Op-Ed

Need solitude? Find your personal hay barn

Barbara Mader is a reader columnist for The News Tribune.
Barbara Mader is a reader columnist for The News Tribune. Tacoma

I’ve been thinking how unusual it is for to people to be alone, and quiet. We are usually with others, working, traveling, socializing; or we are on the phone, talking, texting, posting on social media.

We are preoccupied, distracted, and rarely truly alone. Even though I get more alone time than most, I still feel crowded, itching for space and quiet.

This has always been an issue for me. Growing up on a busy dairy farm in the Midwest, the sixth of seven children, an introvert in a family of extroverts, I craved time alone. But finding that time in a full household was tricky, especially for a young child.

Reading was the most accessible escape. I found a book and an empty room and drifted away. But eventually, inevitably, someone intruded.

Often I went on walks -- adventures, I told myself. Cutting through neighbors’ fields, I made my way east, down the hill, out of sight, to the railroad tracks. Trains seldom traveled here; I saw only weeds, gravel, broken glass. Carefully I stepped from one broad, unevenly spaced tie to another; the strong, smoky odor of creosote filled the air. In springtime I picked pussy willow twigs from nearby trees, brushing the silvery tufts against my cheek.

Nearer to home was The Dangerous Road, narrow, uneven, a glorified cattle track of dirt and gravel, grass growing down the middle. As I walked downhill, a chalky bank rose high along one side. Here, small red-brown toads gave their long, high trills, butterflies flitted among the tall grasses, and rocks sparkled in the brilliant summer sunlight. Our cows grazed nearby, the sun beat down on my head, and, as I walked, my small shadow bobbed along ahead of me. Hot, dusty, alone, I was utterly content.

But my favorite refuge was the hay barn.

When I felt overwhelmed by my family, I slipped back behind our farmyard to the hay barn. Tugging at one large, heavy, sliding door, I opened it just enough to squeeze through; once inside, I pushed it closed again. And relief flooded through me. Alone; quiet.

Sometimes I read, but often I just sat, watching the pigeons fly about the rafters, listening as they flapped their wings with a WHIRR, whirr, whirr. Sitting, watching, listening, the quiet seemed to deepen. Time slowed. Beams settled. I heard my heart: beat, beat, beat...

Sunlight filtered through long, thin cracks along the walls, where tall wooden boards, rising to the roof-line, were warped and split from age and rain and ice and sun. The shafts of light cut through the dimness of the barn and lit the hay and chaff and dust motes, revealing them in their thousands, their millions, hanging, drifting, floating to the floor. I tried to pick one out, follow its path all the way down, but a cloud passed, a shadow fell, or it left the light, and it was lost to me.

Within the high ceiling was an overarching hush. Just the birds flying; or, if there was wind, a wavering whooooooo as it whistled through the cracks. On rainy days, the spatter of drops high above me. But always a hush, and any noise from outside muffled and low.

I sat, dreaming about the hush, the motes, the shafts of light, thinking how the unheard became noticed, the unseen, visible. Time didn’t matter; I listened, watched, was.

That sense of timelessness: the now, and eternity, both together. To listen, to notice; to be still. The gifts of solitude.

I have access to those gifts still, here, now, in the stunningly beautiful Pacific Northwest. Our lovely South Sound area, with its parks, preserves, trails, shoreline, mountain and water views, fir-and-salt-scented air—this is where I walk now, where I sit and savor quiet, where I find time to be in the moment, and touch eternity.

Barbara Mader of University Place is a specialty bookseller selling collectible children’s books. She’s one of five News Tribune reader columnists in 2019. Email her at bmader6@comcast.net

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