The Fear and Beauty of Solitude

It was a cool October day and I was sitting on my favorite bench in my favorite garden in Pittsburgh—a little slice of green tucked in the side of the corner lot under a series of stained-glass windows lining the east wall of the synagogue.  Beyond the walls, the busy intersection loomed; but inside I breathed in all the green.

I came to Squirrel Hill today to search for gluten-free bread to serve for our weekly chapel service at my seminary. I’d said I would check out a new bakery, in part, so I could come and sit in my favorite garden. The tidy hedges and vivid flowers provided me a kind of silence I looked forward to in the midst of a busy life with small children and attending seminary. As I ate my scone, the crumbs scattered under the stone bench. I was thankful for the opportunity to enter a space of peace. God felt near and prayer came easily.

Four years after my last visit to the garden, a friend texted, “Active shooter in Squirrel Hill, near Tree of Life, prayers needed.”  It was a clear fall day and I was at home with my four younger children, sitting in my kitchen, trying to reflect on scripture. I’d graduated from seminary four years earlier and had moved to Des Moines a year after. Prayer no longer came easily. Finding a church where our large, awkward family fit had come to feel interminable. The solitude I’d craved felt like a weight I couldn’t carry. I was fumbling, on the brink of falling.

I spent the morning glued to the news. Every image of Tree of Life brought me to tears: for those who died, for my beloved Pittsburgh, for the space I’d associated with deep joy, and for my own current displacement. I longed to be back there, mourning with my friends, trying to help them find the words to say in their sermons. Here in Des Moines, people knew it was happening, but life was generally marching on, as it had been for three years. But somehow I hadn’t been able to join in.

The kids and I managed to head over to the new playground.  I stared off, nursing the baby on the bench, while the kids ran around the bright climbing structure. A teenage couple held hands across from me. I wondered what was happening in Pittsburgh, if there had been any new developments.

Later, after stocking up on books from the library, we piled out of the car and settled down for an afternoon of reading. The house was still as I changed the baby’s diaper, but I heard the door close. Assuming my four-year-old daughter Emily had gone outside to ride her scooter, I decided to follow her and sit outside with my book. She wasn’t outside when I got there. Running, I asked the other kids if they’d seen her. Their heads shook. We looked up and down the house, calling for her. Nothing. In addition to panic, I was crushed by solitude. Who was going to help me look for her?

Against my better judgment, I ran to the house of a neighbor I didn’t know very well—a younger guy; he’d only moved in recently.  He was there with a young woman and they were formally dressed. “My daughter is missing,” I shouted, not knowing what else to say. “What was she wearing?” they asked. “I can’t remember, but I know she was only wearing one sock,” I said, panicked.

These neighbors, nearly strangers, started a search party around the neighborhood. Within minutes, people had fanned out and were looking for her. A friend of mine showed up. She was confident Emily was hiding somewhere in the house, so she sent her daughter to look inside.  I started crying. I imagined her disoriented by the missing sock. Suddenly: “I found her!” a voice shouted from the garage, “She was hiding behind the recycling bin, covered in leaves.” My friend’s daughter said, laughing.  

I tearfully scooped her up, sobbing. She looked at me and said, “I wanted to be alone.”  My neighbors moved in, swapping tales of their own children lost in grocery stores, playgrounds, and fairs.  Receiving their funny stories and hugs, I couldn’t even be embarrassed for the false alarm. I sobbed, hit with grief again—for my daughter, for Pittsburgh. Yet on the edge there was gratitude for neighborly kindness  There were no words, only tears.

Typically God took my version of reality and loved me into salvation through others.  I wish God would always speak to me in the stillness of beautiful gardens or walking alone or reading my Bible.  God does, of course, but profoundly He shows himself when I’m silent basking in the love of others.

Shana Hutchings

Shana Hutchings

Shana Hutchings lives and writes with her family in Des Moines, Iowa.Having grown up in beautiful Anchorage, Alaska, she enjoys finding beautiful places as well as reading, baking, cooking, and exploring her city on foot.
Shana Hutchings

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