Braving the Dark Continent:
In Quest of Ourselves
by Lionel Fisher
In January of 1994 I moved, I mean really moved.
Me, my old dog Britt and an iguana named Mel. "Gone
to the Beach," read the change-of-address notice I
tucked into my greeting cards that Christmas: "I
haven’t retired, just retreated. This year I stopped
the world and got off. On Washington’s North Coast
Peninsula, about a mile from Oysterville. Drop by for a
beer if you’re in the neighborhood. If I’m not home,
check the beach. I’ll probably be walking the
Surfside is a far smaller place than anywhere I’d
lived before: minuscule, nondescript, inconsequential
alongside Portland, Miami, New York, Chicago, San
Francisco, Manila and Hong Kong, my former cities of
residence before this galactic leap of faith.
It’s a reclusive place, the last knuckle on a
rainscoured finger of land lapped by the beige waters of
Willapa Bay and the gray Pacific, wrapped by khaki sands
and olive clouds except for summer when the sky is the
color of washed denim. Here, wind and water lean on the
land, thrusting a constant coolness from across the sea,
buffing the stars at night to an awesome brilliance.
Yet, on the morning after my precipitous move, I
wrote in my journal: "Took our first walk on the
beach, me and Britt. Had a scared, hollow, desperate
feeling inside me the whole time. I’m lonely today—for
the crowded city and all the people I’ve purposely
fled. I have to keep reminding myself why I did it, that
nothing is forever. Paths ventured on can be reversed.
God, I sound like Hamlet."
Another entry later that first day: "It’s an
afternoon like the one when I first saw this house—cold
and somber, a gloomy rain mottling the leaden surface of
the canal below. But it seemed peaceful to me then,
comforting and picturesque. Today it just seems grim.
"What if I’d rented that townhouse on the
Willamette in downtown Portland instead of sinking
everything into this godforsaken wedge of sand? How
would I feel right now, watching the rain falling on the
river in the city? Probably worse because I’d have
abandoned a dream.
"I know the changes I have to make aren’t
geographical, they’re inside me. But can I bear to be
alone long enough to make them?"
Anxiety, Kierkegaard affirms, is the dizziness of
Iguana Mel and faithful old Britt loved the beach
right off. Most days of that first summer at the beach
together, Mel could be found gazing out a living room
window, following the sun and dreaming, no doubt, of
bright green love.
Britt, however, lasted only until the fall. She was a
very old dog and cherished friend who deserved her last
bright season drowsing in sun-warmed sand, but I wished
she could have been with me one more summer. Six days
after she died, I drove to Portland and returned with a
nine-week-old Australian Shepherd named Buddy Holly
Fisher. That's the name I scrawled on the American
Kennel Club papers I never mailed because I wound up
spending the registration fee on a bottle of scotch to
toast the rest of our life together. I could do without
people I quickly found out, but not having a dog by my
side would be intolerable.
And so we’ve lived these past six years—one
writer, one lizard and one pup, who now weighs more than
Winona Ryder—in a snug little house by a canal, a
stroll away from the tawny sands of the blue Pacific. It’s
what I had dreamed of for a very long time.
In Deserts of Their Making
Call them the new hermits.
In greater and greater numbers they are going against
the grain of society, deliberately out of step in the
march of life around them, consciously out of sync with
the ordained way of doing things.
Like the desert fathers of old, who were the rebels
of their time, they are foregoing common ground for
individual paths in search of their own destinies.
They were the ones, notes Benedicta Ward, "who
broke the rules of the world which say that property and
goods are essential for life, that the one who accepts
the direction of another is not free, that no one can be
fully human without sex and domesticity. Their name
itself, anchorite, means rule-breaker, the one who does
not fulfill his public duties."
The new hermits are modern men and women of all ages,
in all walks of life, driven by a fierce need for
self-actualization, daring to venture into deserts of
their own making.
Having pursued the American Dream, they have come
closer than any generation to being perfect parents,
perfect co-workers, perfect neighbors, perfect friends.
