Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World
By Michael Harris, Doubleday Canada, 256 pages, $32
The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork
By Katrina Onstad, HarperCollins, 287 pages, $31.99
The Beauty of Discomfort: How What We Avoid Is What We Need
By Amanda Lang, Collins, 296 pages, $29.99
On a recent Saturday morning, I pulled my canoe from the strong spring current of the Detroit River and made landfall on Peche Island, an uninhabited, 86-acre teardrop of Carolinian wilderness along the U.S. border. It seemed a fitting place to review three new books out this month, including Michael Harris's Solitude and Katrina Onstad's The Weekend Effect. Both recommend breaking society's so-called "nature deficit disorder" by dashing to woodlands for occasional retreats. So off I went, without a phone, to stake out a two-day hermitage.
At the start of Solitude – an insightful, lively meditation on why this increasingly scarce component of our lives should be preserved – Harris distances himself from characters of "feral disposition," such as Ted Kaczynski: "None of what follows is a pining for Thoreau's old cabin in the woods."
Harris, like Onstad, advocates happiness through moderation.
"I want to know," he writes, "what happens if we again take doses of solitude from inside our crowded days."
Given the nag and whistle of multiplatform social-media hyperconnectedness, it's a reasonable hypothetical to pose.
So is what Onstad advances in The Weekend Effect. With worrisome increases in everything from depression to suicide in mind – some of which seems a byproduct of overwork – what would happen, she asks, if we refused to catch up on correspondence, schlep the kids to baseball practice or do all the other semi-obligatory busywork that leaves us dead inside by Sunday night? What if we substituted that nonsense with fulfilling activities, memorable adventures?
Onstad spends a good portion of her book answering this herself, nibbling through a small-plate menu of recreational pursuits: gardening, team running, family nature hikes and so on. Over all, things work well for her.
How did they work out for me?
Within two hours, I lost my glasses in a creek.
Now, listen. I won't pretend like I didn't expect something to go spectacularly wrong. I just never would have expected it to happen so quickly. But, as Onstad cheerfully warns, "an open-ended weekend embraces life's uncertainty, rather than fighting it. Fun is hard to schedule, easy to stumble upon."
How I lost my glasses (snagged by a branch) is less important than the result: i.e., "double legal blindness," as my optometrist put it. In addition to fun, this increased my chance of stumbling upon pretty much everything: exposed roots; tent stakes; even Onstad's book, which I'd thrown in anger at a tree.
It also seemed to quash any hope of connecting with nature. This saddened me most.
In the first two hours spent exploring Peche Island, a refuge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., life was crisp and clear: I watched spindly branches of sycamore and eastern cottonwood brush waves of marsh grass. Canada geese hid in the reeds, necks slung low, warning me from their nests. Fourteen white swans, loosely coupled, swam under a canopy of basswood. Sounds of traffic dimmed as I paddled deeper along an inland waterway. Soon, I was alone, surrounded by forest, and it was blissful.
Then things changed.
Hell if I could tell a tamarack from a maple. Now, it was all blur, blur, tree, blur, reeds, blur – and running through it all, the snake of a creek that ate my glasses: a brown-black smear.
After disembarking at a nearby campsite, I scratched my beard and considered the situation. I was vision-impaired, without a phone, across a river whose current drowns several people a year: Not a good start.
But the morning was gorgeous. Soon I was lounging beside a clumsily erected tent, laughing. How funny that this happened on April 1, of all days.
Then I thought: You know, this might not be that bad.
Because, while solitude and aimless weekends come easily to me, I'd been having trouble deciding how to segue into a discussion of the third book that served as ballast at the bottom of my canoe: The Beauty of Discomfort, a fascinating, practical-minded defence of hardship by journalist Amanda Lang.
"Discomfort," Lang acknowledges, "is a tough sell." But life is fraught with changes, and change is hard: "It demands that you give up something," if only the familiarity of the status quo. With scientific findings, statistics and a parade of athletes, executives and soldiers who learned to "tolerate, and then embrace discomfort [as] the foundation of change," Lang guides us through how to achieve a perpetual state of ambitious dissatisfaction. This, she contends, has the "paradoxical effect of making us more comfortable" by improving our ability to face challenges.
I'd like to claim I can stand alongside the company that Lang marshals, but that wouldn't be honest. My loss was met less nobly: I pretty much just catnapped in the sun for hours, waking intermittently to gnaw on beef jerky and skim a back issue of The Atlantic.
At some point, presumably from reading so closely to the page, I developed a low-level headache. Without Snapchat, Twitter and the hobbies that keep me occupied, life seemed interminable.
