The Other Side of Action: True Solitude

I am one of those people who delights in getting time alone like a child receiving a giant ice cream cone – my eyes widen, I get giddy, and then usually make quite a mess of it but leave the experience satiated, even a little wired.

Things I adore doing alone (rarities for me, as person who cares for a small one):

1. Going to the movies, preferably a matinee.  I’m currently dying to see Gravity, but I think it’s more of a date night movie.

2. Doing the dishes – often where I get my best creative thinking done, oddly enough.

3. Writing – even though I could do my job anywhere with wifi, I usually end up writing in my rocking chair, with candles lit and altars set, listening to the playlist I create every season.

4. Reading – I’m deep into Tana French’s first novel, the inaugural to the Dublin Murder Squad series, In The Woods.

5. Dancing – dance breaks from all of the above activities are frequent and imperative.

6. Walking in cityscapes – window shopping, checking out new graffiti, imagining myself living in different apartments/houses – as long as it’s paved, I’m loving it.

7. Having a drink and reading a book or writing a letter by the dim candlelight of a dusty bar.

I could go on, but the point I’m trying to make is – all of the items in that list have an -ing ending.  I am incredibly talented at doing things alone.  But what about being alone?  Just being?  Sweet Summer Sausages, what’s that?

I first got a bolt of this cognitive dissonance – that my idea of myself as someone who enjoys her own company is totally predicated on constant action – came while reading Equals in Print, the beautiful book that landed in my mailbox this week.


My story, The Last Days of Disco, is printed in this lovely book, but I was eager to read the rest of it, knowing it had been carefully curated by Elisabeth + Miya, the Editors of Equals.  I wasn’t disappointed – each article is well-crafted and subtly beautiful, and you should buy your copy here.

But one piece from Equals in Print Volume 1 has stayed with me far past the first read – The Practice of Solitude by Nina Sovich.  I was instantly assaulted by the pull-quote from the piece, “Most ‘solitary’ activities that American women pursue are actually entertainment or work in disguise.”  At first I was insulted – I love being alone!  It’s a huge part of my coping mechanism, something I fight for and feel restored by.  However, as I read further, I realized I was completely being called out.  “Somewhere deep inside you don’t value solitude and so you are multitasking.”  Bullseye.

In this scenario, I would be painting my toenails, reading a book and a magazine, and planning tonight's dessert in my head.  At least. (Image via Tumblr)

In this scenario, I would be painting my toenails, reading a book and a magazine, and planning tonight’s dessert in my head. At least. (Image via Tumblr)

My daughter’s wave of anxiety at all the changes in her life has transferred to me quite fully, and I am having trouble sleeping.  I’m spreading myself really thin with work and volunteer responsibilities, in addition to the very parent-heavy quality of presence my daughter needs right now.  It’s too much.

This week I got inconveniently, incontrovertibly sick.  I tried to limp through most of my activities anyway, which at times had hilarious results (leaving the flour out of the pumpkin muffins I tried to make with my daughter, signing my own name wrong in work emails, not being able to figure out how to zip up the sleep sack of the toddler I was babysitting), but mostly just made me feel kind of depressed.  And my body kept coming up with new weird symptoms, ways to scream at me GET IN BED, LADY!  So finally, I acquiesced.

I sent an email to a friend who is better at letting go than I am entitled, “How Does One Relax?”  She didn’t reply.  I was stuck with myself.  I figured people take a bath.  So I made myself a smoothie, got my novel and drew a steamy bath.

After awhile, I knew I needed to put down the novel and just soak.  It felt kind of good, like non-being.  “Is this how it feels to be at ease?”  I said aloud, to no one in particular.  I took to carefully shaving my legs.  I was tempted to sing or play music, but I decided I needed to become engrossed in this task of self-grooming.  I recalled how monks engage in the practice of the present moment as a way of praying unceasingly, and tried just to focus on what I was doing, letting myself unknot slowly.  Still, all the thoughts came, but they seemed clearer somehow.

I do recognize the irony of writing to you, dear readers, about learning how to be alone.  But I suppose I need some help.  My husband has been bugging me for awhile now to learn to meditate, but it has seemed … just not for me.  Until now, as I’m realizing that all the ways I know how to relax are actually active, not restful, and not truly solitary.  I’m starting to get it, and I’m going to try it.

I’m also looking for other suggestions, so tell me, how do you manage to simply be with yourself?  Do you find it makes you less or more anxious when you do?  I am making myself sick with activity, so I need some pointers here.  I like myself, but sheesh, not that much.

