A couple of months ago, I stopped publishing this blog on Tuesdays and Thursdays. During several months prior, I withdrew from a couple of outside organizations I had been working with. And I made a new rule to turn off the computer no later than 4PM daily.
The reason for change to long-held routine is rarely simple – at least, with me – and most often, there is more than one although typically, they are confused or unclear at first.
Soon, I came to see that I had been chasing my tail for many years. For a long time not a day had passed that I did not feel pressured, behind in both necessities and desires as my to-do list regularly grew from a few lines each day to a page and even two pages.
Among three or four dozen Google Alerts, about the same number of email newsletters and RSS feeds and nearly an equal count of bookmarked websites I try to visit at least two or three times a week, I was always in a rush.
When something out of the ordinary arose – good things, mostly, like lunch or dinner with a friend, an afternoon movie, a day trip to the coast, for example – I pushed even harder in the time leading up to it so I would be ahead on the tasks. But that rarely made much difference.
In addition to publishing less frequently and reducing outside activities, I've cut back on the incoming news and information, sort of, by ditching the aggregators since by the time they arrive I've usually seen the originals. That way duplicated effort is down.
Several months into my more relaxed routine now, I have realized that there is a big difference between being 65 and 75. (My 90-year-old friends – you know who you are – will once again assure me, and please do, that I don't know nuthin' yet about getting old until I live through the differences between 75 and 85.)
If I had slowed down by age 65, it was not enough that I noticed. What I know now is that even having lost 40 pounds and being so disgustingly healthy that the only advice my physician has is to keep doing whatever I'm doing, is that I tire more easily now at nearly 75 than I imagined until I reached the point of being overwhelmed (see all of above).
It's not that I need to lie down to rest or to nap. It is more a psychic tiredness. At those times even the little things are too much. Heating a cup of soup for dinner seems an insurmountably difficult chore. Walking garbage out to the trash bin feels beyond the bounds of the possible.
There isn't nearly as much of that now.
What I had been missing is solitude. Quiet time alone to just be. Something I have needed a lot of since childhood but in recent years, even after retiring from the busy workaday world, I had too often forgotten.
For the record, regular meditation is no substitute for solitude – they serve different needs. Another distinction we often do well to make is between being alone and loneliness.
What is not enough noted, however, is that solitude is not the same thing as alone - it is a richer experience, more imaginative and satisfying than simple aloneness, a kind of stillness.
If I am not fooling myself, I made more time for solitude when I was working. I recall that I especially liked long airplane flights then, the six- or 10- or 12-hour ones – back when passengers were not sardined into our seats as now - and there was a sense of suspended animation, a separation from earthly matters and no one could bother you.
In those pre-internet, pre-mobile phone days, I also welcomed nighttime when interruption from others was less likely. Nowadays, having finally stopped fighting the sleep disorder that wakens me as early, sometimes, as 2:30AM or 3AM and most often at 4AM to luxuriate in the early morning darkness and peace, all to myself.
Solitude is suspect to many in the United States. Somewhere, sometime in the past, the novelist Erica Jong rightly described the consensus about it as “un-American." The writer and critic Marya Mannes agreed with Jong pointing out that it is the “great omission in American life” that should instead be understood as the “incubator of the spirit.”
It certainly is becoming so for me again. Solitude is my friend. It creates the space for serious thought and allows me to find out what I really believe neither of which can be done in short interrupted bursts.
My mind is sharper in solitude than in company. It deepens my connection with the present and gives me time to reflect on what living is and life is for. It intensifies my enjoyment of small pleasures.
Solitude, now that I have made room for it, seems uniquely agreeable with old age and leaves me to wonder if maybe it is part of what the late years are for.