Solitude’s Gift of Grace

Too often these days, I am overwhelmed with sadness and anger and a sense of not being enough. I think many of us struggle with this. It’s easy to feel this when we live in a world where so much is broken. Suffering and injustice surround us, and we feel powerless to change it. Communication and connection are fraught by deep ideological divisions, both political and religious. And then there is Covid, still hanging around.

Sometimes I feel like I’m running on fumes.

Recently I made an impromptu visit to a state park. The simple change of scenery lifted my spirits. The edge of Maumee Bay and Lake Erie provided constant wind that lifted and swayed the graceful branches of weeping willows just beginning to bloom. And though the boardwalk and marshy land around it had changed drastically since my last visit decades ago, it provided a place very different from my suburban neighborhood to walk and observe nature.

I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d fill my time, so I brought Mary Oliver’s collection of poetry, Thirst, colored pencils and watercolors, a sketch pad and journals, and pastries from my favorite bakery. Even though I live alone, the solitude and quiet offered by this space felt different, more intentional.

In the mornings I sat outside on the small patio sipping coffee and eating palmiers. I read the first half of Mary Oliver’s poems aloud, imagining the wind carrying the words and skimming them across the water. The words, like Tibetan prayer flags, released grace as the wind blew them along.

An arthritic knee kept my walks on the short side, but I took lots of them. White tail deer and I startled one another along the marshy patch where they were wading and nibbling tender sprouts. A muskrat, finding the spring greens irresistible too, pushed aside watery plants, leaving dark trails behind. A black snake slithered from rock into water, smoothly curving its body this way and that and disappeared into leafy growth on the opposite side. Turtles sunned themselves on a log. Ducks hung around in a little cove, and birds flitted from branch to branch.

I ended up with some sketches—the bench beneath the willows, my mug of coffee and a palmier resting on a napkin, (a small feast I required myself to draw before eating it), and buds of the willow—none great art, but I did pay more attention to how the palmier dough was looped into its butterfly shape and how leaves and buds appear in the spring. The process was a mindfulness exercise reminding me of a favorite book, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation by Frederic Franck.

I read all of Thirst, pondering some lines: “My work is loving the world / … which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished” (from “Messenger”); “And they call again, ‘It’s simple’ they say, / ‘and you too have come / into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled / with light and to shine’” (from “When I Am Among the Trees”).

All in all, a lovely time. I didn’t accomplish anything particular. But that was the point. It filled me with what I needed: to be still with myself and with God, wasting time together with no goal in mind other than being who I am.

When I returned home, I listened to Krista Tippett interview U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on her podcast, “On Being.” Murthy’s words resonated, as if he had known just why I needed that short time away.

Dr. Murthy said he believed our greatest source of strength comes from our ability to give and receive love. He talked about the importance of having a sense of self-worth, of trusting who we are and what we hold inside. Our mental health, he suggests, is the fuel we need to function at our best. We need a “full tank” to be present to ourselves, to one another, to our communities, and to the world.

Of the things he suggested that help people improve their overall sense of wellbeing and social connection, the one that surprised me was solitude. It shouldn’t have. Isn’t that what intentional quiet time, quiet prayer, or meditation is? His explanation: “The solitude is important because it’s in moments of solitude, when we allow the noise around us to settle, that we can truly reflect, that we can find moments in our life to be grateful for.”

For me, it’s also a time to be still and open to the Grace always given. A time, as Mary Oliver’s trees suggested, to be filled with light and to shine.

What are your times? Where are your places? How do you fill your tank?

© 2023 Mary van Balen

Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver
Messenger by Mary Oliver
The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation by Frederic Franck
Vivek Murthy: To Be A Healer – Interview “On Being with Krista Tippett

Photo by Mary van Balen.

May 05, 2023 by Mary van Balen 8 Comments
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Nancy Corson Carter
1 year ago

What a blessing your piece, “Solitude’s Gift of Grace” is to me this AM, Mary. I am wrestling with issues that bring me into the temptations of fear and lack of gratitude, and your piece helps me so much, bringing me the message of God’s love through the simple things. And I will read “Thirst” again this AM!
Love and Light,

Mary van Balen
1 year ago

Thank you for your comment, Nancy. I’m grateful that you found encouragement in this piece. God’s love does come through ordinary things, but recognizing it often isn’t easy. Blessings on your journey.

Nancy Newman
Nancy Newman
1 year ago

Wonderful words to inspire. Thank you! I needed this right now in this place and space.

Mary van Balen
1 year ago
Reply to  Nancy Newman

You’re welcome, Nancy.

Merle Malone
Merle Malone
1 year ago

Thanks for this message. It came at the right time to slow my frantic pace this morning fuel by fear of not being able to accomplish the items on my list for today. This shifted my focus to God’s love in the simple things around, to pause, enjoy them and to remember that in quietness there is strength for the journey. Peace.

Mary van Balen
1 year ago
Reply to  Merle Malone

Merle, I’m happy the piece came at a good time for you. Hope you had a nice, slower morning! Thanks for writing.

Patience L Robbins
Patience L Robbins
1 year ago

What a wonderful reminder of the necessity and gift of solitude. May I slow down, pay attention and appreciate what is! Thank you, Mary.

Mary van Balen
1 year ago

You’re welcome, Patience.


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