The Consolation Of Solitude

“I vont to be alone”, Swedish-born film star Greta Garbo is reputed to have said.  It’s all I remember of her. Never saw any of her films; didn’t understand the mystique surrounding her. I thought she was odd. Did she marry? Have a lover? Have children? I’d no idea, but her desire to be alone seemed an aberration. I was young then. It would be a long time before I understood.

 Many, many years after first hearing that deep intoning of Ms. Garbo’s desire I was sitting on the sofa in my living room flipping through a lightweight magazine. The title of a column about the secret to long-lasting marriages caught my attention. One older gentleman, asked how he successfully managed to sustain a sixty-year relationship with his wife said, without missing a beat, “Leave ‘em alone.” And that, as far as he was concerned, was the secret; all you needed to know. He wasn’t joking. I thought he was just a crabby old man, glad for the opportunity to get off his chest the weight of being shackled to a wife for a very long time. But, in retrospect, maybe hidden in that terse comment was a bit of wisdom, born of paying close attention to his wife of many years. Or maybe he wasn’t all that wise but had been taught by his [doubtless] patient wife that relationships need space–room to grow. His tendency was to cling. Hers was to claim for herself what she needed to thrive – time alone. And so they were able to keep going for 60 years.

I get it now. And so does my husband of 38 years. He’s figured out, with a little help, that I’ve a strong need for solitude. Alone, released from active concern about doing, I drift. My mind wanders and wonders at will. I pay attention to what lies beneath the chatter and busyness of my life. Solitude:

Where I take stock of my life

Where I learn what I think, believe

Where I imagine, create

Where I replenish

Where I rest.

In solitude is where I am most myself.

We are born with two imperatives: to survive and to thrive. The Coronavirus continues to threaten our survival. My survival depends as much on others’ responsible behavior as on my own. And I will thrive only if I call on my talents to make the most of what is possible and permitted. It has never seemed so necessary; so urgent to do so.  During this time of isolation and withdrawal from the distractions of life before the pandemic I am going deeper. I am grateful for the consolation of solitude, wherein I learn what I need and must do in order to thrive. It seems counterintuitive that my contribution to the world requires a periodic withdrawal. It requires quiet and time. It is where I gain access to truth. And that is what I need most of all.

Interconnecting Circles

Pat Gallagher
I come from
– the cramped cottages of Ireland. From the illiterate Ballyshannon drayman who by dint of sheer hard work and an educated wife became a prosperous member of polite society. From the daughter of a mill owner who found refuge in San Francisco and taught her husband to read and write.

I come from
– the fields and fjords of Norway. From the Captain of the barque Ellen who perished at sea, leaving his 17-year old son to sail on to California; from the Rogaland farmer who raised ten children and watched as six daughters, one-by-one, made their way to America.

I am
– a descendant, a mother, a grandmother, a wife, a sister, an aunt, a teacher.

I am
– a writer, the chronicler of family history; the keeper of stories.

#Pat Gallagher


  1. Loren Neumann - June 13, 2021 @ 1:18 pm

    Pat, you’ve been an immensely important person in my husband’s life, long before I ever arrived on the scene. But more importantly from my perspective, you’ve been an inspiration and a bottomless well of wisdom for the past two plus decades that I’ve had the privilege of calling you a dear friend. I am so grateful. This essay certainly validates a lot about me that I didn’t need a pandemic to point out and I thank you for the confirmation that I’m not unique in this manner!

  2. Jo Moorhouse - April 12, 2021 @ 9:10 pm

    Having such a lonely childhood – I never learned to value solitude.
    This helps. Thank you.

    “Here is feast of solitude
    A fiddler grim and tall
    Plays to dancing kings and wives
    Assembled in the hall
    Of lost, long, lonely times
    Fairy Sibil flying
    All along the all along
    the Mountains of the Moon”

  3. Diane Wedner - March 18, 2021 @ 4:57 pm

    I am — impressed! And grateful for your essay. I’m a notably gregarious person, yet after a lifetime of living with family, including my husband of 37 years, I never thought I would embrace solitude as much as I do now. To my surprise–and with a touch of guilt–I recently experienced a fleeting wave of regret that as the social door inches open once again, my time of forced isolation will slowly recede. It goes without saying that I’m thrilled we’re getting vaccinated! And resuming some normalcy is welcome. But I have to admit that I have benefited, over the course of the pandemic, from having almost every weekend free to read, walk, think, grieve–nap! Maybe I’ve learned a good lesson from this time of forced isolation: Arrange time alone, just as I arrange concert, dining and other dates. It’s a gift. Di

  4. Gavin Gallagher Jones - March 18, 2021 @ 3:19 pm

    I, a son, among other people, to the author of this piece, agree. Here, in this marked and required field, I find myself a beanstalk Irish, glottal stopped Norwegian weed who has an affinity for solitude and the un-named places where, struck by DNA, I reside. The older I become, the more useful the past seems. I ask my mother what happened, who is who, is this all a merrily dream? She sends me socks and books and pieces of biography. I am well to listen and heed.
    Pros: truth
    Cons: truth
    Recommend: Of course, my mother raised no monsters.

  5. Mary Burns - March 17, 2021 @ 1:48 pm


    Your complex ancestry followed me through reflections on the solitude you wrote that you need to live and thrive in this complex world. Seeking quiet and time to ponder–by ourselves–with no apologies–may seem to others like an indulgence, a luxury.. Our ancestors may have said, “Get on with it. There’s work to be done.” But there’s always work to be done, tasks to finish. Being alone to see what truths quiet can bring. is, you say, life saving.

    Thanks for that.

  6. Brendan Jones - March 17, 2021 @ 12:32 am

    I am
    – your son

  7. Ann Berlak - March 16, 2021 @ 10:08 pm

    Pat, my mother used to “vamp” greta Garbo with those very words. Frequently. I always felt she was expressing her dissatisfaction with her life, even though I myself always loved and craved solitude. Until I read your reflection I never saw the contradiction. Thanks.

  8. Jean Rocchio - March 16, 2021 @ 7:31 pm

    I am

    –a friend, an inspiration, an encourager

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