I’ve never liked living in the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs, neither part of the city nor at home in nature. My family is very happy in the suburbs, but I hated it and as soon as I was old enough to leave home, I made my escape to university and then to the big city.
My favourite pastimes happen in the city centre – art galleries, museums and cultural events. My other favourite place is being on the ocean. But in the midst of living in the city I have had the dream of a life where the grass is always greener: a simple life in a village or hamlet or somewhere far remote. I imagined living somewhere in New England, in a cottage by the sea or on a windswept ocean cliff, in the British Isles or on an inlet, surrounded by the woods of the West Coast of North America – near enough to a city to go there when I needed to be there, but far enough to use a sea kayak and to need a husky for company. I never imagined I’d be living in a town mostly populated by insular religious and ethnic communities and that is neither a secluded quaint village, nor a big city.
I live in a town of about 150,000 people in the middle of an agricultural region. It is neither quiet, nor bustling, and it feels very Christian with several bible colleges and a particular religion’s centre for world wide missionary work. It is an hour’s drive to the ocean, on a good day, and it is not a place, were it not for family, that I would choose to live. I don’t think that I share the same outlook on life as my neighbours. But then again, I’m not sure that I don’t. I don’t feel welcomed into social circles in this town and so I may never know.
And, that is a shame. If you are part of the particular religious or ethnic groups that populate this agri-town, then you are well connected. If you’re not, you’re not. And I am not. And, I never will be.
The faith-based group that lives here are people who, by tradition, practice simple living, and that interests me. But, they are a closely knit group of people with ties based on a common faith that I don’t share. I recognize that we may be friendly and cordial if we come across one another in the garden or a woodworking group, and I may learn from them in those settings, but we will probably never really mix, socially.
I have felt pretty isolated here. I am neither living my solitary seaside cottage life, nor engaged in the bustling city that offers so many opportunities. But there is a reason I chose to be here right now and that reason has not yet changed. And, so, while I’m here, I have this little life. A simple life doesn’t have to be solitary, but I have always envisioned it to be. And now, I’m getting my chance to live that. It isn’t where and when I was hoping to live my simple life, but I think that if we are not ready to change our circumstances just yet, then resisting seems like a waste of life energy. I’m grateful that there are options for me to go out and be with other people and also that I am content to be on my own and that I enjoy being creatively productive.
Solitude does not have to be lonely. I believe that loneliness comes from wanting to be in the company of those with whom we are not, or in feeling out of step and emotionally closed off to those around us and wanting these things to be different. I’ve been lonely since I moved back to Canada and a lot of that has been missing people I love, but I’ve also had to set and maintain boundaries with people I love, but who’ve hurt me or treated me disrespectfully. That can leave us with solitude, but it doesn’t mean it is unhealthy.
I may not find Oneness in a close circle of friends that live nearby and whom I see often. I may not find Oneness with colleagues at work. And I may not find Oneness in an embracing spiritual community. But Oneness is always present – I have just had to find other ways to tap into it. When I’m gardening, I feel Oneness with the earth. When I kayak, I am One with the ocean and when I’m out in the forest, I am One with the trees. Even when I am sitting in my dining room-turned-artist studio, I am One with the collective unconscious. Being in solitude is, perhaps counter-intuitively, a means of achieving a great deal of Oneness. The trick, I have found, is not to be looking for what I do not have, but to be completely mindful and present in the moment with what I do have. This little life can help eradicate all the distracting noise, so that in solitude and oneness, I can see what this time has to teach me.
Slowing down has grounded me and while I may not live in this community forever, I do want to volunteer my time. I struggle to find anything that is not affiliated with the local church and so I am still looking. In the garden, I have contributed to the food bank, but I believe that there is good to be had for both the one who is served and the one who serves, when we give not only of our things but of our time. It is a way to form connections with others, when we lack the company of good friends. Watch this space. I’ve not resolved this, just yet.
This isn’t the first time in my life that I have been a fish out of water and gone inward, deliberately. Life goes in cycles and when one cycle ends, a new one often begins in this quiet way – integrating what has come before and listening for what is calling to be born. I’m reminded of the lessons of Henry David Thoreau. I’ve not retreated to a self-built cabin in the woods, and I still do go to work in an office every day. But the conditions of my workplace are such that I am isolated and left to fend for myself and I live in a town where I have no close ties except to my folks, who largely keep to themselves. Without bustle and a social life, I’m kind of in a metaphorical wilderness, tending to my garden, painting and writing, walking and kayaking and singing to the earth, living a life of solitude and contemplation.
In the words of Thoreau:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Like Thoreau, when I emerge from this part of my life, I hope to have passed my time deliberately and meaningfully, listening to the still small voice speak to me of purpose. I didn’t expect to have this little life choose me at this time and place in my life, but as the endless rains of autumn set upon us here in the valley, I’ve decided to embrace my time on Walden Pond.