by Gussie Fauntleroy
…The birds have vanished into the sky/ and now the last clouds drain away/ We sit together, the mountain and me/ until only the mountain remains. ~ Li Po (8th-century Chinese poet)
I’ve had an image in my mind, a fantasy I return to from time to time of a place where I go to be alone and reflect and write. It’s an attic room with a small wooden desk in the light of a deep dormer window. I reach it by way of a narrow staircase hidden behind a never-used door inside a centuries-old, white-painted clapboard house, shaded by ancient oak trees. It’s a secret place where my (imaginary) great-great-grandmother may have gone to put her thoughts on paper if she had been able to take time away from her family and chores.
I imagine that the door to the narrow staircase is completely unknown to anyone else, perhaps tucked behind musty coats in the back of a small closet. The stairway bends as it rises, the steps steep, the walls painted white, lit from somewhere above. In the small room at the top, with its low angled ceiling and view of treetops and maybe a glimpse of the sea, the air is warm and very still.
When I’ve wondered why this place appeals to me, I realize it’s the sense of being utterly hidden from the world—no one knows how to find me, even if they were inclined to look—yet in a space that is comfortable, welcoming, and all my own. It’s a place where my thoughts are free to take the shape of poems or prose or disjointed phrases or single words, or no words. There is no clock, no time. I envision touching my fingertips to fingerprints my great-great-grandmother left on the smooth wooden desk and seeing what she saw around the spare room, or out the same window with its panes of bubbled glass.
Out of the hidden room
I’ll go back to that room again, no doubt. But now there’s another place I can go to be alone, and this one is real. It’s close by. And it doesn’t have to be hidden or unknown to allow that same timeless feeling of a space apart. Spending six days and nights of quiet solitude in a serene, one-person-sized house at Nada Carmelite Hermitage not long ago was like walking into my dream—except three-dimensional, solid and clear. And the person who stayed there was more clear, too, than the romantic version of myself who thought she needed dust motes glinting in the long evening light in order to feel poetic and real.
This person (that I am today) was delighted to find herself not restricted to a small upstairs room no one can find. Instead, that space apart became enormous; it expanded to unfathomable visual distances up toward the mountains, across the valley, into the vast open sky. It was concrete—under my feet in the smooth-packed adobe floor that was warm or cool, depending on the sun’s daily arc; in the window seat where I gazed out for stretches of time; in the food I fixed for myself, the bed I made up each morning, the mop I pushed across the floor when it was time to leave.
Touching the world
I didn’t bend over my foremother’s writing desk but I did feel another bond, this one stretching immeasurably farther back in time. Severed from all news or awareness of goings-on in the rest of the world, absorbing only what my senses took in, for a moment I envisioned my own impressions superimposed upon the experience of someone standing in this same spot many centuries ago. It was a rooted, almost physical sense of connection with primal ancestors in whose bodies the curves and folds of these sandy hills were imprinted, people anchored by the roots of piñon trees, who felt without touching the warmth or coolness of rocks in the arroyo and meaning in the constantly changing sky.
For those pre-modern people, the boundaries of the directly experienced world were expanded and shaped by imagination, by explanations and knowledge passed down in stories from the older ones, or recountings of those who journeyed elsewhere and returned. But the seemingly solid contours of their universe would not have been continuously punctured, as ours are today, by countless bits and pieces of distant people’s disasters and painful events, or trivial behavior, or the latest political storm—all of which so often remain in an abstract realm beyond our heart’s reach.
I thought about Dearing’s grandfather, the first James Dearing Fauntleroy, whose experience reflected the opposite of this phenomenon of disconnection by overload. Some years ago I transcribed Capt. Fauntleroy’s journals dated 1911 to 1913. At the time he was working as an engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, building Elephant Butte Dam in central New Mexico, living in a dusty camp in what he considered the netherlands of the civilized world. (He being from the green and fertile lands of Virginia, pining for hearth and chickens and his country gentleman peers.) Reading his journals I was struck by how, although aware of far fewer circumstances around the globe, he recounted the distant events he heard or read about—political unrest in China, war in the Philippines—like the tales of someone who had traveled there, cared about the people he met and returned to share what he had learned. The world was vast, but it was real.
Which is one more reason to remove ourselves occasionally from the world: to paradoxically feel its true dimensions and solidity, its roundness extending into the mystery of unknown waters and lands. We know and feel that those who live beyond the curving horizon are the same as us—when chattering, arguing voices aren’t telling us otherwise. This space apart makes room for the diffusing of countless shifting and overlapping boundaries: of geography, politics, history, ancestry, opinions, perspectives, fears. The gift of solitary retreat is a trilogy, in fact—space, quiet, and time, which meld into one experience of spaciousness, silence and timelessness.
But the silence isn’t silent, of course; it means hearing more. It means absorbing quietly satisfying sounds that otherwise might get lost. Like the voices of the wind after three days of almost absolute calm. Sitting outside one morning I noticed a dramatic shift in the soundscape I had become used to. Like shades of color, varying velocities and directions of breeze began to create a subtle symphony: an occasional sonorous wooo around the corner of the house, a soft sifting through the grasses, a higher-pitched continuous whuhnnn in the piñons farther up the hill, like the drone of distant traffic.
When the breeze picked up there were intermittent small poufs against my ears. When it suddenly intensified more it drew my attention and quickened my breath the way energy quickens as excitement moves through a crowd—something’s happening! Then, just as suddenly the intensity dissolved into a hush. At one point I heard talking and laughing and car tires crunching on the gravel in the distance as people emerged from Nada’s chapel and drove away after Mass.
After a meditation one afternoon I took a bath, a rare event and a treat. I made a cup of green tea; the house was warm from the sun. The quiet of the meditation followed me into the bathtub, where I pulled the pink shower curtain closed and set the cup of tea on my belly as I lay in the water. The house made faint creaking sounds from the wind and I felt cozy and content. Later I made myself a delicious supper of potatoes covered with black bean chile, broccoli, Dearing’s kim chi and a little coconut milk. My mind kept telling me I should be writing something profound, but I said, no, I don’t think so right now, thanks. I’m sleepy and satisfied and there aren’t any threads of deep meaning I need to pull on and gather into a net of words right now.
Finally came the time for transitioning back into everyday life, hoping to return with invisible souvenirs. A fuller sense of being, maybe, which holds the vital energy of my attention on a shorter leash and keeps it directly connected to my core as it explores and interacts with the world. Integral with that, perhaps, more skill at putting on the brakes—not racing ahead of the moment—in an intentional and consistent way. Of course that didn’t all happen. Of course I still react when I should pause and breathe. But experiences slide into spaces within us we don’t even know are there. And they stay. One thing at least I can say came home to stay with me: a greater depth of gratitude.