Monday, March 4, 2013

Dwelling in Solitude

My large third-floor windows overlook the central greenspace of my apartment complex, giving me a broad view of the sky. Our central Texas skies were often brilliant at sunset, but we might go months without any clouds to interrupt the daytime blue. Here on the coast, tempests and bay-winds roil all year, and the sky changes often. In the last ten minutes, I have watched a dapple-grey mass of clouds, gold-edged in the setting sun, grow dark and heavy with rain. If I crane my neck beyond the sill, I can see just a hint of blue sky from behind the thinnest clouds, but at the tree line, all is dark. I tried to take a picture, but my good little camera couldn't keep pace with the colors, and less with the feelings those colors and changes produced in me.

I've been thinking lately about solitude, and what it means to live by oneself. I'm not sure that living alone is inherently lonelier than living in the same apartment or house with others; it is a truism that the middle of a crowd can be much lonelier than honest solitude. At the same time, like any daughter of Eve, I often feel lonely, especially as I bear (and will always bear) homesickness for my far-away friends and family members.

For me, however, the greatest danger of living alone is that I will make my home into a selfish hideaway, rather than an open haven. I love people, but I am really and truly an introvert, and it takes enormous energy for me to spend time with people, especially people who are still relatively new friends. When I first moved to Texas, it took about two years before I was really able to rest in the company of my friends there. Consequently, when faced with the choice between curling up in my solitary rooms or going out to spend time with someone, it is very easy (and very tempting) for me to make up an excuse not to go: I have papers to grade, I have books to read, I have drains to clean.

Friends who know me well have invented various weapons against the walls of my overweening solitude: Mary and Martin used to call, invite me out, and then say, "Don't answer now because you will say 'no.' We'll call back in 10 minutes and you'd better day yes!" Mark, less patiently, once carried me bodily from the library when I said I would study alone instead of going to dinner with our friends.

I have been thankful for these friends, but I cannot expect others to accommodate me forever. I must train myself to recognize when my desire for solitude is wise and wholesome (for I do need quiet hours to read, listen, plan, and pray), and when it is selfishness or fear. However, even at my age, I'm not very good as distinguishing between the two. Plans give me courage and accountability, so I try to plan time with new and growing friends in advance. Inviting friends to spend time at my place mitigates the extra weariness that can come from going out. Making rules for myself during holidays (e.g. 'I must leave the house at least once a day') reminds me how beautiful it is to go out and see. Perhaps most importantly, allowing others to have some authority over my hours helps. If I say that my friends are entitled to my time, attention, and energy, if I say that I want to be ready to help or keep company, then I am less likely to sulk when something interrupts my solitude.

And tonight, the sky spreading outside my window helps. It is quite dark now, as clouds and night have descended together. This sky rumbles that I should stay in, that now is a time for solitary projects and quiet hours. But in saying that, I confess that tomorrow's sky might call me out, and that it is a virtue merely to step outside on a high-blue-bright-yellow spring morning.  I need the sky to temper my introspection, I need the Spirit to challenge my selfishness, I need friends to quicken my solitude. If I have learned anything about living well in solitude, it is that one cannot do it alone.

Have you ever lived alone? What are some of the dangers/challenges of living by yourself? How have you answered these challenges? 

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