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Lionel Fisher

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 dog."

Yes, indeed.

Celebrating Time Alone by Lionel Fisher

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 freedom.

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 ordinary.

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 their lives.

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 Walden Pond."

Or on the edge of an ocean, without ever setting foot in the water, as I feared I would when I moved to the beach.

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 flee them?

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 myself.

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 you.

© Copyright 2002 Lionel Fisher. All Rights Reserved. 

Lionel Fisher
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 beachauthor@hotmail.com

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 selves."


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