“The more ways we have to connect, the more we seem desperate to unplug.” ~ Pico Iyer, The Joy of Quiet
Stillness and quiet are necessary for mental health.
I’d heard this, or something like this, for years and dismissed it. But, being forced by life circumstances to spend a lot of time alone over the last few years, I realized that had I spent much of my life avoiding being alone.
Much of my childhood was spent alone as the only child of a dysfunctional marriage, much of my own twelve-year marriage was lonely, and then there was the almost devastatingly long period of time being and feeling alone after my divorce.
Sure, I have friends, but they always took the back burner to everything else. There was a lot I had to focus on. I had plenty that needed my attention, like mothering two children and teaching English—both of which I love, take pride in and am fulfilled by.
But I had no idea how to be alone and not lonely.
I had done everything I could to stay busy and active to avoid aloneness, but that now that I was faced with a huge amount of solitary time, I freaked out.
I sat in my living room and listened to my house, the wind outside, the human noise of my neighbors. I walked hundreds of miles on the beach, drank cases of red wine, burned millions of calories at the gym, and cried tens of gallons of tears. I read Thich Nhat Hahn’s wisdom about mindfulness and healing, but I still couldn’t find happiness or peace.
I thought about crawling into bed, pulling the covers over my head and hibernating, but that felt like giving up and I’m too stubborn to give up. I refused to believe that my life was destined to be flat, lonely, and disappointing. There had to be more to life.
I could be mom and Ms. Stern, but where was Marci? I had to figure out where she was so I could get to know her again. I wandered around my house trying to figure out how to make myself happy. I was lost. How does one go about finding one’s self and happiness?
Sometimes, when we reach an epiphany, the moment is so palpable that it almost feels like the Universe is shaking us awake. Last spring, I had this moment.
Sitting out back on my patio, I was sipping a glass of wine reflecting on my day and, as the sun started to set and throw deep orange and pink across the late afternoon sky, I realized that I wanted to paint again. I wanted to recreate on canvas that brilliant, outrageous sunset.
I have always been an artist. I took fine art classes in drawing, painting, and photography in college and made a meager living as a photographer before I became an English teacher, but it had been a long time since I’d picked up a paintbrush.
Bearing witness to one glorious sunset called me to action.
After a short trip to the art store for supplies, I began to paint. At first, I felt stiff and awkward, trying too hard to impress myself. It was stilted. My first creations were less than inspiring, but encouraging enough to keep me going.
With the care and devotion a first time mother takes in setting up a nursery, I set up an art studio space in a spare bedroom and gave myself the gift of a creative sanctuary. I started to spend most of my alone time in my studio painting. The goal was to learn how to paint again.
As I focused on blending colors and representing images on canvases, I found myself. It was cathartic and moving.
I felt creative energy bursting through me. I was finding purpose in artistic creation.
Starting a new painting is exciting and full of promise. Many artists have shared this awe in creating a new world on a canvas. Norman Rockwell once said, “every painting [was] a new adventure…[it’s like] always looking ahead to something new and exciting.” Seeing a new painting take on shape and depth is birthing something new that never existed before.
While focusing on blending colors and composition, what I didn’t plan on or realize was: I was allowing myself to process and reflect on my life, choices and feelings.
I learned to appreciate my mistakes and myself in all my imperfections. Just as a painting can be restarted or painted over when it doesn’t turn out as planned, so could my life, my course. I could take another path.
Another invaluable lesson—maybe even the best lesson I realized through painting—is that it can be a pleasant surprise that a painting doesn’t turn out as planned; it can actually be better. Predictability is stagnation. The unexpected is exciting and offers new challenges.
My life hadn’t, so far, turned out as planned, but maybe that meant that it was going to be better than I ever imagined.
I had hope and the ambition to surpass all my previous expectations. Learning to appreciate the unanticipated and serendipitous reminded me that I was flexible and loved spontaneity. Life’s little surprises were what made it fun and joyous.
Beauty could be found where it was least expected.
Within a few months of rebirthing myself as an artist, I sold my first commission and had a collection of landscapes and abstracts in my own show. I launched my artist’s website and am planning a second career as an art gallery owner. I’m happier than I ever thought possible. And when I stopped looking for love because I was focused on my own life and art, a wonderful new man, now a great love, walked into my life.
Being alone, sitting still, paying attention to our inner voices, being introspective and reflective about our choices, actions, and feelings and searching for what feeds our souls will give us a profoundly new sense of ourselves.
So much noise screams through each of our days—though our connections with family and friends, work associates, school mates, social media, and cell phones—that our own thoughts can easily become lost in the cacophony and swirl of contemporary life. It is no wonder so many of us feel lost, adrift, dissatisfied.
Stillness, solitude and serenity allow us to process our thoughts and feelings about our lives.
We each owe it to ourselves to listen carefully to the Universe and our own yearnings to find that which inspires us to look for the beauty in ourselves and the world in which we live.
When we are still and quiet, focusing inward on our breath and heart, listening carefully, we finally hear our own truth.
Author: Marci Stern
Editor: Caroline Beaton
Photo: Author’s own