The Church of Solitude
When we first moved to the Middle of Nowhere, I decided it would be important to start going to church. Not because I felt a great affiliation with the Catholic Church, but because I realised the Church was a focal point of the community. That lasted exactly one week. Even though the Mass was short, I found that the next week, I just couldn't bring myself to go.
I haven't regularly attended Mass since I was able to drive. Middle Brother and I would go to Mass together, only instead we would go through the drive-thru at McDonalds and buy ice cream sundaes. Then we would park in the church lot, listening to music and talking while we enjoyed our sundaes. When it was about Communion time, one of us would go into church to grab the weekly bulletin, check the songs, and see who the priest was. That way, we could pass the did-you-really-go-to-Mass test. (Sorry, Mom and Dad, but on the Teenage Rebellion Scale, you have to admit that it's not that bad. At least it didn't involve drugs or alcohol.)
One Sunday, I can't remember why, I went to Mass alone. But without MB, I didn't want to sit in the parking lot. Instead, I drove to a nearby park and walked on the little fitness trail. It was late spring and it had been a rainy one, so there were puddles everywhere. In one puddle, I saw a pair of ducks swimming around. It was quiet in the 'woods' and it felt like I was the only person on earth, no small feat in a suburb of nearly 100,000.
In English class, we'd been reading Thoreau and Emerson. I was (and still am) quite taken with the philosophy of American Transcendentalism. The simplicity, the solitude, the closeness to nature...these were all things I yearned for instinctively. Standing on a sad little asphalt path that wound between a clump of trees and watching ducks paddle through a puddle made me feel more peaceful and spiritual than the hundreds of hours I'd spent in Church.
Now, almost 20 years later, I live in a place that's quite amenable to my transcendental aspirations. The outings I take with Toby have allowed me to recapture those feelings of wonder and solitude in places that are much more breathtaking and inspiring than a suburban fitness trail. Last month, I took Toby to one of my most favourite places in the world - the Gap of Dunloe and the Black Valley.
We arrived at 8 am and parked at Kate Kearney's cottage with plans to hike the 7+ miles to Lord Brandon's cottage. The grey sky and brisk wind gave the place a comfortable feeling of desolation, if there is such a thing. We walked for almost two hours before we even saw another person. It was just me and Toby, numerous flocks of sheep and acres of rocks.
Solitude in beautiful, remote locations recharges my batteries better than anything else. The sense of wonder, the paradoxical sense of connection despite the aloneness, the sense of being part of a mysterious larger universe...I get so much from these outings. We spent five hours hiking and by the time I returned to the car, I felt a strange combination of muscular weariness and spiritual alertness.