Have you ever been so far out to sea that you can no longer see the shore? Have you ever been untethered there, the only object inside the circle of a thin straight horizon line, floating in endless blue.
The closest I came to it was in a kayak, as I paddled the length of the river Danube, where for most of it the banks sit a mile apart, and then as I followed the edge of the Black Sea south from the river mouth at St Georghe to Mangalia, the last harbour in Romania.
I learnt many things on that journey; one is that I make bad choices of man. Another is that I will do wildly dangerous things when that bad choice of man hurts you at your very core and you get the wrong kind of drunk in response. All three of these things had happened to me before but never in a way that I could see the relationship between them so clearly. I was hurt, I learnt, I almost died in the Danube and all of those details are a story for another time, that perhaps will never come.
Another thing I learnt about was the elasticity of time and the horizon when you are a tiny slow-moving thing immersed in a very large space.
It’s hard to progress when hardly anything around you seems to be moving at all; when you look at the land right next to you it slips by slowly, tree by tree, but when you look ahead at the river nothing has changed, the whole expanse of water stretches away and the tiny bridge in the distance is exactly the same size for the entire five minutes it takes for that nearby tree to circle past into your rear view. Minutes stretch on and the bridge comes infinitesimally closer until it looms large, an event the passing underneath of it, leaning back to marvel at the structure, the dark line of shadow rushing up over the kayak to bathe you in shade for a short time, and then it is gone in a single cold gust of air and everything is the same again, just the wide river and the distant banks, as if the bridge was never there.
I remember, in the Black Sea, spending hours kayaking in the hot sun, where the water ripples became molten metal if you looked towards the light, and all that stayed next to me were telegraph poles.
There was a stretch of water, a thin line of yellow beach, a dusty road that I could barely see and telegraph poles stretching away from beside me until they jangled into a fuzz of overlap.
Dip dip went the kayak paddle as I churned past the wire swooping down and up to the next pole, inching alongside its slow descent and rise, counting steadily the monotonous progression to 5, then 10, then 20. Dip dip, paddle on, for hours the sun shone on me and the water, and the wires swooped and rose. They were the only indicator of any progress at all, I could have been in a magic lantern, the movement of the scenery behind me showing as illusion, while my paddles churn and I stayed in the same place.
The poles marched on, infinite, until they ended. The tangle became straight and diminished to a single line, the last pole, number 84 coming towards me and then there was nothing, just the waterline and beach, a high row of sand dunes and me in the water, dipping my paddle endlessly.
This was kayaking down the edge of ragged Romania, debilitated, derelict.
I had experienced the shock of the Danube river banks ending when I turned the final corner of this 2500km journey and the water met the sky, far away in the Black Sea, unbounded, for the first time in three months.
Now, as then, the banks of the known world have receded. But this time I am swimming in the ocean and I cannot see the land. This is my quarantine. I am all alone and there is nobody nearby. I swim and swim and make no progress, nothing comes nearer, the only thing that happens is that I do not drown. I keep swimming every day and I do not sink.
I am lucky, I am lucky. The water is calm where I am, there are no tangling weed babies requiring the attention of constant unravelling, there are no crashing waves of financial uncertainty.
Instead I am becalmed. All that I have is the slow monotonous chop chop of arms into water and the lapping and spitting and breathing, over and over again and no knowledge of when this will ever end and no land in sight and no way to mark progress and everything is the same every morning, another day alone just swimming swimming to stay alive and not drown.
When the lockdown came to France I asked friends for help and through someone’s sister came the message “Yes, we have an empty home 200km from you. Take a train, here is the code for the key box. You are welcome. Please water the fruit trees. Help yourself.”
I didn’t think too far ahead, only glad to have a place to stay in a world that had suddenly become even more unwelcoming than usual to a person without shelter. Newly illegal for me to be outside for more than an hour, I needed somewhere safe and I gladly took it.
I didn’t think ahead to the realisation that I was plunging into a deep pool of solitude, the usual distractions of a change of scenery suddenly jarringly absent, and what is left is only loneliness that is sometimes choking.
Every day is the same here, I have very little to do and I will see nobody, not unless I walk the few minutes to the small village shop and attempt conversation in a language I barely speak. Neighbours politely wave but are uninterested in interaction beyond hello. We have all withdrawn to our known circles, there’s no safety in strangers, conversation is contamination.
It’s no good trying to talk to them anyway, I often feel tears welling whenever I try and speak; the strangeness of my situation is unable to be smothered in daily pleasantries.
Conversations on the phone keep me connected to people elsewhere but they only last an hour and there are many more to fill than that.
