This is a word that even by dictionary standards is primarily defined by one other single word and that is “alone”. As I rapidly approach my 65th birthday I am acutely aware that I am now for one of the rare times in my entire life living alone. This is alternatingly exhilarating and terrifying.
Let me address the potentially exhilarating components of solitude first. As someone who came to his political and social awareness through the philosophy of socialism and the intense human interaction involved with community work, often at the expense of the individual, I was a bit taken back initially by the emphasis on solitude in Buddhist philosophy. We were encouraged in fact to cultivate being alone. The cultivation of being alone is of course a major component of most spiritual traditions and no way exclusive to Buddhism.
The Zen retreats I began attending in the early nineties were always silent and the meditative gaze was to be focused either on the floor or towards the wall you were facing. This practice has served me well over the years and I think made me better able to focus on the people and events I encounter in my daily business.
A great article I stumbled on in researching this piece is from Engaged Dharma and is entitled: Solitude And The Social-Self The author is a man named David Xi-Ken Shi and he emphasizes throughout the piece what a valuable tool solitude can be when used judiciously and as a means to enhance and sharpen out interactions once we re-emerge into the world. He cautions though with the following words about solitary practice and I think this can be extrapolated to becoming isolated as we age:
“This is why it is important to set objectives and goals before stepping onto the path of withdrawal, and remember that a life of commitment to the Bodhisattva principles always includes the community of others. We seek solitude in order to gain insight on how the Universe is, and then to share this wisdom when engaging others.”
I am though very aware in my meditations that the state of deep dreamless sleep I enter into most every night is really no different than being dead, a place of no awareness. I die every night and it is always by myself really even with another body and a couple cats in bed with me. I do try though to be grateful when I get to wake up each morning and re-engage the dance even when it is going to be a day dealing with the most throw away people our society has trounced on.
So not to belabor the point I think we all really need periods of solitude to be at our best and most compassionate with our community of others. My mother who I have identified in past writings as my first Buddhist teacher was often making me take quiet time in a corner facing the wall and being quiet, with the injunction ‘you need to sit still and be quiet for a while’.
I relish the fact that when I get home from a 12 hour shift in the acute care clinic where I occasionally work I don’t have to deal with anyone else except my cats who once they are fed go back into their own very solitary Buddha natures. I think we queers learn at a very early age how to be alone since it is that feeling of “am I the only one like this” that begins our journey from the cocoon of the hetero world into the birth of ourselves as butterflies to paraphrase Dan Savage. The solitude that so often begins this journey can of course lead us into a state of fear and hopelessness that for too many then ends in suicide. For most of us though we emerge as beautiful monarchs.
So much for the exhilarating advantages of solitude and now for the darker side. For me personally this is the fear of being alone as I age. I have wondered if the mad rush to marriage and kids many in the community are involved in currently isn’t at least in part a hedge against being alone when we age, get sick and die. Even though it currently is ironically in decline the social construct of the extended biological family served many purposes including guaranteeing that folks would not be alone as the ravages of time ended in a slide into the grave.
Of course our getting in touch with our queerness so often was a solitary and lonely process but it has really blossomed into the formation of many elements of sustainable LGBT community for many of us. That is really what we are about in this group I think. At least I hope no one is coming here under the illusion that you will become a famous published literary giant.
This really was the dream Harry Hay had particularly in his birthing the Radical Fairie movement and that was the eventual formation of self-sustaining queer communities. Though this never really took off it did occur in his own life and that of his partner John Burnside. Both died supported and surrounded by many fairie brothers taking care of them in a truly collective fashion.
My own wish for death is that it be as simple and effortless as possible, a slip into deep dreamless sleep. It is the real possibility though that things may very well get messy at the end and I do struggle often with how I might mitigate this possibility. It seems in my head at least to be harder to get a grip on it in a solitary manner. How much better it would be to be surrounded by love ones who have a clear understanding of how you want to dance out.
For me personally coming here every week is one of my hedges against solitude. I do think that we as queer peoples do face more of the dark side around being alone as we age. There are tremendous pressures in out current society to be independent and that the individual is truly unique and supreme. This is of course is total bullshit and serves no one in the end. The iPhone is not the answer.
Though I frankly have no idea how it would occur I am still up for a communal queer living situation, preferably in the country with a good satellite connection to the Internet. Large sustainable gardens and of course a meditation hall where one could retreat for a little solitary time to recharge the batteries.
If I might troop off a bit into the weeds here one subculture within the larger LGBT community that has a potentially interesting solution to this problem of aging alone are the folks in the kink community, mostly gay men, who have multiple husbands and the expanded family networks that often result. Maybe the Mormons were on to something here. These kinksters to my knowledge have been less supportive of mimicking traditional marriages since their relationships are anything but. The idea of multiple husbands is appealing to me but then I suppose it might very well be so for someone who doesn’t even have one husband currently.