The Inscape

  • Books on My Shelf 2014

Welcome back to SunnyRoomStudio.  During January I’ll be sharing a few more books from my shelf, along with a couple of upcoming Studio Guests.  February is a month of celebration, as it marks the beginning of year 5 in this sunny creative space for kindred spirits.  Launched February 2010, I hope it continues to offer a peaceful and welcoming presence in the world by focusing on something besides headlines, drama, controversy, conflict, and strife.  We are all burdened (and needlessly distracted) by an endless stream of “breaking news” bulletins.  From spirituality to literature, to meditation and reflection, to imagination and creativity, there is a great deal more to life than we are led to believe by popular media and mainstream culture.  So thanks for being here.  I wish all of you the best in the new year.

This week, from my shelf, I selected Fifty Days of Solitude (Beacon Press, 1994) by Doris Grumbach.  Written in the winter, the book seems timely.  But most of all, it’s a wonderful read.

  • Grumbach is the author of eight novels, six books of memoir, and a biography of Mary McCarthy.  Her essay “The View from 90” in The American Scholar (spring, 2011) was from a larger memoir, Downhill Almost All the Way.  (apparently a work-in-progress)
  • Born July 12, 1918, Grumbach also taught at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, and was a contributing literary editor of the New Republic and a nonfiction columnist for the New York Times Book Review.  Since 1985, she has had a bookstore, Wayward Books, in Maine.

I read Fifty Days of Solitude to explore the merits of solitude from another perspective; it was wonderful to read the details of her personal experience.  Chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, she wrote the book when an opportunity to live in solitude presented itself.  Seizing the moment, Grumbach resided in her coastal Maine home for fifty days, rarely speaking to anyone else.  It’s described as “a beautiful meditation about what it means to write, to be alone, and to come to terms with mortality.”

Written during the winter of 1993, the 75-year-old author, teacher, literary critic, surrounded herself with silence and music, with books and an empty journal, with paintings and the view out her window of a bare winter landscape.

According to one description, the book is a memoir of what Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “inscape”: the deep, meandering landscape of an interior life.

  • I found this book at a used bookstore in Columbia, Missouri.  Probably about 1997 or thereabouts.  But like all good books, I’ve never quite forgotten it (or wanted to donate it).

From page 15, “SNOW: In mid January it arrived stealthily during the night while I slept.  The first storm was merely half a foot, but it covered everything except, of course, the gray water of the cove and the protuberant rocks which were now black.  It was as if a curtain had fallen on a colorful stage set and then risen on one entirely devoid of color, with only shapes to break the white monotony.”


I love the word “inscape.”
We complicate life needlessly when we fail to honor our inner world.
When we simply project everything going on within us,
hoping someone or something else can provide all the answers.

Grumbach writes on page 72: “Feeling overwhelmed by what Simone Weil called ‘interior solitude,’ I took a walk along the icy path to the beach, clinging for dear life to my cane in one hand, my pointed stick in the other.  The snow was a perilous disguise for the hard crust that covered the grass, the field, and then the pebbled shore, as though the earth had shrunk into its elderly self leaving this skin of ice to protect it.  I felt threatened by every step.  Wherever I looked there was nothing but hard white surfaces and featureless whitened trees.”

  • Even if you can’t manage 50 days of solitude in the literal sense, winter (depending on where you live) can be a good opportunity to look within.  What stories have you made up about others and the world to soothe your own ego, for instance?  Do you really know the people you have such solid opinions of and about?  Do you have any idea who you are … in the spiritual sense?

This gem of a book closes like this: “Like Don Quixote, I have learned that, until death, it is all life.”

 Thanks for visiting SunnyRoomStudio: a creative, sunny space for kindred spirits.

Looking for book suggestions? 

 I maintain an informal list here in SRS.  See top menu or click here.

 See you again Friday, January 10th. 

I hope you are also digging into your books.  Dusting a few of them off.
Opening to any page to read a passage or a chapter you loved but have forgotten.
Maybe one you skipped over.

 A book is just a book until you read it for the second time.

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