Johnson, Fenton. At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2020.
Growing up, Fenton Johnson saw three paths for his future: marriage, the priesthood, or a solitary life. He chose the third option because he felt he was always destined to be alone and that the solitary life would allow him the time and quiet to pursue his writing and become his best self.
In this book, he looks at famous people who made the same choice. Some were married but still chose to be “solitaries.” Among them are writers Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry David Thoreau and Rabindranath Tagore, artist Paul Cezanne, photographer Bill Cunningham, and singer Nina Simone. Each believed they needed to be alone to follow their destiny. Given the choice of love or work, they chose work.
Fenton, who as a solitary gay man has always felt like an outsider, explores solitude in depth. This is a dense, slow-reading book which takes a few too many side trips for my taste, but it makes a good point: We are not all destined for the family life.
Johnson talks about how sometimes people feel sorry for him because he’s alone, when he’s eating at a restaurant by himself, for example. They don’t understand that he is actually happy to be on his own, that he feels he is living his best life. I, too, really enjoy sitting alone reading a good book and being served a great meal. I also enjoy having lunch with friends, but that’s a completely different experience.
Johnson notes that while the church preaches family as the only way to go, most saints are solitaries.
It’s not always easy. He quotes Zora Neale Hurston: “Oh, how I cried out to be just as everyone else! Even as I hoped, I knew that the cup meant for my lips would not pass. I must drink the bitter drink.”
Sometimes I feel that I too was meant to be alone. Where Johnson calls it his destiny, I call it my default position. Even when I was married, I spent a lot of time alone, and now I’m back to where I was between marriages. Perhaps I was meant to be mostly alone to focus on my work, which I do most of my waking hours. When I’m not writing, I am reading, attending classes and readings, networking, and researching.
I would love to eat, sleep, and have fun with other people, but they’re not here, so I work, and I have no plans to “retire.” I have mentioned before on this blog that while I sacrificed children in my marriages, I would never give up my work for anyone. So perhaps things have turned out the way they’re supposed to, and I’m where I’m meant to be. Like Nina Simone, I cry out to be like everyone else, but I suspect the solitary path is the one I’m meant to walk.
I have interviewed artists, writers, musicians, priests, and medical professionals who sacrificed family for their work or their art. I have known of others who had the family and either neglected them horribly or eventually gave up their work to take care of them.
What is your default setting? Are you a born mom or dad destined to be surrounded by family, or do you have another calling that being childless would make easier to follow? Can you have both? What is most important to you to accomplish in this life? Only you can answer these impossible questions.
Tomorrow night I will be reading a piece about childlessness at Coffee and Grief #19 at 7 p.m. PST. You can find the Zoom link on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/events/883771512396349.
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