Solitude is a lost art. This is how I learnt to love being alone07/19/2019
I am alone in Paris, for work. Laughter and snatches of chat waft up from the narrow cobbled street, as people exit the elegant sushi bar opposite my hotel. I'm minutes from the Jardin du Palais Royal. The city is mine … yet I dine in my room on a squashed cheese sandwich that survived the journey from London. This is how I squander solitude.
Our relationship with being alone is complex. With busy work and family lives, many of us rarely have a moment to ourselves and yearn for tranquillity. But despite fantasising about peace and quiet, do we seek solitude? Would we go to the cinema or to a restaurant without a companion? (Wolfing down fast food at the window bar of a train station outlet doesn't count.) Do we even know how to be content in our own company?
‘People can fill their time without having to be alone with themselves – they can’t stand at a bus stop without looking at their phone.’Credit:Stocksy
New York Times travel writer Stephanie Rosenbloom, whose book Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude follows her quest to find joy in her own company, says solitude is a lost art. She cites a succession of studies to prove it: one memorable example found that when left alone for 15 minutes in a room 67 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women chose to give themselves an electric shock rather than sit quietly with their thoughts.
"Many of us, even those who cherish alone time, are reluctant to do certain things on our own," Rosenbloom says. Solo travel, for instance, is booming – a recent TripAdvisor survey of 9181 women globally found that 74 per cent had either travelled alone or had plans to do so. But when it comes to a simple trot down the road to see a film? Studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2015 found that fewer than 30 per cent of us would venture to the cinema alone.
These trends seem to indicate a yearning for alone time, but a need to take extreme action to find it – perhaps because so many of us neglect its necessity in our daily lives. That's certainly true for me. Usually, I'm surrounded. I have three boys in secondary school and, like me, my husband works from home. Our downstairs is open-plan and we spend much of our day within chatting distance. I hang out with my children almost by default. Mostly, I love this close-knit busyness. Still, after a long day, it can feel as if my head is being slammed into a wall of noise. When I realise I'm clenching my jaw so hard my teeth ache, I know I need a break.
So yes, I crave alone time; but in truth, if everyone's out, I often feel at a loss and seek out virtual company on social media instead. The gym is probably the only place I visit alone. It somehow feels socially acceptable to go for a run alone – fitness goals! – but without a dog or child to signify a purpose, I would feel oddly self-conscious sauntering through the park for a solo stroll.
"There's such a stigma about being on your own," says clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, who has teenagers herself and is already feeling concern about the empty nest. "How am I going to keep busy? That's how I frame it in my mind."
Why do we feel we have to keep busy? Kilbey puts it down to the pace, pressures and expectations of our 24-7 society. "People can fill their time without having to be alone with themselves – they can't stand at a bus stop without looking at their phone. For many people, sitting with yourself is terrifying."
It seems we've lost the skill of mindfulness, of being comfortably alone with our thoughts, even though Kilbey says benefits can include lower blood pressure, reduced stress, improved cognitive clarity and emotional regulation. "Yet we never sever connectivity with others," she says.
Of that I'm definitely guilty. I fill every spare minute with Twitter. My head is jammed with other people's thoughts. I need to discover my own.
In Paris, I feared looking "sad" when actually, venturing out to eat would have transformed my evening.
"Sometimes you need to be alone in a room or on a bench somewhere, to ask, 'Am I living the way I want to live?' " Rosenbloom tells me. "You find out who you are when you're alone. You can be a little daring, try new things, and then you have that wonderful satisfaction. You did it, you're capable of it, and that's a nice feeling. You're not reliant on having a million people around to pursue what you want to pursue."
Rosenbloom notes that great thinkers, artists and innovators, from Michelangelo and Tchaikovsky to Barack Obama, often expressed the need for solitude. Meanwhile, many philosophers, including Descartes and Nietzsche, spent much of their lives alone.
Recent research by the University at Buffalo found that students who spent more time alone than with others (they weren't anxious or fearful of company, but simply preferred their own) were more creative and productive than those who avoided peers because of shyness.
That night in Paris, brushing away crumbs, I realise I've made a spiritual error. The following day I complete my work by mid-morning. My train isn't until 7pm. I beeline to a cafe, order a croissant, and marvel at my good fortune. For five glorious hours, I wander. I take photographs: a statue of a Louis XIV on a rearing horse in the Place des Victoires; a window display of stuffed doves and crows in flight; the view of the Seine from the Pont des Arts (my first cack-handed selfie); the Louvre; the Arc de Triomphe; the Jardin des Tuileries with the Eiffel Tower beyond. All profoundly satisfying, because I feel fully myself, beholden to no one.
The solitude is uplifting – which is something my friend Louise, 43, a designer, has long understood. She found alone time essential after having twins 12 years ago and still regards it as fundamental for her wellbeing. She walks in local parks – no dog for an excuse – almost daily. "I walk at my own pace. To have peace, let my mind wander and be by myself in nature is so good for my mental health." (If she bumps into an acquaintance they invariably cry, "Where are the kids?")
She travels alone too, for similar reasons, and returns to her family revitalised. Her latest trip was to Antarctica. "I had a moment of panic before I went, leaving the safety net of my family, realising if something bad happens I'm days from civilisation. But you cut that off, go and enjoy it." She loves the freedom, the autonomy
Rosenbloom points out that alone time doesn't need to be about escaping your everyday surroundings and recommends brief "daily vacations" as a way of finding solitude when circumstance means we can't actually leave. "Alone time doesn't have to look like a solo vacation, 30-minute stroll or museum day trip," she says. "You can get alone time in bite-sized snacks. Maybe you read one poem."
Inspired, I make myself playlists. Reacquaint myself with The Eve of St Agnes, studied at school. Embracing my own company requires more conscious thought, more decisions as to what I actually like, and more effort to entertain myself as I would a friend. I also decide to cut my Twitter time to 10 minutes a day, broken into roughly three visits. If I feel a pang, I can get on, get the gist, get off. That way, I don't feel isolated, but nor do I feel psychically squashed by a juggernaut of opinion.
My new regime makes me feel more in control of my mood. I'm more focused. It's like I've emptied a massive rubbish bag. I don't make specific time slots for my alone time but if I feel restless, irritable with my family, or low, I make time for a "me" moment.
By the time a child or my husband comes to find me, I feel revived and can be more engaged, a nicer person, rather than saying crossly "What is it?" because I resent everyone wanting a piece of me. Carving out peace for myself makes me more sociable.
In her solo travels, Rosenbloom explores Paris, Istanbul and Florence, and her home city, New York. She learns as much about herself as her surroundings. There's a spontaneity, she tells me, "that serendipity that happens when you're just moving through the world and noticing things".
It refreshes your outlook. "There's not that pressure to make sure the person you're with is also enjoying their time. If I walk along the river, I look at the boats differently when I'm by myself than when I'm in conversation with a friend, because then it's about that relationship."
Indeed – we're compromising so often. Kilbey says, "In a busy life, we're fighting practical fires all day long. Whereas when you have time on your hands, if you just stop and notice what you choose to do, what becomes important, you're exploring your personality, your interests, getting to know yourself."
I continue to find chunks of time to be alone and a mid-afternoon hair appointment is the perfect excuse. As the boys return from school, I wave goodbye and say I'll be home "later".
Hair done, I head to the city to admire a church I'd passed days earlier with my impatient children. I read the inscription to the Great War dead, scrutinise the marble cherubs and marvel at the Gothic porch. Then I dine on pizza and red wine. (The waitress removes the other place setting.) My phone stays in my bag. I eat, drink, and dream of a solo trip to Italy.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 21.
Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)
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