In her new book Anne Bokma, author of My Year of Living Spiritually: From Woo-Woo to Wonderful – One Woman’s Secular Quest for a More Soulful Life sets out on a yearlong adventure to become a more spiritual person. She sings in choirs, dances with witches, picks out her coffin, tries magic mushrooms and learns to be more grateful. In this excerpt, she writes booking herself into a remote treehouse retreat in an attempt to become more comfortable with solitude.
As an exercise in experimenting with a long stretch of absolute silence, I log on to Airbnb and book myself into a secluded treehouse a few hours from home. Never in my life have I gone forty-eight hours without talking to someone or tuning in to some sort of electronic device. This little getaway is the stuff of fantasy for a lot of working moms, the chance to be blissfully free of responsibility. I’m quite certain my family will not starve without me—of course they won’t because I’ve stocked the fridge with a homemade lasagna and a pot of sweet potato soup.
Two days is hardly a monkish retreat, but it’s something.
For some, solitude doesn’t offer any kind of solace. Being alone is hard when it’s not by choice. Perhaps the worst kind of solitude is feeling that sense of aloneness in the company of others—with a self-absorbed friend, say, or in a marriage that’s grown cold. Sometimes we stay in unsatisfying relationships because we believe that some company is better than no company at all.
For company in my treehouse, I bring along two books: Upstream, Mary Oliver’s last collection of essays, and The Illustrated Walden, a special bicentennial edition that documents Henry David Thoreau’s retreat to a tiny cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
The main floor of the retreat I’ve booked has dimensions equal to Thoreau’s ten-foot-by-fifteen-foot cabin, but that’s where any similarity ends. Thoreau’s abode, situated on his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property and made of white pine, cost him a mere $28 to build and contained only a bed, a desk and three chairs. My upscale cedar treehouse, an octagonal structure some six metres off the ground and encircled by towering pines, is situated on 121 hectares of private forest. It has a loft bed, skylights, a wraparound porch, floor-to-ceiling windows, a wrought-iron spiral staircase, a glass shower and a kitchen equipped with a gas stove, a microwave and long-stemmed wine glasses. It costs ten times a night what Thoreau paid in total for his humble home.
Like Thoreau, I also have a very large pond at my disposal. It’s not nearly as big as the twenty-six-hectare Walden that Thoreau regularly canoed and bathed in, but it’s crystal clear and spring-fed. I dip a toe in. In late April the water is frigid, and snaky-looking weeds line its edges, camouflaging what I suspect are leeches and water snakes. Thoreau lived in his cabin for two years, two months and two days. My three days and two nights are paltry in comparison. Still, I’ve untethered myself from digital distractions—no TV, computer or tablet, not even a radio. Birdsong will be my playlist, the view of the swaying pines outside the windows my screen time. My phone is on standby in case of emergency, but I do not allow myself any texting, messaging, phone calls or Google searches. It feels like a Quaker boot camp.
Thoreau advocated for having as few possessions as possible. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he wrote in Walden. I haul a knapsack, small suitcase, cooler, book bag, hiking gear, box of dry goods and cosmetics case (yes, I’ve brought a blow dryer) up the steps of the treehouse. I’m sure the great naturalist, who mocked those “who can hardly venture to go a-huckleberrying without taking a medicine chest along,” would disapprove of my inability to pack light.
Nevertheless, I commit to spending my time much as Thoreau did: hiking, reading, journaling and daydreaming. I pack a small knapsack for a long walk in the woods. I come upon a screened-in gazebo where I while away several afternoon hours with a book in my lap—something I haven’t done in years—until a liquid drowsiness pours over me and I head back to the treehouse, climb to the loft bed and settle into a drooling, intoxicating slumber.
When I awake, there’s nothing to do but read some more. The branches of the evergreens outside of the window glimmer in the sunlight, seeming to offer up lush applause, as if saying, “Good for you!” I have no deadlines, no demands on my time and no dishes to clean except a single fork and plate. Nobody needs me, and it feels great.
I keep virtuous hours: 10:30 p.m. to bed and 6:30 a.m. to rise. I rely on nature’s cues: the croaking bullfrogs trumpet the dinner hour with a sound like a rubber band being thumbed, and when the inky outline of trees disappears into the dark I climb into bed at the end of the day. The silence amplifies sounds I normally wouldn’t notice: the click-click-click-hiss of gas from the stove when I make my tea, the slight rustle of a book page turning.
“The quieter you become, the more you can hear,” says the mystic poet Rumi. I notice the absence of sound, too; the futon I’m sleeping on doesn’t squeak the way my mattress does at home. I try to distinguish the songs of birds. I can recognize the harsh caw of the redwing and the owl’s haunting hoot, but I can’t identify who is responsible for the merry tin whistle and soft warble in the distance.
I deeply examine whatever presents itself: the tiny ant crawling around my upper arm when I’m sunning myself on an Adirondack chair, the deposit of small pebbles (what I assume is raccoon poop) outside my deck door in the morning, the skittering water bug sliding back and forth in a small stream as if looking for some kind of opening.
Mary Oliver wrote that she believed the soul is built completely out of attentiveness. It’s not until I’m quiet and alone that I realize how much I usually miss in my everyday life.
Meals mark the morning, noon and evening. I make a simple dinner of comfort food—Campbell’s tomato soup and a tuna sandwich, taking my time mashing the fish, adding a teaspoon of mayonnaise, cutting an onion fine, adding celery, salt, pepper and a dash of curry. I savour it as if it were a four-star feast. I think of all the time-consuming meals I’ve made for my family over thirty years of marriage and twenty years of parenting. I did the math once. It came to ten thousand meals.
Mostly, I was happy to do this but sometimes I wonder if I spent too much of my life in front of the stove. I am not a fancy cook. I’ve never made risotto or a béchamel sauce. Essentially, I prepared the same seven dinners for decades. But I rarely missed a meal. In my mind, I was a great and powerful kitchen magician, Oz in an apron, waving a spatula so the smell of home cooking wafted through the house, a protective potion against the ills of the world.
I don’t think my children will remember much about my food when they leave home. I don’t have a signature dish like my mother’s seven-layer salad or my mother-in-law’s beef bourguignon. But I hope they’ll carry with them a sense of belonging that comes with having a seat at the table and nourishment from more than the mashed potatoes. The philosopher Emerson said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
On my last day, I lie on my back on the grass beside the pond and dreamily make out shapes in the cotton-ball clouds in the sky. A swallow zooms in to dip its tail in the water just a few metres away. In the late afternoon the sun is still bright enough that I need to shade my eyes, but the sky also holds the faint outline of a half-moon. The sun and moon appearing together is an everyday miracle that I rarely stop to notice. “Attention,” wrote Oliver, “is the beginning of devotion.”
As I get in the car to head home, I turn on my phone. There’s a message from my husband asking if I’ve managed to survive my own company. There’s a text from one of my daughters asking if I can transfer her some money. A couple of friends have checked in. It feels good not to be forgotten.
I could easily have spent a few more days here without feeling lonesome, and that revelation comes as a surprise. But I’ve missed my daughters, and I’m looking forward to weekend plans with friends. As I drive away from the treehouse, I’m thankful there are people to whom I can return
Adapted from My Year of Living Spiritually: From Woo-Woo to Wonderful – One Woman’s Secular Quest for a More Soulful Life, by Anne Bokma. ©2019. Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.