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A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan has two subtitle versions: “The Education of an Amateur Builder,” and the one I used for a previous post in 2010, “The Architecture of Daydreams.”  That this book has sat on my bedside book stack for all these years is not an indication of the quality of the book or my enjoyment of it. I bought it 7 years ago, started it, put it aside, and then started back into it again last spring and have dipped into it on and off and between other readings. I finally finished it on New Year’s Eve because I didn’t want it to remain unfinished into the new year. A small, doable, New Year’s resolution. It works reading it in parts as a story and as instruction. Think of the chapter as courses in a very long meal, or as occasional visits to Michael’s little place for another lesson. His place wasn’t built quickly, so why read it all in a weekend.

I was attracted to it because, like Pollan, I have long wanted of a room of my own. Okay, not a “room” but a separate building, albeit a small one. For me, it has been a small log cabin that has been in my head and sketched on many sheets of paper ever since I read Walden and a host of other books where people escaped and wrote in some cabin isolation. You should not need a cabin to be a writer, but it still seems Romantic (capital R) to me.


In the snow…

He wanted a “shelter for daydreams” and I identify not only with that, but also with his lack of skills needed to build such a place. Pollan writes that “Apart from eating, gardening, short-haul driving, and sex, I generally prefer to delegate my commerce with the physical world to specialists.”

So,  I read the book for both of its subtitles, as instruction manual about how to actually build such a structure, and as an armchair-dreaming builder. As instruction manual, it had its limitations. I’m not in a place where I can hire a real architect and custom builders to make my cabin. Plus, my plan has always been to do it myself. I also don’t have the land to build on, so it is astill “armchair building” for now.

But as an armchair building adventure tale, the book is kind of a Moby-Dick reading experience to me. I learned about building a little place and how to place it on a piece of land, and also about the history and meaning of all human building. It is about finding your place in your environment in the same way that you need to place your cabin to take advantage of views, sunlight, and to deal with drainage and winds and weather. In Melville’s book, you learn about whaling, whale and the sea, and about your own place in and away from this world.

In the spring

Will I start building this spring? Well, I still don’t have that piece of land or all the skills to build a place on my own or a set of blueprints that I would use yet. But over the years, I have learned some of the building skills by repairing my home, building a rock wall and a garden shed. I have collected plans for cabins and one-room sanctuaries, though none feel like “the one” that is floating somewhere in my brain.

Perhaps 2018 will be the year the daydream gets built.

Solitude might be defined as a state of seclusion or isolation. No matter where you find solitude, it always means a lack of contact with people.

I know it can be associated with bad situations – relationship issues, loss of loved ones, disease.  But in the short-term, solitude can be seen as a good and valuable thing. It can be a  time when you can work or think or rest without being disturbed. It can be privacy in a world where privacy is eroding.

Most people who give this topic any serious thought see a distinction between solitude and loneliness. For me, solitude is a good thing, while loneliness is the pain of being alone.

I heard a piece on the radio about three novels about solitude and writers and that got me thinking about the subject. As I sit here at my desk typing this, I am alone in a room. My wife is upstairs in her workspace. I don’t feel alone and I certainly don’t feel lonely. But I do want some solitude to write.

Writers tend to cherish their inner space. These are generalities (not stereotypes) but I find most writers to be outgoing and nice to be with in social situations. The solitude they crave comes at other times, and when they need it, don’t impose on that space.

We like voluntary isolation.

In those novels (I am reading one of them now), you have writers writing about writers who are dealing with solitude in some way. In The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am,  the writer has “lived so quietly that the most she thinks of human connection is that ‘someone might notice me on the way to the store’.” It is in the reading of some obituaries where she finds the stories of some people younger than she is, that she decides to get back into the world  and contact with people again. This is a Norwegian novel and in my mind people in places like Norway deal more with solitude.

Amy, the writer protagonist of Amy Falls Down, seems to have accidentally fallen into staying away from people. An accident brings her back into the public eye and she begins again some social interactions. The book’s curious description says that “While she still has writer’s block, she doesn’t suffer from it. She’s still a hermit, but she has allowed some of her class members into her life. She is no longer numb, angry, and sardonic: she is merely numb and bemused, which is as close to happy as she plans to get. Amy is calm.”

It is not so accidental for Celia, the protagonist of The Affairs of Others, who retreated from the world after her husband’s death. Her isolation feels to me more of a loneliness, even if self-imposed. She owns a small apartment building and chooses tenants for their ability to respect one another’s privacy. Here is someone who likes boundaries, solitude and being at a remove from a new tenant named (ironically or hopefully) Hope. Things get noisy. I haven’t finished the book, so no spoilers, but I hope for solitude and pleasure to triumph.

These writers have space that is sometimes public and sometimes private, which may not seem to be the case for many of us. But we do have public lives at work or school, even if there is no “fame” associated with it. We know that we can’t quite live without one another.

We don’t really want to be the castaway on the desert island, even if that sounds rather appealing at times. We would want to be rescued or even have the boat that can get us back to the mainland when we need that.

In my college days, I read a lot about solitude in religious contexts. The saints and the monks wanted  silence and found a kind of pleasure in it. Buddha attained enlightenment through meditation and deprived himself of sensory input, bodily necessities, and external desires, including social interaction.

It seemed to me that solitude was pretty much required to find yourself or your place in this world or the next one.

