George merrill - April 2009

A Solitary Moment


George Merrill

   Solitude is hard to find. It’s also not easy to practice.
    Soon the Shore and its beaches will swarm with people. It’s great fun, but it gets difficult to find a place to be alone. One day this winter I sat on a beach on a Caribbean island. It was dawn. There were few people there. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the pleasant hospitality of solitude. Maybe 20 people walked by in the few hours I was there. Half of them were talking away on cell phones. Most carried bottled water. I understood the necessity of water but I wondered about the cell phones.
    Out-of-the-way Caribbean islands, summer and winter, with their blissful sunsets, balmy breezes, the soft sand under foot, the roar of the surf, the lazy gliding of the frigate birds overhead and few people, provide a great escape. There we can experience ourselves in depth, who we are as men and women. We can also reach out to that inner child of ours that gets so little attention.
    At best, finding a place anywhere in the world for solitude today is no easy task, if possible at all. As the world grows smaller, with more available transportation and with population mobility rising exponentially, no matter where I go, there are others there, and great numbers of them at that. It may be that the memory of real solitude that we Homo sapiens once knew, like the recollections of living in caves and in the great forests or plains, are gone for good. The vestigial sense of this primal solitude survives in nostalgic archetypal imprints in our unconscious, like dreams we have of flying where we are alone and feel free. Other images appear fleetingly in our mind’s eye, like standing on a mountain top. They may cause us an inexplicable longing.
    I have been amazed how the cell phone has caught on. It’s become a necessity in modern life. Even in summers, on the crowded beaches of the Delmarva, one sees people talking everywhere on their cell phones, even though there’s no lack of people here to talk with. A neighbor recently introduced me to some of his children and their friends. As we greeted each other, a girl was text-messaging on her phone with the manual dexterity of a concert pianist while at the same time engaging me in small talk. She was not rude, just a highly skilled multi-tasker, secure in the world of electronic communication while cheerfully meeting a neighbor for the first time.
    European explorers like Columbus frequently landed on Caribbean beaches. I can only imagine what living in that era might have been like. Columbus could just sit and watch a sunset or sunrise without a soul in sight, assuming no natives showed up. On second thought, after those long months of vulnerability sailing across a solitary sea, a deserted beach would have seemed a busman’s holiday. Columbus would have welcomed a casino full of tourists. I suppose it’s what we have least that becomes the most coveted. How to surround ourselves with more human beings is not the social challenge we face today. On the contrary, the trick is how to duck the crowds.
    I feel lonely at an airport although I don’t experience solitude. Being engulfed in crowds of my anonymous fellow human beings, I’m aware they are strangers. How little I know of the great human family to which I belong. Here, the cell phone begins to make sense to me. Milling around strangers, there’s nothing more heartening than knowing that the comfort of a familiar voice is right at hand and only a few digits away.
    Still, I am not sure why anyone might wish to carry on a cell phone conversation while walking at dawn on a beautiful solitary beach. Early morning, as is well known, is the best time known to man - and to woman before the children are up - to collect our senses and be at one with ourselves and the world. Who likes listening to someone chatter before breakfast? Excepting circumstances where there may be sick friends with whom it’s important to stay connected, the compulsive need to talk on phones I believe is driven by boredom and anxiety. Talking is simply another way of fidgeting.
    When I complete a project, I feel a surge of satisfaction and accomplishment. Then, like the mother who has just given birth, a sudden let down. Where do I go from here, what’s next? Then restlessness takes over. Except for a swim or picking up some shells, there is almost nothing for any one of us to do on a beach at dawn except to be there.
    Those for whom this nothing-to-do prospect arouses anxiety, the cell phone comes to the rescue. You can dial and chat. The means is right at hand. With a cell phone, the ominous sense of being alone with nothing to do quickly disappears like spray from breaking waves. I confess that I sometimes feel that way. Even with nothing pressing me, my mind can stay in motion. It calculates, evaluates, judges, weighs and measures, wishes, avoids, builds, plans - on and on. It stays busy. Addressing problems and managing situations is instinctual for most of us, I suspect, as natural as our breathing. We rarely notice our restlessness for our busyness.
    I thought I was doing rather well that day on the beach, just letting go and being there.
    When I returned from the beach I mentioned to my wife, Jo, that I had been working on some ideas for an article about the cell phone phenomenon I’d been observing. What a shame, I remarked, that in such a lovely setting so many people could not, for just an hour or so, leave their busy lives - and their cell phones - at the office.
   “While they were talking on cell phones, your mind was composing a story,” she commented. “I was thinking, that’s all, that’s different than talking on a phone,” I replied, defensively. She looked at me with one of those dismissive, “whatever” expressions on her face. I decided then I’d find something to do, but I thought it best to do it alone.