Tag Archives solitude

On Solitude

Martina Franca, Italy, 2021

It’s Grandpere’s fault, really. He was the one pouring the wine, conversing about religion and attempting to share his wisdom; he was the one who confuddled my mind with his counterintuitive beliefs and suggested that I read Jung. Jung, whose name I daren’t pronounce because my tongue fights my brain, and it always comes out wrong. It took some time, but eventually, when I was living in Chile, I did read The Essential Jung: Selected Writings and I knew Grandpere had been right.

Such individuals as Jung, who wrote some time ago and whose thoughts are often bound in the language of their field, a field which has developed since they were writing, can be a bit tricky to read. But the book I read was compiled and introduced by Anthony Storr, who made Jung’s writings accessible, giving a context for the development of the idea, an explanation amid the confusion, and holding out a guiding hand so that one was never lost for long.

Hence, when I came across his book, Solitude, I recognized the name Anthony Storr. I didn’t hesitate to make the purchase. It, after all, promised to provoke thought, or that seductive act of thinking, the peeling back, the scrying in the mirror, the steady pondering, the feeling of achieving insight without doing anything or going anywhere. In other words, his was a book written to cater to that need I have, which Grandpere recognized in me, to build complexity within my mind.

As much as being a book about solitude, it was a book about creativity. Imagination, that most precious gift, flows in the space of solitude. Precious, and dangerous. We also fear our imaginations. So frequently do they get carried away and led us into fantasies we should not give credence, and so well they hook us, pull us deep; they tangle our emotions and create a font of uncertainty, where reality and experience blur with dream. Anxieties feed on imagined fears: the preoccupation that someone we care about might judge us as lesser than we would like; that our actions may be seen as quirks; that we may be being tolerated rather than loved; that somehow a minute mistake, like the flap of a butterfly’s wing, might lead to the crumbling of our walls.

We take reality and believe it as fragile as imagination.

But to imagine can be to heal, to believe in a possibility which is beyond the current circumstance, to realize that each moment is transient, that it too will pass, to see that everything around us continues to evolve, to change, to come and go and that there is hope. Storr frequently refers to creatives, who drew sustenance from their solitude, who turned away from the crowd and into themselves to find the order they could not find elsewhere. How frightening, perhaps?

I can hear it sometimes in people’s voices, the urge to connect, to communicate and envelop myself within society. And this makes me laugh. I wonder what terrible thing will happen by my not speaking to a soul for a few hours. Maybe I will disintegrate? I laugh because I do not think myself shy, and although I can come across as sometimes unsure, this is more frequently because I am slow adjusting to a new culture or the dynamics of a varied social group, or the speed of the language flowing back and forth that hits me like a jet.

There are many people who are afraid of striking up conversations, concerned that they might be rejected in some form, or cross an invisible social line they cannot see. They become paralysed in their seats, uncertain of how to introduce themselves. Filled with adrenaline, they might rush through the preliminaries and stumble into silence. All of this is true for me. I might ask the wrong question. I might mispronounce a name. I might give off the wrong impression. Or maybe interrupt something I shouldn’t. Away from the English world, I start sentences I cannot end and fail to understand the answers to the questions I ask.

Thankfully, I don’t seem to care very much. I love people. I love my friends, my family, the students who fill my days with their entertaining conversation, the chap in the grocery store who is teaching me the names of the vegetables, the waitress in the café who insists there are better things than croissants, the Senegalese woman who asks for my money, but shows more gratitude for my asking where she calls home than the coin I give. I love a life full of people, full of conversation. But I also love solitude.

I love reading books which tear at the heart, composing sentences of my own, placing words together and weaving a line. I love listening to classical music I don’t understand and wandering unknown streets. I love sitting on park benches painting in my sketchbook and time alone in a café, notebook in hand, taking the time to reflect and compose my life so that it’s the life I want to lead.

I love solitude, and I need solitude, and with solitude in my life, I feel more loving.  

Anthony Storr wrote a long book. He talked about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and Isaac Newton and Henry James. But he ended with the idea that:

The happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation.

Solitude, Anthony Storr

I cherish both, but to build the skills I want to build, I need the concentration and the space that solitude provides. I need the freedom to go deep, to focus free from everyday distraction. And then I’ll pour that glass of wine, rustle up a meal to share, and with laughter and joy be that social being I also am.

On Solitude

The valley. Yes, that’s the Mediterranean down there. Sicily, November 2016.

The heavy rain that woke me this morning ceases and is replaced by fine droplets,  barely visible to the eye, but there’s a quivering in the light between my window and the dark hedge telling me that it’s still falling. The sky is the sort that photographers detest. It’s one solid pale grey block. It’s not that it lacks character, dull can be a character trait too, but it’s so consistent that it gives nothing to draw the eye. There’s no spontaneity. The rain will keep falling and the sky will stay grey and not even the wild cat will show up today. She’ll be hiding somewhere safe and dry.

Last week, curled up in my father’s rocking chair in front of the roaring fire, I felt a sudden pull of nostalgia for the two weeks I spent in the south of Sicily. It was the fire that did it. I stayed in Sicily, near a town called Noto at the end of November in 2016 and although during the day there was frequently warm sunshine, in the evenings the temperature suddenly dropped. We had no central heating and the electricity was limited. If it had been sunny in the morning, we might get enough energy through the solar panel to run the washing machine, but dinner would have to be eaten by candlelight.