I am sunk in a monotony of days, struggling to find the motivation to be healthy, knowing that I will suffer if I don’t, suffering anyway. All my confidence has gone, I no longer believe in myself, I dislike what I see in the mirror.
There is almost nothing to do, no grand project, nothing here is mine.
I have no perspective, no overview of what is happening to the world, only the fact that I have to stay here and wait.
Stop your life, put it on pause. Wait in an eternal present that is anything but mindful.
The creeping of the sun comes to heat the sofa space where I lay my head. I stare at my phone until I am sick and disgusted, brain fed to the brim with information that is all empty sugar and no nutrition.
My attention span has crumbled to dust, I am flitting between minutes with the angst of a butterfly at a window, unable to understand what is blocking me from gaining satisfaction.
Half the newspaper stories are speculation, social media postings have bubbled with fear and anger and nit picking and conspiracy.
There is no firm definition to the world, we have lost the certainty of prediction that gives humans their power over nature, the shape of the future is gone and emotions churn in the blank black maw that has opened instead.
I see people vomiting speculation, frantically unfurling fragments of information, trying to twist thread, knit stories, desperate to lay down facts into paths that we can follow into a known world, to claim our future back.
I am scared in this unboundedness, these slack days, this unproductivity, this infinity of time. I am not strong enough to maintain a routine, I am not certain enough of who I am.
I feel that I will unravel here, disappear. I waver at the edges of self. The sea will swallow me, I will dissolve, cease to exist.
Part of this struggling is because my life has been reduced to bare bones, as has everyone’s, and, in the quietness we find ourselves in once the initial commotion has settled, there comes the confrontation with the lives we have each created for ourselves and the unavoidable state of our satisfaction with it.
I am alone, when it has come to this emergency. I didn’t choose this, it just happened this way. I am alone by default, simply because I haven’t met anyone who wanted to do the same things as me and because I didn’t let that stop me doing them anyway.
And right now, when the known world has shifted and we are all scrambling for comfort, what that means is that I am alone in an empty house and it has been 3 months since I touched anyone.
It is in this time, when I am vulnerable, when I am in need, when there is no exciting journey to distract me, that loneliness comes creeping like a softly lapping tide to overwhelm me with the fact that there is nobody in the whole world who is waiting to open their arms to me, to press the length of their body against mine, to lie down with me and let our skin slide softly against one another.
And there is nowhere to go to escape that feeling. Just endless days of the same thing, the same routine, the same place that I cannot leave. And the knowledge that I made the choices that brought me to this.
That is the only thing I suffer here.
It is both unimportant to survival and the saddest thing imaginable.
Dates come and go, there are no definite answers, we wait, we wait. Dates for lockdown extensions, dates for possible freedom of movement, dates for schools to resume, for cafes to open.
It is only now the end of my solitude approaches that I am able to pull my brain from the sticky cloying stultification it has sunken into and write this. There is no perspective from water level when we are swimming to survive, no sensing of the size of the ocean.
Soon though, it will happen, I will leave this house.
Another three weeks, if all goes to plan. Twenty one days more to pass. Five hundred hours. Thirty thousand minutes.
I have been here for nine weeks already. Sixty three days. One thousand five hundred hours. Ninety thousand minutes.
The days have lengthened while I waited here, on hiatus. On the day I stopped walking the sun set at 6.55pm. Today it will set at 9.26pm.
The distant forests have grown leaves. The frosts have thinned and melted to vibrant heat. The lawn is thick with lush growth. The moon has waxed and waned. I watch it all from behind glass, separated from the meaning of the seasons for the first time in almost two years.
There was snow on the mountains when I crossed from Italy, but I will return to bare stone. Eggs have been laid and fledglings have flown.
There is something else I want to tell you, another memory from the Black Sea that is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing a dream in real life.
Crossing Constanța, one of the largest ports in Europe, we set out at dawn, blearily packing away the tent into the kayak as the sun rose, a pink disc hovering low down across the water in the haze of dawn. The mist became thicker as we paddled across the wide bay towards the city, until, halfway across, the way ahead disappeared completely, and we paddled forward in a blank white fog, utterly unbounded, until the buildings started to appear again, half shrouded. It was a place where sometimes the buildings came to the shore and we sensed a great wall of bricks nearby.
I paddled in the mist, looking down into the clear clear water, admiring. When it came too shallow we could see the chaotic bottom, discarded brickwork, splattered concrete, the detritus at the base of a city wall telling us we were too close to the edge.
