Sunday, April 4, 2021

Solitude

This week I started reading Fenton Johnson's “At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life.” I picked it up because it looked interesting, and because it seemed like it might be kindred to Anneli Rufus's “Party of One," which I loved.

Chapter by chapter, Johnson's book profiles artists and thinkers who were famously solitary. Thoreau, Cezanne, Whitman, and Dickinson all get their turn as Johnson looks to glean insights about the connection between solitude and making art. What I didn't realize was that the first couple chapters would focus on Johnson's own life, particularly his childhood growing up around rural Kentucky in the company of Trappist monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Headshot of author Fenton Johnson in a black shirt and tie, facing camera
Fenton Johnson

I've spent time at Gethsemani, and reading Johnson's description of the abbey, the monks, and their land brought back the memory of my own trip there in 2013. At the time, I was in pretty bad shape. Drinking had become central to everything I did, and I knew both that I wanted to stop and that I didn't know how.

But that wasn't why I went to the abbey. My stated reason was to go and create for myself a kind of DIY writer's retreat. I'd looked into official programs, ones that would include other writers and teachers, but they all cost too much. I discovered that writing retreats were an industry unto themselves, and each one seemed more expensive than the last. Even my alma mater had got in the game, unveiling a retreat to Chamonix, France, where students would study with celebrity writers for thousands of dollars a piece.

I didn't have that kind of cash. I couldn't even conceive how to get it. The abbey, however, cost nothing.

Once I got there, though, I didn't actually do much writing. I was too busy not being drunk. How had this not crossed my mind? My weekend retreat at the abbey meant spending three full days dry. How in the fuck did I forget about that?

Well, maybe some part of me hadn't. These kind of games seemed to happen a lot—part of me, the Sober Me, was always trying desperately to outfox the Alcoholic. Unfortunately the deck was stacked pretty badly against him; Sober Me almost never managed to chalk up a win.

Aerial photo of Gethsemani Abbey showing the monastery, grounds, and cemetery
Gethsemani Abbey

Yet now, somehow, he had. I arrived at Gethsemani without any plan for how I would drink. No bottle stashed in my suitcase, no address for the nearest bar in my phone. I hadn't even remembered my cigarettes. I'd delivered myself to the abbey completely cold turkey, condemned to spend the next three days sober, alone, and in silence.

Oh that devious, devious Sober Me. What a bastard.

I got a late start on the day I arrived. I didn't show up to the abbey until evening, well after dinner was served. The monk at the front desk gave me a key and directions to my room, then asked if I'd already eaten.

Yes,” I lied. Drinking had taught me to be as unobtrusive as possible, to avoid inconveniencing anyone whenever I could. People tend to leave you alone that way.

But the monk wasn't having it. “What? What did you eat?”

I froze. I wasn't expecting that kind of skepticism, but his tone was unmistakable. He might as well have just shouted, “Bullshit!”

I ate on the road,” I lied again.

Stop it,” the monk said. “Go get a sandwich.” Then he was done with me.

I went to the cafeteria to find a stack of cold grilled cheese sandwiches, waiting, I guessed, for late arrivals like myself. I put two sandwiches on a plate and took them along with my suitcase to sit down at the nearest table. There was a placard to remind visitors this was not a social space: SILENCE IS SPOKEN HERE. I ate my sandwiches and I thought about the monk at the front desk. All of a sudden I started to cry.

What the fuck is wrong with you, I thought, trying to force down my dinner. I didn't feel upset. I felt relieved to be contradicted, even if only to be ordered to eat. But I wondered what I'd got myself into.

It was, in fact, the start of three very long days alone. I did not do very much writing. But I also did not run into town to pick up a bottle. I spent most of the three days hiking through the woods that belonged to the monks. Some of the paths were well-marked and worn. Others were overgrown to the point of being impassable. Sometimes I wasn't even sure I was actually on a path, and then suddenly there'd be a cross or a bench or a little stone shelter and I'd realize that yes, okay, I was still going somewhere. Eventually all roads led back to the abbey.

Crying into my grilled cheese sandwich sounds pretty pathetic, and no, it wasn't rock bottom. Yet it was still somehow a moment of clarity. My path to alcoholism was littered with an archipelago of nights I can now see as red flags. All those parties and dinners and celebrations where I thought the point was to get as drunk as humanly possible—I didn't connect at the time that these individual events were not isolated, or what they might combine to foreshadow. Maybe I didn't want to.

But my path to sobriety was made of those same kind of moments, disconnected until they were not. It would be years after Gethsemani before I finally quit drinking for good. It would take years of trying to stop, failing, and trying again before I'd finally succeed. Yet Gethsemani was still part of the path. That dry, silent weekend became something to which I would return again and again. I know you can stop drinking. I know you can stand your own solitude. I know because you've done it before.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...