8 thoughts on “The Other Side of Action: True Solitude

  1. Use the “butt” method. Put your butt in the chair and don’t get up or do anything until the time is right. Maybe start with two minutes. I promise you, two minutes can be forever if you allow your mind to relax. And for now, let me like you enough for both of us. When you come to know you, you will not need that any more. Keep me posted. I am on your side, your team and pulling for you. It’s important work. You are worth it.

  2. Oh I can’t wait to see what people suggest! I don’t know how to be alone with myself! Great to think about!

  3. love it, love you. i really like to stare at walls and listen to music. (although i pretend i do that all the time, that is a little bit a lie). the bath is a real nice one. i like to put on different clothes and try on weird outfits in the mirror. if you wanna practice being alone next to someone else being alone, i’m your girl. i know that sounds like cheating, but i don’t think it is. i find it much easier to sink into the aloneness of being alone when i know someone else is around sinking into their own little thing in a room nearby. oh! i missed my most common one. which is just talking to myself. usually i am just in situations and i talk as one part and the other people i hear in my head. often it tends towards the macabre and/or mundane, but i find that it is deeply relaxing. i love you so, if i were you, i’d want to hang out with just me all the time. 🙂 and. seasonal playlists!? we need to talk.

  4. Being alone has two sides.Thrown into yrs of being alone was very difficult. Then comes being alone and being sick.. it sucks. Then you have someone in your life and the person inside screams, “when are we going to be alone?”Then anxiety kicks in and I can’t go out, but I need to go be with people.I love phone therapy with girlfriends, it helps the balance. Going to hypnotherapy or yes just dancing in my kitchen.WEEEEEE! And I have always loved baths and books. Yeah I need that playlist too, Rhea!!

  5. girl, you know I value my daily bath time. Often I fill it with calling people like you that I need to catch up with. I have also been trying to make myself bring nothing in there- leave the phone in the other room. Do that more. Also, a coffee shop visit without anything along to distract you. It’s still people watching, but a nice way to ease into solitude…love you

  6. Trees.
    When I need to make myself stop for a while, I find a comfortable spot to sit and I watch a tree. In the summer and fall, it is a leafy tree and my eyes notice the patterns in the way the wind wiggles the leaves. It’s like watching the ocean. It’s fascinating and beautiful but not something so complex that you have to think about it. You just have to notice it and go with it and appreciate it.
    In the winter and spring, I watch a bush or shrub, something with birds. The birds come and go, hop from branch to branch, sit together all puffed-up. And as my eyes see these things and my brain focuses on these things, everything else is let go and half an hour later, I feel like I’m someone else, someone all zen-like.

    And I’m glad to see your post because I was getting a bit worried (I like to worry. It’s in a stalker’s nature, you know. Maybe you didn’t. Actually, maybe I just made that up) and was going to pester you to make sure you’re ok but then I didn’t because that’s intrusive and weird and maybe you just wanted to be alone for awhile. I’m glad I kept quiet. And I’m glad to see your writing.

  7. I worked on this very thing alot this summer. I love walking, so I took long walks. Some days I was able to leave my headphones at home, but not all the time.. Some days I could sit in a pretty place for a period of time and just breathe and relax, but not all the time. The best thing about this time was being patient with myself – the act of forgiving my own ineptitude day after day – and allowing myself to choose what it was I really needed/ wanted at any given moment. I’m still at it. It’s an effort.

  8. I am one of those people who cannot get ENOUGH alone time. It’s definitely my preferred mode of being. For me the question is how to be in the company of other people, not the reverse. Reading in bed with my cat is a favorite, but baking or cooking with talk radio is a good one too. Above all else, I am a putterer. Puttering is the most “me” thing I can do besides dancing. What exactly I do when I putter, I couldn’t tell you. I put things away, I move things around, I organize, I stop and read this or that, I listen to music, turn it off, make lists, journal. Lately I have been trying to make a point of laying (lying?) on the floor on my yoga mat and seeing what stretches my body wants to do. I am now realizing that I have been trying too hard to “get out there”, be more social, go do stuff…and I see clearly now that that is not me. It takes a lot of alone time to build up any sort of desire to “get out there” and talk to people when I get paid to do it 8 hours a day. It’s such a f***ing RELIEF to give myself permission to be quiet most of the time. I think that is what is key, anyway: to listen to what your inner self really wants and do your darnedest to release the internalized judgments that whatever that is is somehow not what we “should” be doing.

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