The other day I walked into a public restroom, entered a stall and as I turned around to lock the door I heard a young woman next to me carrying on a full conversation. On speakerphone.
So, I did what any ornery, middle-aged woman is obligated to do: I flushed the toilet repeatedly until I heard, “ok, goodbye”.
It was quiet after that.
One could assume this story is about decorum, but I think it’s also about the unwillingness to be alone, even in the toilet. To sit with our own thoughts can be a wildly uncomfortable thing to do, which is exactly why it’s worth doing.
I like to be alone, right up to the point when I get lonely, and then wonder miserably, where did everyone go? Because, of course, my friendships were simply readying themselves for my reemergence. I concede this is a terrible plan.
It’s not a question of disliking people. On the contrary, I enjoy company, but it’s almost always an energy expenditure. Recharging happens solo, or with one, trusted companion.
Save the ten years when I was married, I’ve lived alone most of my adult life. On the rare occasions I had the house to myself, I would roll around like a dog with a carcass.
As a teenager I often spent the day wandering the city, entirely satisfied with my own company. I’ve traveled abroad alone, spent weeks in my camper by myself, and still leave large blocks of time unscheduled just to think my own thoughts.
Solitude suits me (until it doesn’t), which is why it surprised me when I didn’t immediately slip back into blissful aloneness during my New Mexico trip. After a particularly lovely four day visit from my boyfriend, I had an awful time being happy by myself.
I spent three days missing him, and being frustrated with myself for not being able to reap the benefits of scheduled alone time. Instead, I was agitated and supremely lonely. I wondered, had I lost the skill altogether? Was I a different person now that I had a relationship?
Being alone is a complicated pleasure. It takes effort to get to the good stuff. It takes wading through the loneliness, the uncomfortable questions that arise when no one is there to distract you. The doubts about your worth (am I likable if no one is here?). We are pack animals at heart.
I kept up with my activities, visiting all the spots on my itinerary and more, silently lamenting my discontent.
On day four I woke up with a song in my heart. I knew before I opened my eyes I was going to have a great day. I spent the day splashing at a local swimming hole, eating tacos from a gas station, writing in my journal, and laughing endlessly at my own jokes. Heaven.
If enjoying solitude is entirely foreign to you, I suggest starting small. Maybe, go to the bathroom without carrying on a conversation? Take a walk. No phone, no music. Build on that.
My mind is a secret garden, one worth nurturing and protecting. I arrive at my best self after time alone. It creates space to think and time to take action on what matters to me.
We don’t all need to do the same things to live a satisfying life. Certainly, loneliness is a problem with the atomized way we live. Being hyperconnected hasn’t fixed this problem. Perhaps being deliberate in our alone time, and in our relationships is a more sane path forward.
The world could use more people who can quietly sit with themselves, and then be fully present for us.