Further out I was surrounded by mist again, only a scrap of plastic floating on the water, visible in the near distance in front of a melting wall of grey white. We were consumed by mist, completely unable to place ourselves. Only the little floating thing gave me a sense of distance, pathetic fragment blown to catch there, forlorn against the great mass.
There was very little sound, we just paddled, staying just close enough to the shallows to follow a guiding line.
Underneath us, in the dark blue water, jellyfish loomed. White blotches bobbing in their own rhythm, iridescent lines glittering like seams on a sofa cushion. The only way I was aware of the depth beneath me was to see the dim brightness of a jellyfish low down below the surface.
We paddled past the city, the awareness of buildings, the distant silhouettes of tall chimneys and steeples visible in wreathing breaths of wind up in the sky where the sun dimly gleamed.
Eventually the sense of the buildings faded and there was only a breakwater. Poured concrete in the form of huge pillars, each a metre long, stuck at one end to form tripods then tumbled together, as if giant hands had scattered them into the water until they built up out of it, a ridge looking like a jumbled collection of chess pieces, jacks and knucklebones, five miles long. The water lapped gently and I kept paddling. It took hours. I looked behind and ahead, in either direction there was just a line of these strange shapes beside me, towering above me, gigantic pieces stretching away until the mist swallowed them. Me and a man, in our separate kayaks, paddling endlessly along a line of concrete in a world of mist. Nothing else existed.
There was no time any more, there was no future or past. I existed only here, in a kayak on the Black Sea, paddling without a map or a watch, watching the nonsensical shapes of the breakwater.
It was a dream all of its own, to be there in the mist, paddling without end, but then, as we reached the end of the long straight breakwater, the mist cleared all at once and there out in the sea were ships. Huge gigantic enormous ships. Long flat middles loaded with containers, multi colours, built up evenly like lego. There were all the ships that had been waiting to enter the harbour, queued in a long line that stretched away to tiny small ships on the horizon.
I counted thirteen of them, ready to enter one of the busiest ports in Europe and discharge their goods onto lorry backs like oxygen into blood cells, ready to disperse through the motorways and deliver goods where needed.
Each boat carried thousands of containers. Each container was full to the brim of consumer goods, sailed around the world to provide us with cheap products. Nappies, vases, pencils, car parts, radiators, wireless speakers, shower heads, clothes, paint brushes. So many things that we buy cheap and discard early, because they come now as if from a springing fountain, never stopping, infinite flow.
The closest one was steaming ahead, ready to enter the port, two guiding tugs sent out from the harbour attached to the ship with ropes that became tiny strings as they reached up to the ship above.
It was staggering, to see this behemoth heading towards us, thousands of containers piled high on it. We floated there, next to the piled concrete that marked one edge of the harbour mouth watching a dream come towards us.
We gaze at ships from afar, we never share space with them, never compare our sizes like equal beings, but I was there in the water with the boat and somehow it made us the same. I felt the size of tiny me and this gargantuan boat like never before.
Distances are hard to judge over flat water, a mile can feel like 100m, especially when something is so gigantic that you cannot fit it into your sense of perspective in relation to your own body. The ship was impossibly close to us, bearing down on the entrance to the port, and yet we had time to kayak a half mile safely in front of it, to the opposite side of the harbour entrance and then take the luxury of lolling back to watch it grandly glide past, careless of the tide and rushes of water dragging us backwards, absorbing the sight we would never be lucky enough to see again.
We are all coming out of lockdown mist right now, rubbing our eyes to see the whole of our system lined up on the horizon ready to go again.
Let’s restart the economy!
A thousand aeroplanes on the tarmac, ready to fill up and zip us to exotic holidays, or important business meetings.
There’s a line of consumer experiences waiting all the way to the horizon, all carefully designed to bleed us dry while giving the illusion of consumption that never actually satiates.
The machinations of the first world are go!
Are we really going to just start this conveyor belt right back up again? What are we returning to, as a planet.
Are we happy with the choices that brought us here?
21 thoughts on “Solitude”
I liked this. Beautiful, lyrical writing. It’s so odd how it was winter when we locked down and now it’s almost summer, like a dream world. I find grief hits me at odd times. My husband is a nurse and in between rage at the violence the state has visited on frontline staff in the UK I’ve felt nothing but grief. I have been trying to finish my thesis which sounds so first world problems when people are dying across the world and today I wrote the afterword. It reads like a eulogy. To whom I’m not quite sure. The pre-Covid world? To dreams forever lost?
Grief. I wonder how much unacknowledged grief there is in all of us, deep in this discombobulation.