For some, such an environment might feel somewhat limiting, but for me it was a remarkable moment of quiet. A quiet that I desperately needed. In the evenings I’d take a book from the library and curl up in one of the guest bedrooms where I’d light a fire in the wood burning stove and contentedly read, write or stare at the flickering flames. Contentedly alone.

Staring at our fire here, lit because the windows had to be propped open as they’d just been varnished, I couldn’t help but think about Sicily and the perfectness of those quiet, solitary evenings.

Some people, I know, hate being alone. It makes them uncomfortable. They actively avoid solitude. I’m not sure what it is they fear or dislike about being alone with themselves, and I guess it’s something I’ll never quite understand, but still they talk of being alone with great distaste. Other people cling to their isolated-ness as an identity. As if somehow being able to survive being with themselves somehow makes them not need a thriving active social life. I fall into neither category. It’s the combination of quiet moments of solitude and comfortable connection with people I love that make me thrive.

That evening, in front of our fire, I picked up my Sicilian diary from the bookshelf and flicked through it, wondering what I had written about. I’m not sure what I expected, maybe that my diary would be me writing all about me. That I’d be self-pitying or excessively analytical. It wasn’t. In my diary I write about the flames, how the logs burnt and the heat warmed my skin, I quote passages from the books I’m reading and muse upon the writer’s thoughts. There’s a long paragraph where I’m sitting out on the patio in the sunshine watching a lizard devouring a grasshopper, I record the battle with an obsessive fascination which falls into a contemplation of the act of dying and how the grasshopper fought back.

Page after page, I write about the steam in the shower and the sun on my skin. I write about arguing with a god I don’t believe in. I write about the beat of the hammer falling in the yard of the villa the far end of the valley where a Sicilian man laboured.

And I’m not normally the nostalgic type, but sometimes when life is busy all around me, I think of the incredible quiet that I felt those few days in Sicily. And I long to go back to it.

Here, meanwhile, the rain continues to fall.

A hazy summer: thoughts on solitude

By Posted on Location: 4min read
A road somewhere near the El Tatio geyser field near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020.

I have a few days alone. I like having some time to myself. I sing songs from musicals, using parts of my vocal range which would otherwise never sound and keep myself entertained. And yet, whilst I value the quiet as a precious necessity should I want to be a sane contributor to society, I do not deceive myself and believe that being alone is a comfortable experience.

Sometimes it is; sometimes I stamp my foot and get angry. There’s nobody else’s voice around, just the thoughts that bob in my mind, clashing up against one another. I can make a choice, either to be miserable with the situation or to be more tolerant of being me and show myself some love.

Which is where the real value of having some time alone comes in. For me, its necessity comes from the inevitable discomfort it brings. The day stretches out in front of me, and there is nobody else but me to fill it. My actions will be judged by nobody but myself.

Often when the opportunity of solitude arises, I choose to take a deeper look in the mirror and I choose to follow or wrestle the thoughts which have tripped me up in previous months. So when I first headed to Valparaiso, alone, I focused on why Christmas proved so emotionally challenging. It’s easy to assume that the obvious answer is the only answer, but it is rarely so. I was ratty the entire week because of an accumulation of stresses.

However, what for me was worse was how irrational it made me feel. The irrationality itself is much more threatening to me than any homesickness. Overwhelming irrationality is something I associate with my memories of mental illness. A fog of emotion blinds you, making sensible thought impossible.

In such situations, the first step is to recognise I am thinking in a delusional manner. The second is to accept that it’s defensive and that in some way or another, I feel threatened. The third step is then to focus on doing kind, loving things for myself. This includes calling the right person to listen to my needs, someone who is going to have the guts to speak to me bluntly and honestly and whose love for me isn’t conditional on me saying the right thing. By this I most often mean my sister.

Later I can return to consider why my defences have been triggered.

It is incredible how difficult it is to do any of these steps, but I have come to the decision, with the help of my moments in solitude, where I have time to reflect upon my hiccups, that this is the only method that works for me. When my mind’s a mess, there’s no point pushing onwards, I have to stop and slow down. If I don’t, I will hurt people.

One of my missions this weekend is to write out again my self-care instructions. This is where I list exactly what I need to do to ensure that I am healthy, safe and cared for. This isn’t mad, it’s how to survive my madness. This process is how I grow resilience as part of my everyday life.

It might sound excessive, but it seems, to me, a small effort to go to if I am going to avoid having a relapse into any emotional prison. I live in a country undergoing a social uprising, a long way from any long-term friend or family. I can’t afford to not be resilient and this simple method works for me.

I was particularly inspired to rewrite these instructions and think my process through from scratch, because of a conversation I had with a prison psychologist recently. He said one of the shocking things about the female inmates was how ugly they let themselves become. He was referring to the lack of self-care they showed themselves. How they gained weight in prison and abused their flesh, not bothering to show themselves any love.

My choice is to be better prepared for when the inevitable bad days happen. To have a series of habits and routine activity which keep me from getting too lost. Have a guide as such, so that I automatically know to make the phone call to someone with the capability to listen. Having days or weeks of emotional fog is part of the human condition. It doesn’t make me, or anyone else a lesser person. we do the best we can. However, it does pay to be prepared.

With such preparation, my defences take on a different appearance. They are no longer merely impulses, amid the chaotic thoughts bombarding my mind, I have some rational, safe mechanisms for looking after myself.

This well worth a few days of not always comfortable solitude and a bit of hard thinking.