a poem on solitude

Posted by on August 18, 2010

I’ve learned to live simply, wisely,
To look at the sky and pray to God,
And to take long walks before evening
To wear out this useless anxiety.

When the burdocks rustle in the ravine
And the yellow-red clusters of rowan nod,
I compose happy verses
About mortal life, mortal and beautiful life.

I return. The fluffy cat
Licks my palm and sweetly purrs.
And on the turret of the sawmill by the lake
A bright flame flares.

The quiet is cut, occasionally,
By the cry of a stork landing on the roof.
And if you were to knock at my door,
It seems to me I wouldn’t even hear.

by Anna Akhmatova

* * *
This morning, between my sixteen month-old and three year-old, I was struggling to stay calm and be simply present in the moment. Today I woke up feeling automatically overwhelmed by the prospect of the day for two main reasons. First, I stayed up too late last night reading a book that would upset me and present me with some information that was difficult to process. (I did not know this when I began reading the book.) And second, the first sound I heard at 6 a.m. was very angry wailing coming from the crib where my sixteen month-old was clearly desperate to be removed from, and all I could think was: I hope Jeff gets up. So then I proceeded to wonder if, already, my child is suffering from gaps in her psyche that will lead to problems later in her adult life as she attempts to fill the voids left by a mother who, on some mornings, could not seem to get out of bed.

Well, this was all very clouded thinking, and thankfully, Jeff did go in to get her. And, moreover, he had gone in when she had woken up earlier at 5:30 a.m. to check her diaper and give her a cup of water, and he said that what I was hearing when I woke up was just her being angry that he had put her back down to try to get her to sleep some more. That made more sense. When she wakes up that early, she basically fusses non-stop, walking around the house making her all-purpose “I want” sound repeatedly, which is something like, “Aa?! Aa?! Aa?!”

Which is exactly how the morning proceeded, until she went down for a nap at 8:00 a.m. And then she did not wake up in a good mood, but kept up with the “Aa”s and sometimes just plopped down on her bottom and cried alligator tears for no apparent reason. And meanwhile, my three year-old was jumping about in an almost too-good mood. And the cool morning air coming in through the window kept getting imperceptibly hotter without my realizing it until I was feeling positively hot and grungy, with a baby attached to me and the attempts to appease her– bread and peanut butter, and a sippy cup now rolled under the table– scattered around me and around the toys that my three year-old had dragged out.

So, Anna Akhmatova, I understand what you are made of. I am also made that way. If left to myself, I could be a very chaotic, alone person. I would sleep when I wanted to sleep and wake up when I wanted to wake up. I would eat when I wanted to, and work when I wanted to, composing something or other, for sure. I would go on walks, and the sound of my own thoughts would get so loud, I might not hear someone knocking at my door, and would certainly have no concept of time.

Instead, I have to accept solitude in doses, and I am very grateful for this situation. “The quiet is cut, occasionally.” That’s true. The noise is cut occasionally, too.

I finally realized this morning, after feeling totally exasperated that I could not seem to appease her with anything, that my sixteen month-old needed to go right back to her crib again, even after a substantial nap this morning. Her nose is runny; she must not be feeling well. And truly, she was so relieved when I made the counter-intuitive decision to put her down and immediately curled up with her blanket and became calm. So, unexpectedly, I get another break to regroup and do something I would like to do or need to do. And my almost-four-year-old is on the playground now, happy in the sunshine and playing with another little girl. I’ve been periodically checking on her from the window in the hallway of our building, which faces the back. But I managed a speedy shower, put on some nice clothes not encrusted with snot and granola bar crumbs, and turned on the air conditioner, and swept the floor all clean and picked up some toys so that I could sit in a room that feels sane and orderly for a little while. I made some earl gray tea and managed to write this blog post. Temporary solitude is refreshing, and lately I feel proud that I have developed the skill of being able to partially find it, partially create it, and partially receive it as if it is simply being given to me. Now I’ll go find something else productive to do before the quiet ends just as abruptly as it began. And if someone were to knock on my door, I feel as if I would hear it.

