Cultivating Solitude

It really was a sight to behold.

The house my mother lived in for 20 years, previously a blank canvas in an unfinished neighborhood, was, slowly but surely, turned into a veritable fortress of privacy.

It wasn't a case of disliking her neighbors. They were, by and large, nice people she enjoyed. They were kind to her too, especially when she needed them most. But, over the years, she planted trees, bushes, and flowers, especially ones that grew tall and fast. Blinds were usually closed along the front of the house and outside time was often spent in her backyard. She might or might not have made excursions in the middle of the night to lavish fertilizer on her beloved foliage -- she could nurture her Wall Of Silence without hurting anyone's feelings that way. She pored over gardening catalogs, looking for trees and shrubs that would guarantee privacy.

She was often up very early. For a long time I didn't understand it. "Ma! 4:15?? Really??" But, for her, it was a quiet, serene, uninterrupted period of time when things could be accomplished without watchful eyes. As a child I knew her horror of being seen -- it was nearly a federal crime to have a light on inside when it was dark outside if the blinds or curtains were open. A fish bowl life, she called it, and she went to great lengths to avoid it. No peering, busybody eyes allowed. Ever.

Friends were welcomed into our home sometimes, but nobody ever learned much about her, or us. She guarded information fiercely, though her kind facade fooled many. We knew, from a very young age, to keep our mouths shut and never talk about our family life. Things were locked down tight and few were trusted with personal information.

We dutifully closed blinds, quickly threw possessions in our rooms and slammed the doors when company approached, and always, forever and always, learned to answer "Fine" to curious questioners. We were fine, you see. Always fine. It was, in some ways, an existential prison, but Nancy desperately needed it. She bloomed and thrived among her healthy, thick shrubs, heavy curtains drawn tight, and stoic silence.

Many days we did throw open windows and doors, bringing in fresh air and sunlight, but when the house was quiet and the world was held at arm's length she came alive. She could work, and think. Read, create, sew, and organize drawers. The things that nourished and inspired her. She REALLY loved organizing her closets and drawers.

I sometimes wondered if something was wrong with her. I, too, enjoyed all that, so I wondered if there was something wrong with me as well. Other members of our family were outwardly-oriented, so I felt like a misfit even at home. Not optimal for an unattractive, gangly child and teenager. I became an expert at guarding and protecting myself.

I married, raised children, and continued to wonder why I was happiest when I acted just like my mother. I knew I was strange. We had many friends and were involved in a number of activities our children enjoyed. And yet, when we headed home, closed the door, and left the busyness of the world behind I always felt liberated. I could relax, and think. Be myself. Create, organize, read. No sewing, though -- after attaching a pocket to the hem of some jeans, as a teenager, I realized the futility of conquering that particular skill.

I was often regarded as snobby or aloof. Even rude. That hurt and I often became defensive, but I didn't understand myself -- how could anyone else understand me? What was wrong with me?

In my early 40s I ran across information that turned my world upside down. I wasn't flawed at all, at least in this sense. I was an introverted old soul. Nancy had been an introvert. She never knew it and I had gone decades without understanding either of us. She lived in fear, where I do not, but the fundamental approach to life has been markedly similar.

Many introverts have no desire to read lists of celebrities who share our traits or which other personality types match best with us. Once we know who and what we are, self-acceptance is sweet and labels are shrugged off. Mostly, anyway.

And so, I embrace what I was all along. More people should. The world is an incredibly noisy, chaotic place that assaults the senses in too many ways. Privacy and peace at home are immensely healing.

I don't have the tall trees nearly touching the windows of my home, as she did, but we do have water and foliage in abundance in our yards which calms me. I cannot and will not stop reading -- what a gloriously quiet, contemplative activity. I don't hang out with friends and I loathe most shopping. I create with scrapbooks that illustrate our family history. I organize ... oh, how I organize -- silverware, closets, office supplies.

And I breathe. When I'm home and the world is held at arm's length I can hear my own footsteps. My own breath. The ticking of our clocks. It is soothing. I'm known as the Laundry Queen -- I'm not sure if it's because I truly enjoy doing the laundry or because I'm calmed by appliances humming along in the background. My new Bosch dishwasher is a marvelous machine, but it is actually too quiet. It's very efficiency robs me of refreshing whooshes.

And when I return home from errands or obligations, feeling overstimulated and tapped out, there is a distinct pleasure in climbing the steps from the garage to an interior door, having our little dog rejoice because I'm home, tossing my wallet and keys on the kitchen counter, changing into my beloved comfies, walking over to the heavy front door, and shutting the world out once again by throwing the deadbolt.

Click. The fish bowl is now closed.


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