That pleasure from solitude seemed to be from within. This led me to many weekends of self-imposed solitude spent smoking, drinking and writing. This Romantic (but only in the English class sense) attitude eventually started to feel lonely. The idea that I needed the solitude to recharge my energy or creativity stopped working for me.


‘Solitude’ by Frederic Leighton

I know now that this path affects your physical and mental health, both positively and negatively.

Symptoms from complete isolation, called sensory deprivation, often include anxiety, sensory illusions, or even distortions of time and perception.

Now, that is an extreme case from no sensory stimulation at all and wouldn’t occur to those levels by just avoiding contact with people. However, any long-term solitude is often seen as undesirable. The solitude becomes loneliness. It gets harder to have relationships.

I found that depression led me to isolate myself, and isolating myself led to depression. A very nasty kind of Catch 22.

That doesn’t mean that solitude is depressing.  But it is a place right next door to depression and loneliness.

We know that sensory deprivation and solitary confinement are used with prisoners and are a way to torture and break them. So why would anyone impose it, even for a short time, on themselves?

But we do. And it can be a good thing.

I have concluded in my own personal study that the important factor is time. Sometimes I need a few hours. It can be in the late night and early morning hours when the house is quiet and my wife and the world are asleep and I turn off the TV and Internet. It can be an afternoon spent walking in the woods alone and avoiding the occasional other walker.

My wife has been away for a few days and I find the empty house a very good place. Of course, I know she intends to come back. I know my solitude has an expiration date and so I place great value in the solitude. In those times, I find that even when I go out to the park or a store or even some place for a drink or food, I tend to isolate myself.

You can feel lonely in a crowd. Not a good thing. You can also find solitude in a place full of people, but it takes some effort.

In solitude I find freedom. I find spirituality. I rediscover my creativity. I do feel a recharging of energies.

My solitude is voluntary.  When that isolation is involuntary or undesired at that time, I don’t see it as solitude. This is not just the semantics of the word.

I don’t think that this involuntary isolation will lead to any feeling of freedom or creativity.  While solitude can help in the development of “self,” when it lasts too long or is not by choice, I think it can hurt the self and our own self-concept.

If I know someone who seems to be depressed, my first advice and intervention is to try to get them into the world, even though that feels like the worst possible thing to them in that moment.

Now that I am much older, I am thinking about solitude and age. I don’t think children who experience solitude a lot are really experiencing what I want solitude to mean. Those children are probably not choosing to be alone. Kids need some solitude, but think about how we use “alone time” or isolation (Go to your room!) as punishment – like those prisoners. In children too much alone time probably leads to someone unsure of how to interact socially with others. And that may cause them to prefer to be alone, which leads to a shyness that leads to social rejection. A nasty circular path to walk.

As a teenager, I craved social interaction and friends, and I craved solitude. I isolated myself in my room when relatives came. I buried myself in books. I went out and found places to be alone. I made myself lonely in some distorted attempt to find something else.

It took me a lot of years to find the right balance. Now, I am much better at finding solitude and knowing how much I need before I fall off a cliff into depression.

I find a clear and empty horizon to be a very beautiful place. That is especially true when I know that I can turn around and see the people I love and know that I can get back to them. That is a place that I wish for you too, reader.

“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote  John Donne.  And yet, Art and Nan Kellam bought an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine in 1949 and lived there for more than 35 years. They were quite content with little more than the company of each other. And they thought of themselves as an island.

I have been reading several books that I’ll share here about people who dis their own Walden kind of expereinece and it’s very easy to Romanticize those experiences into some kind of idyllic fantasy.  Though the story of the Kellams is appealing, you have to keep in mind that they had no electricity or running water, and heated the house they built with firewood from their forest. To fetch supplies, they rowed a dory several miles to the mainland and back.

They goal was self-sufficiency, so they were building things rather than buying them and  growing whatever foods they could. But that was more to stretch their limited money than it was to serve as models of good living or inspire a book.

Their story is told in We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam by New Jersey native and conservationist Peter Blanchard III. The book is based largely on journals kept by the Kellams.

Their island was Placentia Island, a forested 550-acre island a few miles from Acadia National Park. They moved to the island to lead, like Thoreau, a simple life, free of technology and modern contrivances.

These are not Caribbean desert or deserted islands that are along the coast of Maine. More often than not, they are rocks in a cold ocean.

They lived there year round for nearly forty years.

The story is illustrated with historic photographs and recent photographs by David Graham. As much a story of a relationship that grew in isolation, it is also one of those tales of “living “off the grid” that I find appealing.

Don’t confuse them with anyone who has some idealistic, environmental, survivalist, sustainability movement behind their actions.  “They made a conscious decision to inhabit a world that they had total control over,” says Blanchard. And though they were not naturalists or conservationists when they took to the island, it would be hard not to say that they had a growing mindfulness and appreciation for not only nature’s beauty, but its power.

And in the end, they didn’t want to see their land destroyed or built on, so they turned to conservation and donated the island to the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy after retaining a “life estate” that allowed them exclusive use of Placentia during their lifetimes.

Blanchard learned of the Kellams when he volunteered for the Nature Conservancy. He  himself “owns” two islands near Placentia – Black Island and Sheep Island – that have been permanently preserved, and is part-owner of a third preserved island, Pond Island.

If you visit Placentia Island now (it is a public nature preserve), all you will find of the Kellams are some stone foundations and a square of cement with their footprints.

We Were an Island  is published by the University Press of New England

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