Some have achieved wealth, status, even fame in the
process, only to find it wasn’t enough because they’ve
lost sight of who they are and the preciousness of the
Having kept faith with conventional wisdom, they have
found it wanting. No longer consumed by practical
considerations and manifestations of success, they are
attempting to bring real meaning and passion back into
Driven by a fierce need for independence,
self-knowledge and a feeling of relevancy, for them time
spent alone, away from the soul-robbing demands of
everyday living, has become crucial to understanding
their true selves, why they are here, their pertinence
to God, themselves, the world.
And they are found everywhere. Rock stars, certainly,
aren’t noted for making inward journeys, but John
Frusciante is grateful for his. "I spent six years
going inside myself in a way that people who are stuck
with the idea that they have to accomplish something
with their lives never got a chance to do," said
the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"The scariest thing," notes Kansas writer
Laura Wexler, "is that for the first time I know no
one can decide anything for me but me. Because no one
knows what I know about myself."
"We yearn for Walden Pond," cautions writer
Ted Morgan, "and forget that one can drown in
Or on the edge of an ocean, without ever setting foot
in the water, as I feared I would when I moved to the
It seems such a formidable feat, being alone, because
society bludgeons into our collective consciousness that
no man or woman is an island, that a solitary existence
is cruel and unusual punishment meted out by a vengeful
god for unpardonable sins.
Little wonder, then, so many us can only bear to be
by ourselves when we’re firmly connected to others, as
if by a deep-sea diver’s lifeline or in a sturdy shark
cage, capable of being hoisted out of harm’s way. Only
when we’re securely tethered, assured that we’re
fully protected and can quickly pull ourselves back up
to safety are we willing to descend into the murky
depths of ourselves.
The Long Journey Home
And so I rose and went to my Innisfree. To a snug
little house, not of wattles and clay in a bee-loud
glade like Yeats’s, but where the murmur of sea on
sand lulls my gimcrack spirit.
Here, I’ve become like Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s
open, empty beach, "erased by today's tides of all
of yesterday’s scribblings."
But not the memories.
They came flooding back first, coursing over the
weirs of denial I’d built to hold them at bay for as
long as I can remember.
With the memories came the remorse, the renounced
sorrow of a lifetime of failed choices, lost
opportunities—all the irretrievable acts of love and
courage and kindness never consummated because I hadn’t
understood their importance until it was too late.
I was one of those people who had always sought
himself in others, shunning my own company as if it were
diseased, cramming my life with activities and people in
search of the person I wanted to be, yet never searching
in myself, always in others.
But the time came when I desperately needed to narrow
my quest, to return, in Doris Grumbach’s words, to
"the core of myself, to discover what was in there,
no matter how deeply hidden." To see if the things
I could give myself were better than the things I had
sought from others, to put my life on an even keel and
keep it there. To wake up each morning with the day the
same as I’d left it the night before.
There were no answers in those first anxious months
at the beach, only fearful questions. How long could I
endure this cold, gray place before it seeped into my
soul and destroyed me? Could I bear the regrets I’d
repressed for so long? How could I survive my loneliness
alone when I could hardly stand it in the midst of
others? What dreams would find me when I could no longer
And if I ran now, again, would I be running forever,
with all hope abandoned of finding—what? What was I
looking for anyway?
Coming to the beach meant facing my deepest
disquiets, my despairing unease with who I really was
and everything I would never become. It meant
confronting all of the curdled remorse, the disavowed
guilt that seems to struggle to the surface when
everything else is still.
It meant discovering if I could be complete alone,
not merely as an adjunct of someone else. Whether I
needed others to energize and validate myself, to make
me feel of some worth and consequence.
It meant asking myself questions I’d never dared
raise. It meant learning if I could stand the answers.
I had desperately sought my salvation in others. With
time getting short, could I find it in myself?
"Nine-tenths of wisdom," someone once
wrote, "is being wise in time." If I let this
time of reckoning pass, would it ever come again?
