#14 An Ode to Solitude
It's not so bad 🕊
Hola mi amigos!
How art thou?
This week I am thinking and writing about solitude.
Not being lonely or being bereft in your solitariness. Just the state of it and perhaps the importance of it.
I hope you’re enjoying your self, wherever thou art.
Lots of love,
A picture I took, alone (but surrounded by people).
I’m a relationship person. I like having someone to text photos of flowers to, someone to complain to, someone to snore beside. I sleep best knowing a person other than my parents and sister would be really sad if I died.
But this mollusc stickiness for skin contact is not confined to one type of relationship, it extends beyond the romantic to the platonic. I like feeling connected to the people I love; let’s talk, let’s walk, let’s drink, tell me everything.
Partly this is who I am, some kind of emotional vampire who feeds off the energy of others. And partly it’s probably that I just don’t love being alone.
Earlier this year, I moved into an apartment with a friend. Away from the comfort of my partner (the person I snore beside!) and into a sunlit art deco room of my own, a la Virginia Woolf. Not because we were breaking up but just because.
I took my favourite paintings and my flax linen bed sheets. My Paddington bear and all of my clothes. I dragged IKEA totes full of vintage clothes and knickknacks and cooking utensils up the stairs, hung paintings on the wall and threw down a rug.
I tell you this to give some context as to how, only at 31 and still in a long-term relationship, I’m spending more time alone than I have in a very long time. I go on walks alone, get coffees alone, sometimes eat dinner alone and just the other day I drove to the airport and flew on a plane alone.
These are small things, I know, but when I move through the world by myself, especially when I do things where I’m used to having someone with me; to drive on the Western Ring Road while I scream “bear left!”, to mind my bag while I go to the loo or to look across at as I slurp noodles, I am struck by the obviousness of my individuality. As I wrote in An Ode to Loneliness, sometimes this feeling is frustrating and kind of sad. I feel limited by the constraints of myself as a single unknowable, small person. Confined by flesh and bone. But the more I spend time alone, it’s becoming closer to a state of observation and moving further from a state feeling. Wow, ok, I’m alone in my bed. And I stretch out to take up more space.
I realise that for single people this might sound kind of odd, because being alone in bed happens all the time. But for me it’s new. And a novelty.
Throughout my life, I have often observed in myself a societal fear of solitude manifest, a conflation with extroversion at the cost of spending quality time with myself. The frenetic pursuit of colour and noise.
Do you sometimes take your phone to the bathroom? Do you always listen to a podcast or make a call when you’re on a walk? Do you eat dinner out alone, ever? How much of your life is spent in quiet solitude? If your answer to these questions is yes, yes, no and barely a moment of it, then, same.
In a piece in the Atlantic called The Virtues of Isolation, the author writes “humans have long stigmatized solitude. It has been considered an inconvenience, something to avoid, a punishment, a realm of loners. Science has often aligned it with negative outcomes.”
In the piece, Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist says solitude is “more devalued than it has been in a long time.” As evidence, he points to a study conducted by the University of Virginia in which 25% of women and 67% of men chose to subject themselves to an electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that solitude is so thickly linked to punishment; we send misbehaving children to sit alone in their bedrooms, we put misbehaving prisoners in solitary confinement. The message is clear; your own company is a bitter pill.
But science is beginning to discover that although loneliness is sick making, there are therapeutic benefits to solitude; being alone can be good for you. Or at least not being alone enough can be bad for you.
Solitude, as in, voluntary alone time that has the potential to be enjoyable, gives you the opportunity to think about your life, who you are and the way you feel about things. The quietness of a walk alone, or time spent blankly staring out the window on the train, can give you the space to process and explore things in ways that constant consumption of other voices cannot.
An item on my lifelong to do list, one I suspect will never be ticked off, is ‘cultivate a relationship with myself’. As someone who has spent a lot of time gleefully distracting myself with the needs and inclinations of other people, this item has mostly remained unaddressed.
But in moving out for geographical reasons, I found that a sparkly biproduct has been time spent alone.
Like the writing I do for this newsletter, I think in being with myself more often, I’m undertaking the kind of practice that hopefully leads to improvement. It’s a muscle I’m flexing, so that one day I can be the kind of person who doesn’t confuse being alone with being lonely.
Last week, I did my regular looping walk around the park and then wandered down Chapel street. It was a busy Thursday night, boys with pierced helixes sucked on vapes and families laughed over charcuterie boards. I was wondering what to have for dinner, and not feeling lonely but definitely feeling alone.
I walked into a Vietnamese place to order some takeaway pho. I considered all the plastic (the bag, the various bowls and tubs) and the way I would probably have to microwave it when I got home, how there wouldn’t be enough Vietnamese mint. So, I said, “I’ll just eat here.” And then I sat down and looked at the wall, at the staff as they poured drinks, at passers-by as they looked at the menu. It’s really not so bad I thought, as I splashed my way through noodles and broth. More lemon, more mint, more hoisin.
After I’d finished, I walked around for a little bit and then sat on the grass in Prahran Square and watched pink clouds roll across the sky like sheets of opal. It wasn’t purposeful alone-ness, going to a yoga class or drinking a coffee on your lunch break, or going on a run. It was flaneur-y, juicy, shapeless aloneness that kind of stretched out and had no reason.
And as I walked home in the muted light of dusk, I thought about how nice my night had been, perfect really, and how I’d been alone the whole time.