Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Fifty Days of Solitude - Doris Grumbach

I had heard of Doris Grumbach, but she wasn't really on my radar.  When a Kindle deal for Fifty Days of Solitude came up, I bought it.  I'm so glad I did.

This short book is Grumbach's observations and contemplations on solitude and loneliness.  Her partner, Sybil Pike, went off for several months to buy books for their bookstore in Sargentville, Maine.  Grumbach is determined to spend her fifty days alone, appreciating the silence.

I made so many notes while reading this that I can't put them all here.  She says that Edward Hopper, the painter, was a master at depicting loneliness.  I agree.  Even with no one else in the house, she finds there are so many distractions.  There's the distraction of paying her annual taxes, during which she wonders why it's called the Internal Revenue SERVICE.  Whom does it serve?  Certainly not the taxpayers.

She feels guilty because her friends think her solitude is a rejection of them.  No one wants to be alone, do they?  By herself, she can concentrate on seeing, listening.  She reads and listens to music and writes and thinks.  She realizes that sharing her experiences is exhausting.  She hates the concept of sharing feelings.

To isolate herself further, she doesn't read newspapers or watch the news.  In her self-imposed small world, the important things are the arrival of birds, the freezing of the cove.  What would the world be like if these were the things more important to people than war and violence and money?  She gets letters with the news of deaths of friends, though, and that shatters her solitude.  In particular, the death of Dr. Anna Perkins distressed her.  I wish I could find a doctor like her.

Grumbach wonders if contentment is more obtainable in places of physical beauty, like the coastal Maine village she lives in.  I think that's true.  

When she reads about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, she goes to her bookstore to find out more about her.  Then she calls the library for an interlibrary loan of a biography of her.  She also sounds like an amazing woman.  Isolating herself doesn't mean diminishing her world in all ways.

The absence of another person intensifies cold.  'Silence seemed to lower the temperature of the room and to extend the size of it, death is the great cold, I thought, and turned on the radio.  Sound, I found, was somewhat warming, even the sound of a talkative host interrogating sleepless callers.'

Not everyone is fit to live in silence.  Small noises, a refrigerator running, the scraping of branches on a roof, a log falling in a fireplace, can be disturbing.  Velcro is noisy.

Silence made her value written and spoken words more. 

'In the silence I eagerly sought, I could hear myself think, and what I heard was, sadly, often not worth listening to.'

Until death, it is all life.

If you want to know more of her insights and thoughts, you'll have to read it yourself.  I don't think you'll be sorry.


  1. It sounds very interesting although as a person who has had tinnitus for 25 years - silence would be a real luxury.
    I think maybe it depends on teh person, you and I would find contentment easier to find in a beautiful/natural setting, but some people adore cities and crowds and are uncomfortable in rural places.

    1. I'm sure you wish you could hear silence. I have a bit of tinnitus, but it's not usually annoying. I know there are people who love the intensity and noise of cities. I find it exciting for a while, but I always return to nature for peace and restoration. I liked many of Grumbach's thoughts and insights.

  2. Oh this sounds like a lovely book! I'll have to give a go sometime!

    1. I made so many notes while I was reading it! I liked her voice, which is kind of strange since she was writing about silence. She was living in my favorite place in the world - coastal Maine. Oddly, when I searched her on the Internet, I found that she and Sybil are currently living at a Quaker retirement home in Kennett Square, where part of my family is from and which is less than an hour from me here in Philly. It feels like we have some connections.