This feels/sounds like bereavement. When I wrote about my own (for myself) I found myself using extended metaphors of boats and oceans, vanishing horizons and unfamiliar shorelines! I got out of my imaginary boat and into a car with no satnav and no map, finally I found myself in a painting with a hole that I couldn’t paint over. I’m very happy to be able to say that I made it to dry land, ripped up the old painting and made a very nice collage… just in time for lockdown to change the game again. But we’ll make it, you will and I will! And I love your writing, visual and inventive with wonderfully real images to call on from your adventures. Big hug.
I’ve had some really interesting reactions to this blog, which are helping me think about this time further. I guess it’s bereavement for liberty.
I love the idea of ripping up a painting and making a collage. We can almost always heal and make adjustments, it just takes a lot of work
I don’t know you yet sometimes I feel I know you so well! You write in a way that I can not express myself. Brave enough to break free from our familiar ties…you are an inspiring light! I have heard two planes this week overhead in Wales…I havent missed them at all. A reminder of a world I dont want to return to…the rush and greed and normality that suddenly isn’t the norm anymore. I so hope though that soon you can take tentative steps back into your journey again. And thank God for you that you write! I feel sometimes I am in a dream and one day will have to wake. Keep strong you lovely lady. X
You do know me in some ways, and in others I would be a complete surprise.
Your writing has a raw clarity that engages my thoughts on walking alone. You hide nothing. Nothing is filtered. So much resonates with my experiences and the way in which it sharpens observation and forces you to search inwards. You can articulate emotions and thoughts I take ages to process, even after hours of meditative walking.
You will be on your way again soon and I cannot wait for the next chapters of your journey. I leave you with a few quotes which I have found, that initially, I could not understand. Now I do thanks to the key you use to unlock the meaning.
“For going out, I was really going in” – John Muir.
“It’s your road and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.” – Rumi
“Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” – Carl Jung
Thanks Martyn, articulation is a skill I’m working on. It helps me to process, often I don’t realise what I am feeling until I’ve written about it.
Oh my goodness dear Ursula, this is SO beautifully written, so poignantly observed and felt. These arms are just one set ready to embrace you again when you eventually reach home here in Wales.
Some may imagine that one your truly epic walk across Europe, you would be used to solitude… and of course that time is purposeful and filled with the kindness of strangers along that way and thru the days.
Stay strong dear Ursula…. Of course ‘this too shall pass’…. and like you I yearn for us all NOT to return to the UB-nourishing consumer madness that was/is our economy. Already the roads are getting busier here and I mourn for the total silence, save for the birdsong filling the air around me.
The Great Oak Cafe is having a major make over… may it stay alive and may we meet there before too many more moons have waxed and waned
Romy & your Mid Wales community
Oops . … sorry for a few typos! I’m sure you figures out what was meant 😄
Dear Ursula, I do not know your books, but it seems to me that you are evolving from a reporter about your travels to a professional writer, with all pains that come with this. Maybe this turns out OK after all. Do you experience a writer’s block or do you have lots of material stocked in a safe place and you do not yet know how to deal with it? Try transformations into dystopic SF, thriller, fantasy, etc. Use imagination, creativity, create other viewpoints than your own. I think you can do this. Maybe less than walking, actually writing is your thing.
Perhaps you should read my book, then you might have more idea about the fact that I already know writing is my thing.
Please stop giving unsolicited advice to strangers, it’s very patronising.
Beautiful read. Thank you Ursula.
The other day I was watching some rubbish on you tube, and there were people in a cafe on a cliff top in Portugal, eating olives in the sun and watching the sea. And I cried and didn’t realise, and then I couldn’t stop. I miss you, so feel my rib creaking hug.
Thanks Ursula, an excellent thought provoking read whilst breastfeeding my baby! Though I am sad to hear of such tangible loneliness. I think a lot of people are struggling to sit with themselves, it is why meditation is so hard. Self-reflection is hard at the best of times, even more so when uninvited. Though, perhaps in the long-term some people will miss the opportunity they had for insight when the first world stopped.
Wow, yes. This is absolutely a chance for self reflection for many people, if we can take the chance to hear it.
Beautiful. Thank you.
Thank you, as always, for the courage to write your true feelings. I see others have described that process as lyrical and I agree. Word images that take me to places…real, imagined, of the heart, of the spirit of the soul that I have never visited yet often live in everyday. Such an intense emotional journey, unintentional though it be, it always exposes your/our human frailties and realities. Big hugs.
Thank you, yes hopefully by sharing we can all connect to something of this.
Thankyou, this was moving.
Beautifully written, hope you’ll be walking soon again!