Home / Blog Posts / On Reflection / On the freedom of solitude and shedding a skin of ‘shoulds’
A poster of A Quiet Passion

As I sat down to write this, at 9pm on Saturday night, I had just finished watching A Quiet Passion for the first time.

OK, I finished five minutes before that. As I sat down to write, I had just stopped crying.
Image of a side table

The day began with construction of a side table to put in a strange nook between the kitchen and family room of the manse in which I live. I’ve not really known what to do with this space, so it has occasionally been a recycling repository or the spot for the fold up table on which I do puzzles so that the dining table can be used for other things (writing, for one, and occasionally even dining).

As I placed this new unit by the window, chose what to display on its two shelves, then rearranged several cupboards now that spaces opened up, I experienced joy in the continued shaping of my living space these past two and a bit years. I’ve taken my time, I have chosen deliberately and for joy – not simply to fill space, not taking what is available from others’ cast offs as I have when furnishing most places in which I have lived before. In this current season of restriction to our homes, I am especially grateful for the care I have taken to furnish these spaces in which I delight to spend my days. I am aware of my privilege, and after living most of my adult life with an income that went from hand to mouth, as the saying goes, or following another, resembled the fumes of an oily rag, I take none of this for granted.

I joked with a friend the other day that I have, this week, so settled with delight into my hermitage that I am growing worried I may not want to leave it, when the time comes for me to return to the places and people of my work again.

But I am, genuinely, settled into my solitude with deep peace. I wrote some weeks ago of the flow of the days when I was on study leave (Diary Episode 43). I am finding that flow again, and surrendering to it even more fully this past week.

The frantic nature of the first weeks of the pandemic restrictions required something else of me. Once I crashed last week, I rested properly for four whole days. Since then, I have noticed myself become more attentive, more present to each moment, and less bound by the to do lists, shoulds, and imagined expectations of me. I told my supervisor this week that I feel like a snake leaving behind me a shed skin of ‘shoulds’.
Since returning to congregational ministry, I have struggled with a feeling that I was not doing enough in my job, or not doing my job ‘right.’ I felt this especially when it came to pastoral care.
I don’t do turning up at bedsides very well. I don’t do anticipating or seeking people out very well. And I let what I don’t do well, more often than not, blind me to what I do do well in pastorally caring for a congregation. I am here, and will respond if people seek me out. I turn up at the office three mornings each week so as to be there for the incidental encounters. I turn up at what community gatherings I can, because I am good at working a room and being present and visible for the community. I compose and lead liturgy that holds the gathered community well in their weekly worship, their grieving moments, their cries for justice, their celebrations, their encounters with the sacred.
But I continually ‘should’ on myself, when I don’t visit people as often as that minister does, or think to call people as regularly as this minister does.

Now, when I crashed last week, and sent the notice around that a planned zoom gathering was cancelled, I received many messages of affirmation: you have done enough; you have given us what we need; we hear your voice, receive your messages of care. You are doing enough.

And I actually heard it, this time, and relaxed; and started to wriggle out of that skin of ‘shoulds’ at last. Paradoxically, I think I’ve since done more reaching out to people in a week than I have in the past year. Not all of them my congregation members, but friends and colleagues, actually sending the message or email or text when I think of them. Because the ‘should’, the weight of expectation, is lifted, and I’m simply reaching out because I can and because I care, because I feel I have the emotional space from which to do so.

The chains I felt strangling me last week, this week I have felt loosening and falling away. The joy and the freedom of that is allowing me to finally live in a way I have long wanted to: withdrawn, creative, monastic, quiet.

How and to what extent it will be possible or reasonable to retain the rhythm of the days as I am living them now, when I am no longer bound to home and therefore once again expected to be present for meetings and people and the gathered community, I do not know. Possibly, I may try to designate certain days as ‘home’ days, days for withdrawing, solitude, retreat. For it is becoming evident that it is within those conditions that I thrive – I cannot tell you the joy I have felt this week – I create, I am present with my spirit, to the Spirit.

Today was a day in which I had followed my whims and found myself doing things I needed to do – vacuuming, sorting cupboards, washing bed linen and dusting the bedroom, sitting in silence in the sunshine, playing clarinet, going for a swim, framing cross stitch pieces – with no urgency, no feeling of ‘should’ about any of it at all, simply doing what felt like it needed doing in each moment. It turned out to be a productive and restful, creative and domestic, reflective and active, day.
By the end of that day, the story for which I reached was the story of a poet who carved for herself a place, ‘not perfect, not paradise’ (as she says to her friend), and certainly not without inner turmoil, but a place that was hers and allowed her to nurture her soul ‘anyone would be proud of’ (as her sister Vinny says), and it rendered me undone, meeting me as it did in this experience of wholeness within my own ‘quiet passion’.