Poetry Wednesday

Posted in: Poetry Wednesday
  1. Molly Sabourin
    August 18, 2010

    Love this, Julia! Yesterday, I took a trip to an Amish town to buy meat and while there felt such a strong longing for some quiet and simplicity in my own life – a life getting louder and more hectic by the minute. You are so right about the finding of temporary solitude being a skill one develops with practice, out of necessity. You should indeed be pleased with your realization of this and your ability to find true pleasure not in bigness and grandness but in the pureness of the ordinary – the present moment.

  2. Beth
    August 18, 2010

    As a mother of young ones, a mother constantly covered in granola, spit up, and other less desirable bodily fluids, I understand these feelings and always offer up a prayer of thanksgiving for the one hour of nap time in which I can regroup, drink one hot cup of coffee, and maybe talk with friends. Thank you.

    And the poet, I read some of her works while taking a Russian/Soviet history. Good to hear her voice again.

    Peace and blessings to you.

  3. amber
    August 18, 2010

    I've always loved this poem. I used to have a copy of it, which I folded up as a bookmark for a number of years. And I had thought about posting it for poetry wed this spring but decided it was too Akhmatova–sad and cold and lonely. And perhaps I was feeling too much that way to post it.

    As for everything else you write, well, I sincerely don't know what to say. I wonder about the cumulative effects of motherhood, not just on the child but on the mother. Like you, I am such a thinker, a ponderer, and motherhood requires such immediate things–like cooking and cleaning and loss of sleep and trying to decipher the various meanings of "Aa?!" I fear after five years of this my brain will turn into a mealy mush that will no longer able to compose a decent blog post.

  4. annajouj
    August 18, 2010

    Oh my word, Julia–as I wind down, staying up too late because of the luxury of quiet night time hours, I came to check out your blog. The past week and a half I have been nannying a 14-month-old, sunrise to sunset. And today I luxuriated in a shower, with a few hours to myself, feeling that newness of being able to be present in the momentary peace more than I remember ever doing before. So to find your words, when at times with this "job" I have been humbled to the point of tears, feeling ridiculous because of it, is a Godsend. Thanks for being yourself, with all your wisdom, honesty, and reality. missing you,
    anna

  5. Julia
    August 18, 2010

    Amber, I debated about the sad and cold and lonely factor of this poem, but then decided it is really very cheerful compared to most of her poems. I find it interesting too that Akhmatova was a mother, but her children do not seem to factor into accounts of her life. She gives birth to them, and then moves on to multiple marriages and romantic affairs, and I'm thinking: Where's the kid? And she was quoted as saying: "Motherhood is a bright torture. I was not worthy of it." Having read that a while back, I think it was somewhere in the back of my mind while writing this post. I can only go so far in identifying with Akhmatova. Then again, I'm not a poet of colossal stature.

    Anna, in a weird way, it feels very gratifying (vindicating?) to hear someone else who is not a mom affirm how difficult it can be. But really, I'm glad you are getting to have this experience just for the sake of the experience.

  6. Kris Livovich
    August 19, 2010

    It is those moments, isn't it? I know I have had to shift my thinking from the grand three week vacation to the quick grocery trip Alone.

  7. Manuela
    August 19, 2010

    I absolutely love this poem, Julia. I feel like I can relate to it in every way at the moment. Just two nights ago I took a walk in the evening "to wear out this useless anxiety", and I "looked at the sky" to"pray to God" because I felt like that was all that I was left with, it was all I could do at this moment.
    This poem really speaks to me right now and describes accurately my current state except that I am not a poet and don't compose verses. I also love the way she uses "happy", "mortal" and "beautiful" in one sentence.

    My urge for solitude has been particularly strong today and after putting Tristan down for a nap and condemning Lukas to have a "quiet" time in his
    room (condemning is really how I feel about it sometimes) I decided to sit down and journal again, and then check if you had published a new post.
    It was the right thing to read for today.
    And of course I am just now hearing Tristan again waking up after 45 minutes (sigh) and Lukas mingling around at the door because he wants to get out after 30 minutes (sigh). I can feel dissatisfaction and even anger in me that my time of solitude is so limited these days.
    But now I will try to be thankful that I had 30 minutes of reflection and writing, and reading something as beautiful as your post to help me deal and enjoy the next few busy and chaotic hours of this day.