What the God of Solitude Teaches
Seven years after moving to the beach, lock, stock,
barrel, fax, modem, computer and Word Perfect, I’ve
begun a tally of what I know about solitude.
I’ve learned, for one thing, that it’s best taken
in large doses, as anyone knows who’s tried to shake
an addiction, be it drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, sex
or people. A jealous mistress, solitude demands but
gratefully rewards uncompromising devotion.
I’ve come to believe there’s an overworked,
undervalued God of Solitude up there, relatively low in
the divine pecking order, with a full and varied
job-description that includes making sure whatever goes
around comes around.
She’s also in charge of rewarding risk and
commitment: giving everyone exactly what they deserve,
even though she usually takes her sweet time about doing
it because she’s so busy. It’s because of her that
the guy who won’t quit his day job never achieves his
dream. She makes sure nothing of real value happens to
us until we believe in ourselves.
What the God of Solitude teaches is that nothing not
worth the risk is worth attaining. That the greater the
gamble, the dearer the prize. That failure, loss and
rejection won’t kill you, but not trying surely will
because it breeds regret, and enough regrets are lethal.
It’s because of her I’ve learned to ask myself,
"Who are you trying to impress anyway?" And to
hear my exultant reply, "Not a blessed soul!"
But myself, of course.
It’s because of her I’m finally in a time and
place where my self-affirmation, my self-fulfillment, my
self-esteem have little to do with what other people
think of me and everything to do with what I think of
How sad, the God of Solitude teaches, that we spend
our entire lives auditioning for others: parents,
teachers, employers, suitors, spouses, lovers,
strangers, friends, only to realize we should have put
ourselves at the head of the line, earned our own love,
respect and affection first.
And everything else would have taken care of itself.
How tragic, she whispers mournfully, that we wait so
long to free ourselves from other people’s
expectations, to find our true worth in our own eyes
instead of the eyes of others.
Look in the mirror, the God of Solitude teaches. You
will see the only eyes that matter, the only eyes that
truly appreciate and understand you. In them, you
will find all the respect and approval, all the love and
esteem you desire.
Then everything you receive from others will come as
a gift, not a need.
And you will know, at last, that far from the price,
solitude is the prize that time alone can give
Copyright 2002 Lionel Fisher. All Rights Reserved.
Lionel Fisher, a former journalist, columnist,
corporate communicator and advertising creative director
who lived and worked in San Francisco, New York,
Chicago, Miami and Portland, Oregon, before moving to
Southwest Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula. He is the author of
“Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid
Solitude” (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001), "On
Your Own: A Guide to Working Happily, Productively and
Successfully from Home" (Prentice Hall, 1995) and
"The Craft of Corporate Journalism"
(Nelson-Hall, 1992). In addition, Fisher writes several
self-syndicated humor/lifestyle columns, including one
on the art of being alone. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lionel Fisher’s book is about
living well enough alone, even magnificently, instead of
seeking our happiness, our fulfillment, our very
identity in others when we first must find it in
ourselves. Fisher’s reflections on solitude came into
sharp focus on the remote Pacific Northwest beach to
which he moved eight years ago where he kept a detailed
journal to record his thoughts, feelings and emotions
during this climactic period of willful isolation.
In "Celebrating Time
Alone" he interweaves his own insights and
experiences with the stories of "new hermits"
he interviewed across the country -- men and women who
have stretched the envelope of their aloneness to
Waldenesque proportions, achieving great emotional
clarity in the process, as well as their urban
counterparts who, through necessity or choice, prefer to
savor their individuality in smaller servings.
The book’s central premise is
timeless and simple, notes Fisher: "There are gifts
we can only give ourselves, lessons no one else can
teach us, triumphs we must achieve alone. It affirms
that it’s all right to be alone, to want to be alone,
even to be lonely at times because the rewards of
solitude can make the deprivations so worthwhile. It
sings the praises of those who have found amazing grace
alone. They lead us in quest of our own undiscovered
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