Yet boredom, Onstad reminds us, "is a powerful thing," a trigger for epiphanies. "[By opening a] space in which to wander the corridors of your own mind," she writes, "it forces independence and self-reliance."
My mind did wander – "scavenging through strange attic boxes," as Harris describes with typical elegance, recounting a period of self-induced torpor in Solitude. Yet, unlike Harris, who parted from social media to daydream about Kafka, snacks, Wordsworth, Kafka's fiancée and a nudist "swimming through copper-gilt sunset-waves, alone and naked and heading toward no destination," my donkey of a brain plodded back to the one GIF I couldn't quit: the splash of my glasses in that greedy, godforsaken creek.
"I wonder if I could find them," I mumbled, turning on my side.
If Lang were there, narrating the scene from behind a bush, she might have said, "Now our subject, this bearded North American male, has advanced from precontemplation to contemplation, the second step in the Stages of Change, the dominant theoretical model developed by psychologists."
My mind circled back to the scene again. "But how would I find them?"
Lang: "We'll know he's in the third stage, preparation, when he has both good intentions and an actual plan."
She didn't have to wait long. After an hour of speculation and calculation, I opened my eyes. "Holy crow, I think I can find them."
While lacing my boots, thinking through the components I needed for the rescue, this self-delight hardened into a Teutonic imperative: "I must find them."
Behind the bush: a curt nod.
Later, while on a grope through the woods to gather stones, I noticed my headache had subsided. The world's blurriness seemed less personally insulting.
"Change is about finding meaning that justifies discomfort," Lang narrates, following at a clinical distance, "which itself is reduced when we feel we have control."
Not to say I knew this, of course; I was having too much fun.
The next morning, I paddled to the site of my redemption. I'd prepared everything the previous afternoon: a stone ring was set just steps from the water. Around it were piles of dry wood. Beside them were reeds. Using Onstad's comprehensive endnote section, I started the fire I hoped would save me from hypothermia.
Now was the time, as Lang would say, for Step 4: action.
After a few deep breaths, I stripped naked and walked barefoot into the sharp cold of the creek.
As my body adjusted to the still, muddy water that was frozen just weeks ago, I used the reeds to make a grid around the spot where I saw the splash. Walking very carefully, water at my waist, I slicked through the black gruel of the creek bottom, half-inch by half-inch, feeling ahead with my numbed toes.
Hope met every square. Each time I caught what felt like the arm of my spectacles between my big toe and index, I monkey-grabbed it with such bright expectation – only, upon its surfacing, to find that it was another twig.
During his exploration into the addictiveness of modern technology, Harris describes the meditative state I entered into as the "machine zone," which creates, in the words of a cultural anthropologist he interviewed, "a tunnel vision … where you actually lose a sense of your body." When it's directed toward productive ends, Lang views the state in a positive light. For those who develop the ability to focus intently on present goals (e.g., professional athletes), "discomfort – physical, emotional, mental – [isn't] a signal to hesitate or stop … [but] to dig deeper. Try harder." For them, it's an essential ingredient for success.
Again, I didn't know about any of that – I'd been too blind to finish her book.
All I knew was that when my feet started to feel hot and my body shivered, it was time to mark my progress and step out of the water. Coat over my shoulders, I hunched by the fire and slapped my legs and rubbed my hands and when I could feel my feet again, I hung the coat and strode back in.
After the fifth plunge, hours later, as the sun dipped below the tree line, I realized my weekend was ending. I could have gone in again – and would have, certainly – but I was sure help would be called if I didn't meet my ride. The image of rescuers finding a naked, bearded madman splashing inside a real-life Minesweeper grid of muddy reeds was enough to coax me out.
Tanned and strangely refreshed, I crossed the island I'd admired the day before: everything now the tan and umber of a late watercolour by Whistler. Flickering dabs of grey and black crossed the sky. In the distance, a pearly necklace dotted the border between the water and reeds: Squinting, I counted 14 swans.
"All of us want to come alive to the scope and sublimity of the world," Onstad writes near the end of her thoughtful, life-affirming work. Harris agrees: "In the infinitude of nature a solace and truth is projected for us, reflecting and making sensible all the shifting traumas and quandaries that roughen our lives."
As all three authors appreciate, what prevents us from capturing beauty, peace of mind, acceptance of change, is fear. Fear of trauma. Fear of failure. Fear of missing out. It's an old lesson, but one that carries the benefit of repetition.
"We prefer the certain, the well-trodden, the understood," Lang writes. "But nothing new," she reminds us, for those in need of reminding, "has ever come from that terrain."
Grant Munroe's writing has appeared in The Walrus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions and other outlets. He's the founder of the Woodbridge Farm Writers' Retreat in Kingsville, Ont.