Setting off to Solitude (briefly)

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I left the city to expand my circle of compassion — for the always magnificent land- and seascapes of coastal British Columbia, for unfamiliar milieus therein, but mostly, for myself.

I’m falling in love with someone. I’ll spare whoever reads this from soliloquies of romantic prose (you’re welcome). Besides, that’s not what I’m here for. I’m not here to talk about love. In Rainer M. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke tells a young reader — an aspiring writer, “Do not write love poems.” Poetry or prose, I heed Rilke’s advice. Though by mentioning love already, I have to say: loving someone else — sometimes so difficult, sometimes so ethereal — accentuates the feelings which you hold solely for yourself.

Just before Rilke suggests to his young reader that he not write about love, on the same page, He draws focus to the self. He assures his reader that, “Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.” I partially disagree; guidance to the way into oneself from someone else — a teacher — is helpful, and often needed. I know I’ve needed my teachers. Among those guiding teachers, though — and I know Rilke would agree — is your own spirit. Yourself.

“I forgot I was even waiting, and now the ferry rumbles to life, churning the brackish waters below. It lurches forward, finding the momentum to slice onward through the sound. I, like the vessel I’ve boarded, am invigorated with life,” I wrote. Romantic, perhaps a bit corny. I sat captivated by the horizon of sharp, glacial peaks and smooth, glinting waters as we sailed ahead. In that moment, Carl Safina’s words from The View from Lazy Point floated to the fore of my mind; I was struck with a “blurred sense of self.” Safina, like most authors of Ecology, each have their own ways of articulating and synthesizing what interconnectedness means to them. Out of all the ways I’ve heard it said and read it written, I think Safina’s “blurred sense of self” resonates with me the most. It offers a perfectly clear image of the distinction between self and surroundings disintegrating — self and surroundings becoming one. Romantic, corny, whatever you want to call it, feeling oneness is invaluable.

But the feeling fleets. It’s easy to get caught in the delusion of our egos. It’s our default to center ourselves — certainly as Western settlers in the 21st century — as distinct individuals in the world. This is not to say I don’t appreciate the uniqueness of people’s individualities — the complexities of people’s inner worlds. It’s just that, I know, (for myself at least), that the joy I can sometimes derive from my intellect, my pride, my Ego-self, is not sustainable. In fact, it’s not joy, it’s mere intoxication. The Eco-self, on the other hand, fills me with deep, profound joy. It’s in those fleeting moments of euphoria on the ferry when I, albeit very briefly, feel like I am my Eco-self. It’s moments like those on the ferry when I, instead of feeling “in” a place, feel truly “of” a place. I live for those moments of feeling “of” a place, because it’s in those moments that I get a refreshing awareness of how it’s my relationships that make me who I truly am.

In the same breath of emphasis for the ‘blurred self’, Carl Safina reminds us that we are only ourselves — only have our ideas of ourselves — because of our relationships. Whether it be with the people we hold closest to us, or with the Arbutus and Cedar trees upon the sounds’ craggy cliffs, or with the ferry itself, it’s our relationships with these beings that give us a self to think about at all. It’s to be mindful of our interconnectedness — to detach from our Ego-selves and move into our Eco-selves — that’s genuinely, psychologically, and even spiritually rewarding.

Hearkening back to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke — akin to Safina — comes through with a bit of ‘oneness’ thinking as well: “We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond […] we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us.” Internalizing sentiments like this: living in mimicry with our surroundings; being indistinguishable in an interconnected world of elements; being “of” a place, alleviates pressure from the self. This Eco-self — being setting — offers sweet relief from the weight of the Ego. Once your self is of setting, your own weight becomes subsumed by the weight of the world, and you become as light as your spirit.

It’s also immensely relieving to arrive, on your bike, at the top of a steep hill: bike in its lowest gear, panniers packed full on the back, legs on the brink of losing the gumption which got you there. You feel momentarily lifted up at the precipice as gravity begins pulling you forward, no longer pushing you back. Joy and sweat correspond to the work you just gave to your gears — to the pressure you just gave to your pedals.

I have in mind a particular moment on my trip as I biked the hills along the so-called Sunshine Coast (Shíshálh territory). I was riding towards Secret Cove — an aptly named marina, hidden below tree-topped cliffs which descend sharply to the ocean’s edge — from Porpoise Bay, a provincial campground where I had set up camp for the weekend — a couple of hours due East down the highway. As I rode my bike up and down those coastal hills, the air moist with the forest’s dew and the ocean’s spray, that air filling my nostrils and mingling with the sweat on my skin, I was struck by both the familiarity and novelty of that place. To me it was at once unique, yet sharply reminiscent of so many places I’ve called home: like the affluent, residential lake-towns of central New Jersey, it had an air of pretension; it evoked nostalgia for the breezy, cottage-filled vistas which line the shores of Lake Michigan; it even made me think of the densely wooded ski-mountain towns of southern Vermont — charming, rural, yet tacky in a way. In hindsight, I was probably only brought to draw such comparisons to my past homes because I was then so subconsciously fixed on the idea of home. I attribute that idea to Rilke, who wrote of solitude as “…a hold and home for you even amid very unfamiliar conditions…” I felt very much at home in that place, on my bike, in my solitude.

My comfort in solitude widened on that bike trip; I’m confident in that. In some moments, I yearned so dearly to share my joy with the people I love, including Her. But as soon as I accepted my solitude, I was able to take that joy in even deeper within myself. Being of my solitude, I could feel my circle of compassion, my love, widening — for all the flora, fauna, and people of the coast — but mostly, for myself.

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