Prompt 244. From Solitary to Surrounded
Remembering Quintin Jones & a prompt inspired by Walt Whitman
I spend a lot of time thinking about how to honor the people who are no longer with us. Because of my citizenship in the kingdom of the sick, and the career I’ve carved out from inside its borders, I’ve known so many people who crossed the river too soon—more than is typical for someone my age.
These last few weeks, my friend Quintin Jones—or Lil’ GQ, as he was called in my book—has been on my mind. He was one of my first readers to write to me, and certainly the first handwritten letter. From death row in Texas where he spent more than two decades, he wrote to me about our shared experience of confinement—him in his prison cell, me in my hospital room. “I know that our situations are different, but the threat of death lurks in both of our shadows,” he said.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Quin was modeling a way to seek and find connection, even within isolation. He showed me how to commune with the outside world and build community through words. Much later I came to understand that, along with the treatments and care from my medical team, finding ways to convert isolation into creative solitude and connection was the most powerful form of healing that I could conjure for myself. It became my ethos, and later the ethos of this community.
Friday, May 19, marked the second anniversary of Quin’s execution. I drove out to my little farmhouse in rural New Jersey that morning, and I spent the day in my garden, since Quin loved gardens and gardening. I also wrote him a letter—another love of his.
I’ve been thinking about this time two years ago and the sense of deep exhaustion that I felt in the days after Quin was executed, which was unlike any exhaustion I’d ever experienced. For the first time in a long time, I allowed myself to rest. I stopped taking the Adderall that I had been prescribed for post-transplant fatigue and ADHD, and I was alarmed to discover without that artificial energy aid, I could barely function.
Of course, what I didn’t know then, was that in allowing my fatigue to come to the forefront, I was glimpsing another truth. I wasn’t just suffering from burnout. It wasn’t just compassion fatigue from those months of advocacy, working long hours on Quin’s clemency plea. I had a marrow-deep exhaustion that felt frighteningly familiar.
I began to worry that I might be sick again both in those moments of solitude and also in conversation with friends. I heard myself saying things identical to what I’d said in the months leading up to my first leukemia diagnosis. Then in early October, I went to Texas, Quin’s home state, to see my husband Jon perform at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and I was so excited to spend time with friends and family. When I found myself barely able to get out of bed in the morning, and succumbing to sleep again at nine o’clock every night, the fears that had flitted through my mind only intermittently suddenly felt omnipresent.
These ideas of solitude and community, of listening to the body, of paying attention to the mind and its rhythms and our need for rest all came up last week at the book launch for Rachel Cargle’s A Renaissance of Our Own: A Memoir and Manifesto on Reimagining. During the event, Elizabeth Gilbert interviewed Rachel and asked her about how in the summer of 2020, when racial justice was coming to the fore and the whole world was looking to Rachel as a leader, rather than getting caught up in some frenetic grinding pace, she slowed down and prioritized rest in a way that felt profoundly radical.
Rachel said she has come to understand that she moves in cycles—that there are times to work hard and times she needs to lie fallow. And in those fallow times, rather than feeling self-recrimination for not being productive, she accepts it as part of the process, as essential as the phases of productivity. As she said that night, quoting the therapist Nedra Tawwab, “Sometimes stuck is just still.”
I have been thinking about that in the context of my own life. I often judge fatigue as a fault. Immediately I begin spiraling, thinking “What’s wrong with me?” I look over my shoulder, comparing myself to those people who are putting out a book every year. (Who are those people anyway? If you’re out there, go ahead and share your secrets.) Or I hold myself up to some totally time-sanitized version of a past self who had endless energy—which by the way, I’m pretty sure was never the case. So right now, I’m trying to honor my rhythms, and to find ways to rest, both in solitude and in community, and to listen to what emerges.
With all this in mind, today I’m sharing a poem with you by the one and only Walt Whitman, called “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” and a prompt inspired by it. I hope it gives you a chance to meditate on your own relationship to solitude and connection, to think about what nourishes you, and to honor your need for one or the other—or most likely, a little of both.
Letters to Calvin
On Thursday, I sent out the latest installment of my advice column Dear Susu, “Shame Shepherds and Grace for Fuck-ups.” I called in the very wise Nadia Bolz-Weber to help me answer this question from Calvin, who has spent more than half his life in prison: “How do I get out of my own way so that I can write what needs to be written most?” One reader called it “five years of therapy in one letter,” and I hope it’s the same for you.
For those who read it and were moved by Calvin’s words, I wanted to include his address, in case you want to write to him. When Calvin was 18, he was convicted of multiple armed robberies, and though no one was physically injured, he was given a more than sixty-year prison sentence. His lawyer called it “stomach turning and an egregious example of prosecutorial indiscretion,” and has been working to get him clemency, both through directly petitioning the governor and more holistic legislative advocacy.
In the meantime, Calvin would love to hear from you. If you’re wondering what to write, we have a perfect prompt—called Letter to a Prisoner by the inimitable Mitchell S. Jackson. Calvin’s address is as follows:
Calvin Vines, 1098304
Greensville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870
One other item of note—
Don’t forget—today from 1-2 pm, we’re meeting at the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers, aka our favorite thing all month! Our whole team will be there, and inspired by Calvin, we’ll be meditating on ways to get out of our own way. You can find everything you need to join us here.
Prompt 244. I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing by Walt Whitman
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about where you fall on the spectrum of solitary to surrounded. Do you feel disconnected, in need of more human contact? Do you feel overwhelmed by people and yearn for more solitude? Has your relationship to being in the company of others changed over the years? Or have you just become more attuned to your own needs? If not, how might you?
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
About the poet—
Born in New York in 1819, Walt Whitman is widely considered the father of American poetry. Known for abandoning strict meter and rhyme schemes in favor of free verse, his style was influenced by the cadences and logic of Biblical poetry. Today’s featured poem, “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” was first published in 1860, in Whitman’s famous collection Leaves of Grass—a volume that contained twelve poems when it first appeared in 1855. Over the next four decades, Whitman worked and reworked the collection, expanding it to more than 400 poems by 1892, the year of its final publication and also Whitman’s death.
For more paid subscriber benefits see—
Shame Shepherds & Grace for Fuck-ups, an installment of Dear Susu where I tackle the question, “How do I get out of my own way so that I can write what needs to be written most?”
On Creating Beyond Fear, a video replay of my Studio Visit with the dazzling Elizabeth Gilbert, where we talk about the illusion of purpose and the siren call of creativity and get a tour of her church-turned-cozy-abode
The 30-Day Journaling Project, which explores the art of journaling and all it can contain—available until the end of May!
Thank you for your words. 🙏🏻 I keep feeling that exhaustion is layered like a strudel; we can recognize physical exhaustion, but often less so moral exhaustion, exhaustion borne of ancient and ongoing injustice and intergenerational trauma, exhaustion that has its roots in cruelty, exhaustion that comes from relentless self-blame. I’m writing a book right now on permission, and while its focus is the creative impulse, I keep thinking that the tentacles of permission are so much more far-reaching: permission to rest, permission to listen to one’s body, permission to show up for oneself, permission to say No. There is so much in your words for which I am grateful, as always.
And I will write to Calvin today.
"I did not begin to live alone till I was forty-five, and had “lived” in the sense of passionate friendships and love affairs very richly for twenty-five years. I had a huge amount of life to think about and to digest, and, above all, I was a person by then and knew what I wanted of my life. The people we love are built into us. Every day I am suddenly aware of something someone taught me long ago — or just yesterday — of some certainty and self-awareness that grew out of conflict with someone I loved enough to try to encompass, however painful that effort may have been." May Sarton