifty Days of Solitude
- About the Author
- Copyright Page
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a good book mitigated by Grumbach spending only 50 days in solitude -- like that's some big deal. Still, she has some interesting thoughts.
A little misleading - she still went to church twice a week, shopped, even picked up her neighbor on the way into the village. Not true solitude, but still a reflective time.