Touchstones of a Woman’s Solitary Journey

Janis Gingermountain


What are the longings of a woman over 50 who dreams of living life on the edge? She ponders Mary Oliver’s haunting question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (1) Answers don’t come easily. She intends to live into the questions, stepping out into the unknown, realizing there may not be answers, but more questions.


She desires to experience new things wildly and ordinary things with new eyes. She wants to be able to share insights with others in ways that will spark fresh passions in them. She hopes she will be able to write deeply of mountain shadows, tell profound tales of toads, sing echoing birdsongs, make tantalizing maps, paint a dream. She trusts that often these poems, stories, songs, and paintings will magically be poured through her from an unknown source.


Such a woman names herself wanderer, adventurer, dweller, beginner, poet, hermit, contemplative, even—dare she say it?—mystic.


And yet she is beset by fears. Will her body be strong enough to meet the tests her adventures will bring? Will she summon inner resources needed to survive lonely places? Will she be able to be alone, yet willing to meet the dark night and the uncertain dawn? Will she be afraid that at the very depths of herself, where she has hoped to gather riches, there will be a void? Will she be ready to encounter the holy, to be claimed by the divine?


She decides what she will need for her journeys and sojourns: a hiking stick to keep her surefooted through rocky and twisting passages; journals to record revelations and discernments; a blanket for a cocoon; sustenance (words of those who have gone before and who go now); her heart, open to holy sights and mysterious sounds, from shadows of horses in the fog to the motorcycle whir of a hummingbird.


She’s as ready as she’ll ever be. There’s no time to lose. She’s hearing a call to leave her known world, open to whatever comes. It takes courage to enter the unknown, losing sight of her life as it has been. She’s a boat leaving behind a beloved, sheltered, shore. Such leave-taking involves abandoning compulsions to do, to accomplish, in favor of being useless, idle. Mary Oliver captures the essence of what it means to let go, dwell, just be:


“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.


I do know how to pay attention, how to
fall down


Into the grass, how to kneel down in the


How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll
through the fields,


Which is what I have been doing all day.


Tell me, what else should I have done?” (2)


In her backpack the wandering woman has packed some sharp tools. “Beginner’s mind” is one, being willing to look at and listen to the world as if she is experiencing it for the first time. Seeing deeply, giving absolute attention to the things of this earth, is a tool she’ll keep honed always. Like the poet, May Sarton, she will embrace Simone Weil’s mantra, “Absolute attention is prayer.” Annie Dillard, in such nature memoirs as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (3) looks closely, microscopically, at a weasel, finding that, as she does, revelation takes place. Sister Joanmarie Smith claims that in such looking, one finds that the entire creation is drenched with holiness.


Rapt attention draws the solitary adventurer into a world of seeing differently, of being more and more in touch with the holy. Whether she simply sits still, or walks in her own garden, on a mountain trail, or in a completely different culture, she comes to realize that each spot on earth can be the holy space she has sought.


Christina Baldwin, who guides women in journaling their solo journeys, says, “We engage the experience of solitude in order to touch our innermost being at the point where the self touches the divine… Sacred presence occurs beyond words in moments of awe and unity, and most often when the self is dipped deeply in solitude… Solitude brings us into relationship with the Divine mystery.” (4)


Walking on holy earth teaches the solitary woman that a sacred landscape can indeed be hidden within the physical landscape. Celtic wisdom holds that when the veil between the physical and the spiritual world is lifted, one can step across and enter the world beyond. “To know the unknown, to see the invisible, to hear the inaudible, and to feel the ineffable,” John Fox says, “is the essence of mystical experience.” (5)


Living a life close to the earth, watching and listening for the mysterious happenings that lead her into sacred essence, the solo woman journeyer begins to collect her own stories of ordinary places, favorite places, magical places: stories that weave her soul to the landscape. These are stories she’s glad to share, for they help others experience their own sacred places and identify journeys they feel called to take. Kathleen Dean Moore (6) is such a storyteller. She wanders in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, looking closely at fog, winter geese, creek water boiled for tea, delving into the hidden meanings of her encounters, and in her essays taking the reader right along with her.


The solitary woman feels a deep call to go. Something within pulls her to an island, a wetland, a grove of cedars. At other times she doesn’t know exactly where she is going. She doesn’t have to know, really, what she is doing in order to begin. She just begins, and the stepping-out itself teaches her what she needs to know. The rest of the story is rich with her inspired findings: handfuls of mystery, pocketfuls of birdsong, backpack loaded with moon- and star-dust, memories of wood smoke. And on and on she goes.


1) From “The Summer’s Day” by Mary Oliver
2) Ibid.
3) Also Teaching a Stone to Talk and Holy the
4) from “Solo Dancing on the Spiral Quest.”
5) from Finding What You Didn’t Lose, page
6) from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker