THE SEVENTEEN TRADITIONS
16. The Tradition of Solitude
For a time, my father worked from ten o' clock in the morning to two in the afternoon. Then, after an afternoon nap, he would return to the restaurant at five o'clock in the evening, and work until one in the morning. During those naps, we children had to find ways to amuse ourselves without making much noise. And yet we never had any trouble finding things to do. We were used to being left alone, to read or play quietly with our toys, to build projects or knit things, to climb trees, to walk in the nearby woods, or just to daydream. Compared with today's overscheduled children, we were used to a certain amount of solitude. And we enjoyed it.
The diversions we had in our hours alone were simple and rewarding. There were always new books to read, of course. There were chores to do, tasks that became more time-consuming as we grew older. And there was the radio -- one radio -- on which we listened occasionally to Jack Benny, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly, Lowell Thomas and Edward R. Murrow for the news, and on Sunday evening One Man's Family. We also had time to play outside, and time to think and muse. The philosopher James Harvey Robinson pointed out that the minds of children can reap lots of future benefits when they are permitted time for reverie. As I noted earlier, Shaf urged me to read Robinson's book when I was only thirteen, and the author's words about reverie made me feel good; until then I'd been convinced I was merely wasting time.
One reason that my parents put such emphasis on solitude was they valued their own solitude, their own time spent by themselves or with other adults. Their love for us was immense, their caring demonstrable, but they thought it was wise not to become totally absorbed by their children. As a result, we never threatened to dominate the proceedings when my parents entertained at home. We were accustomed to spending time by ourselves, and we felt little need to show off, for their sake or for ours. After a dinner with guests, we excused ourselves and went off to play with the guests' children or on our own.
Needless to say, things have changed. Some years ago, we invited a family with two small children over for Thanksgiving dinner. The four-year-old boy spent the whole day running wild, jumping off the table, knocking over glasses of water, screeching at the top of his lungs, and generally making every effort possible to ruin the conversation and the meal. Today, most parents might ask: Was he suffering from attention deficit disorder? No, the parents were suffering -- from an unwillingness to control their son's unprovoked behavior and lay down some markers. It's a symptom of today's sprawled economy that many children spend less time with adults, including their parents, than any previous generation in history. When they do have a few precious moments with adults, they often act out as if they're desperately trying to make up for the prolonged inattention.
"I believe that children should have some time to themselves," my mother once said. "This is what I intended when I told my daughter Claire she could not sing in the choir, with a group, until she first learned how to sing alone. I wanted the children to be able to exercise their minds and understand the importance of solitude, to be self-reliant, to think independently. The children were encouraged to be themselves, to know how to define themselves." Ralph Waldo Emerson would have approved.
Of course, our ideas of solitude today can be deeply flawed. Many parents plant their children in front of TV, video games, the Internet, or other electronic child-seducers for hours and hours every week. Solitude originally meant "a state of being alone," not a state of passive symbiosis with these frenetic and often lurid temptations. True solitude can involve an infinite variety of experience: being alone with one's imagination, one's thoughts, dreams, one's puzzles and books, one's knitting or hobbies, from carving wood blocks, to building little radios or model airplanes or collecting colorful stamps from all over the world. Being alone can mean following the flight of a butterfly or a hummingbird or an industrious pollinating bee. It can mean gazing at the nighttime sky, full of those familiar constellations, and trying to identify them all.
Being alone was easier in those days. The telephone didn't ring incessantly; compared with today, it hardly rang at all. We certainly weren't besieged by salespeople calling to interrupt at dinner time. Silence was common, a phenomenon that might have flummoxed many of today's fidgeting, electronically conditioned children. Children today suffer from shortened attention spans and reduced person-to-person interactions, and the results are wreaking havoc with their ability to think, converse, conduct themselves in family life, and educate themselves. Some of these youngsters are beginning to recognize such deficits in their lives. Maybe they are looking for what Alice Walker has called "quiet space."
Contemplating what "quiet space" did for me is an educated guess, another source of wonder. Yet I know that even in childhood I treasured and relished my solitude, not as an escape or expression of alienation, but as a time for exploration and self-reflection, a time to get to know myself better. Solitude was my engine of renewal, the steward for my self- reliance and the clarifier of my thoughts. And, perhaps most important, time alone allowed me to commune with my favorite authors -- the American muckrakers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who demonstrated the importance of challenging powerful interests, and the authors of adventure fiction, who inspired me to explore uncharted terrain and expand my vocabulary of words and ideas. Although I can't say I thought in these terms as a child, it's clear to me now that my mind was always led back to things that involved making a better life for the community. I was fascinated by people who broke new ground, and wanted to do the same.