Cultivating a knack for solitude.
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer
“I want to be left alone,” Greta Garbo famously said, and from that one innocuous sentence sprang up a pop culture mythology she could never overcome. Ever after she was the solitary muse, the mysterious introvert, the one person who needed nobody else.
But probably if she’d been given the chance to clarify, she would have explained that solitude can be a gift, a welcome respite, a chance to dream and plan and evolve. She wasn’t asking so much to be by herself all the time, she was asking simply declaring a preference for voluntary seclusion.
I’ve been catching up on Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach, and for the last several entries, solitude has been the focus: finding the time to be alone, and discovering just how deliberate isolation can enrich us and make our social interactions more enjoyable and constructive.
The first key to solitude is balance. “We must move to a higher octave or a lower one,” explains Ban Breathnach, “ whichever is necessary to finding the delicate balance between our deepest personal passions and our commitment to family, friends, lovers and work.”
During my 20s, I basically had no boundaries. I said “yes” to every invitation and overextended myself with extra class assignments, overtime shifts at work, pet sitting, house sitting…you name it. Once I hit my 30s, I started to notice a pattern: weeks of manic movement, followed by days of exhaustion and hibernation. And when I couldn’t justify my need for “alone time” (as my friends called it) – or didn’t respect what my psyche’s need to recharge in private – mother nature would jump on in and I’d end up with the flu, or strep throat, or whatever bug was making the rounds.
Initially, I carved out Sundays as “my day.” I started off with an elaborate breakfast for one, and then spent the rest of the day doing whatever I wanted: a movie matinee, a ramble through discount stores or craft suppliers, reading on the beach, an afternoon hike, anything that came to mind. At first, my friends and family were confused by my sudden unavailability. I’d get invitations to a concert, a festival, a cocktail hour, and I’d regretfully decline.
“Sorry, but Sunday is my day.”
Then the teasing started, “Oooh. Your day. How special!”
Then the cajoling, “Come on…you had last Sunday all to yourself.”
Then the demands for an explanation, “I don’t understand, why can’t you do something?”
Eventually I learned that the less information I doled out, the more my declinations were accepted without complaint. I stopped declaring Sunday’s as off limits, and instead focused on snatching moments alone whenever possible. That’s still my primary modus operandi…although every now and then I run out of vague explanations and obscurations resort to the truth.
“I just need to by myself.”
Now some of us our introverts and some of us extroverts, and I’ve discovered that it’s often hard for one to understand the other. I’m an introvert with social tendencies, and so I confuse most people; I love hanging out with friends, but can only recharge when no one else is around. If you’re an extrovert, solitude may feel like torture, and silent hours spent by yourself may leave you feeling like you want to crawl out of your skin, or flee to the nearest networking mixer. But don’t discount the benefits of ditching the crowd and spending time alone – after all, the relationship you have with yourself is the one relationship that will stick with you life, best get comfortable.
“It’s impossible to experience solitude regularly for any extended length of time without personal passions and authentic longings surging to the surface of your awareness,” promises Ban Breathnach. “Once you have embarked on the search for your own authentic style, followed the wisdom of your own heart and have seen the results begin to blossom in your life, you realize that solitude cracks open the door that separates two worlds: the life we lead today and the life we yearn for so deeply.”
Of course, the simplest and most enjoyable way to spend your solitary hour or hours in on the infamous artist’s date. I’ve described some of my own solo adventures in this blog – a museum opening, a hike amongst spring flowers, even a trip to a cemetery. In the end it’s not about what you do, it’s how you do it: by yourself.
“Be patient,” advises Ban Breathnach. “Take comfort in knowing that even stolen moments of solitude – quarter hour increments – eventually can add up to a lifetime of serenity. Be patient. Don’t expect too much too soon.”
If you’re wondering where to begin, Ban Breathnach has a great suggestion – write down ten solitary pleasures. If you can’t think of ten, cast your mind back to your childhood – what did you do when you were a ten year old tasked with entertaining yourself while the adults mingled? What about those early college years, when friendships were transitioning and Fridays were suddenly empty of plans and parties? What about that first weekend after you moved in to your own place, sans roommates, or that first six-hour journey across the interstate? What did you do the first time you found yourself waiting to board your plane? And if you still can’t come up with ideas, then just use your imagination – what would it be like to be all by yourself, right now – no responsibilities, no judgments, just you and an hour of unclaimed time?
Here’s my list:
Hunting for seashells at sunset.
Playing fetch with my cat and watching her chase bottle caps up and down the stairs.
Hiking on a cool Saturday morning.
Picking the latest veggies and fruit at the Tuesday night Farmers Market.
Sipping a latte at a sidewalk café in a foreign city.
Visiting an art gallery on a weekday afternoon.
Sitting on a surf board out past the wave break, rocking gently to the rhythm of the swells.
Washing, waxing and amateurishly detailing my car.
Catching up on a TV show with an old fashioned Netflix streaming marathon.
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