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The Solace of Solitude
Time alone is time well spent
I’ve never minded being alone.
Sure, there were Friday nights in my teens and twenties when I would have gnawed off an arm (or at least a pinky finger) in exchange for a decent date. It’s not that I haven’t been lonely, because of course I have. That just comes with being human. Plus, you don’t have to be alone to feel lonely. Some of the loneliest moments I’ve ever experienced have been in a crowded room.
But time spent alone doesn’t scare me.
The silence gives me space to think. Thinking gives me things to write. Writing gives me a sense of purpose. It gives me peace, too, in a way that nothing else does.
In my single days, I lasted long stretches of time between romantic partners. In my married days, Marido has often been gone for weeks at a time for work. And sometimes when he’s been home, I’ve been the one who is gone.
For years and years and years, no matter who was in my life, I never found it difficult to locate a deep and lengthy pocket of solitude.
Suddenly, there was no solitude. No peaceful stretches of unaccompanied time. I was with people all of the time, 24/7 and 7 and 7. Granted, it was just 2 people and they are my favorite 2 people in the whole entire world. But those solo getaways I used to take to rest and recharge — those were a memory of another life.
Even my desperate escapes to nearby Golden Gate Park to breathe in the trees were crowded with dog and daughter and often the pet parrot, too. All of us needed to get out of the house.
It was fine. It was necessary. We survived. And then we expanded our quarantine bubble and there were more people in our spaces once again, but still no solitude.
Eventually, I think, I would have gotten those getaways back but in 2021 we did a thing and moved across the ocean to a country where we knew absolutely no one. In some ways it was like the early days of pandemic lockdowns all over again — the three of us, joined at the hip.
It was fine. It was necessary. We thrived, even.
But knowing no one meant we no longer had neighbors next door or up the block who welcomed our kid for an afternoon or a sleepover. It meant doing all the things ourselves, all 3 of us, all the time, because we had nobody else and we were all a little scared and there was comfort in doing the scary new things together.
It’s been nearly two years since we came to Portugal. It’s been more than three years since the global pandemic shut down all our lives. And in all that time—39 months, to be exact—I haven’t had any time alone. (Grocery store runs and the 40-minute drive in to Lisbon don’t count.)
So when Marido proposed a dad/daughter trip to Italy, I gave him every thumbs up that I had.
Michael & Andrew are two of our dearest friends who relocated from Berkeley, CA to Milan last October. We’ve wanted to visit them for awhile: I mean, they’re just two countries over! But I decided put off my Italian adventure for a little longer in favor of some long-overdue solitude.
I dropped Filha and Marido off at the airport on a Wednesday evening and didn’t return to pick them up until the following Monday night: 5 whole days of alone time!
While they were taking in the view from the Duomo di Milano and hiking the hills of Lombardia, I was watering my tiny tomatoes and cruising shows on Netflix and binge-reading T. Kingfisher novels.
In the beginning, I had a list of things I wanted to do with my time. They were worthy, needful things. I had just purchased a sewing machine and there was a waiting stack of mending. I have a few thousand digital photographs that need organizing and at least that many weeds who need pulling. And always, always, there are words that need writing. Not the least of which is my ever-demanding memoir project.
You might know this by now if you’ve been reading me long enough, but I am a DO-ing sort of person. I get shit done. I can organize a closet, a desk drawer, a digital trove, or whatever pile of mess you’ve got laying around like nobody’s business. With a few notable exceptions, mostly related to my own personal mindfuckery, I set a goal and I accomplish it. Bing, bang, no big deal.
But for four whole days, I could not get my butt into my writing chair. I’d walk into my office, putter around for a few minutes, cast a glance at my waiting laptop, my sheaf of scribbled revisions and hastily penned notes, and walk right back out.
I think it was Joyce Carol Oates who said that a writer’s greatest enemy is distraction. Or maybe she said interruption. Maybe those are the same things, because we are perfectly capable of interrupting our own selves. And Oliveira do Paraiso has no shortage of perfectly delightful distractions.
So I distracted myself and I felt guilty about it for days and days.
Here I was, with the solitude I had been dreaming about for literal years. There was no one to bother me. No one to yell, “Mooooom!” down the hallway. No one to worry about or fuss over or rearrange myself to accommodate. I had these precious unaccompanied hours and what was I doing with them?
Oh, right. I was enjoying myself.
I was doing exactly what I needed to do, whenever I needed to do it. And sometimes what I needed to was sit in my red wingback armchair, legs propped on my teal Moroccan pouf, and read. For an entire afternoon. Getting up only to forage for popcorn, raspberries, and a fresh iced tea. All through the house sung a delicious, delicious silence. Except for the dogs, snoring on the rug and the wind, sifting through the trees. A fly, beating itself against the glass and the neighbor’s guinea hens raising their usual ruckus in the field.
So I let go of my expectations, stopped checking off my to-do list. I just quietly existed, listening to myself and adjusting course accordingly.
On the last day, just after lunch, I finally found myself at my desk, clicking open the file containing the latest chapter of my book. I started reading the opening, and almost without realizing began fixing, editing, writing. The hours slid by and I didn’t see them go. I was in the flow. It was perfection.
And when, a few hours later, I met my people at the airport, I was relaxed and renewed. Almost as if I had spent my 5 days frolicking at a lake in Italy.
I don’t plan to let another three years go by before my next big bout of solitude. It’s too fundamental for my own sense of well-being. I’m a better human/mother/partner/friend when I’ve spent time alone. A better writer, too, flush with fresh ideas.
One of the things I did with my alone time was submit some writing for publication to various places, and one of those pieces was accepted by Quail Bell Magazine.
You can read it here, if you like.
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Copyright © 2023 LaDonna Witmer