The United States has always boasted a highly individualistic culture. Children generally move out of their parents’ home once they reach 18, people are encouraged more and more to pursue their own goals (men have enjoyed this privilege for ages–women only recently), etc. It is not at all like Ecuador where being single, for example, is regarded as anomalous or where the heteronormative trajectory of life is all but holy writ (i.e. get married, have kids, live life for said kids, rinse and repeat). But even in the country that coined the term “rugged individualism”, the idea of solitude, of being alone, remains a point of fear for many; so much so that they would rather settle for mediocrity–in relationships, in jobs–than risk ever being or feeling alone.
But for me, solitude is something I crave, something necessary in order to maintain a sense of balance in my life. I’m a very social person–there are few things I enjoy more than sitting with friends, talking and laughing without restraint. But there are days, like today, where I wake up and think “Today I want no one’s company but my own.” It is in this state of solitude in which I am at my most productive. I write, read, cook… I even clean. The solitude fills in the cracks I hadn’t even noticed and makes me feel level. This has worked for me in many different stages of my life and in many ways allowed me to become the (arguably) whole and sane person I am.
During the Dark Ages (high school era), I would often go to the beach at night, alone. Sometimes I wrote angsty, hormone-riddled poems (and sometimes good ones) or cry or punch the steering wheel, or open the window and close my eyes while breathing in the salt-tinged air and listening only to the ceaselessly crashing waves. The ocean always made me feel small and, consequently, enacted the same magic on the size of my problems. I did this at moments when I thought I might burst from the tension, anger, heartbreak, and sense of betrayal that shaped those years and so severely warped the way I interacted with those around me, making me question who I thought I was. True solitude can be so difficult to find as a teenager, and yet if I hadn’t found a way to do so, I would have been lost.
Years later, in another–possibly darker–period, I would wander alone through the streets of San Francisco. I went to movies by myself, to restaurants I had wanted to try, to coffee shops, bookstores, and bars, both upscale and divey. In these places I watched other people as they often watched me, the young, pretty girl sitting alone over a latte gone cold or a half-eaten plate of bolognese. I tried to read in the lines of their faces and the shapes of their bodies whether they had the same scars as I and, if so, how they had moved on from the point of injury. I allowed food and leftover pain pills and the laughter of strangers and the penumbra of empty movie theaters to fill the yawning emptiness inside of me. This brand of solitude didn’t heal me, but there are times in life when distraction is salvation, and it gave me that.
Solo travel takes solitude to an entirely different level. It becomes unavoidable–interminable bus rides, rooms in hostels in strange border towns, the knowledge that you are carrying all you need with you on your own back with no one’s help. This kind of solitude is one of the greatest of life’s teachers. Nothing else will tell you so much and with so much brutal honesty about your strengths and weaknesses. It breaks you and then puts you back together, like a bone, stronger at the site of the break. It is the scariest and most rewarding kind of solitude I can think of–a drug that never leaves your system.
But the solitude I woke up seeking today was of an entirely different strain. If that latter period of my life was darkness, this one is pure light. I am putting every fiber of myself towards finding contentment and joy and my spot in the world. I am beta-testing dreams I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I’m pushing the boundaries of my own independence by living unsupported and unfettered in a foreign country. I have people in my life, both new and well-established, who love and accept my most authentic self and I theirs. My moments of solitude now are not about holding myself together but about letting the world in and allowing myself to be grateful for everything I have been given and have gotten for myself. They are moments of quiet joy, of tactile pleasures, of enjoying the capabilities of my own flesh, of acknowledging my own inherent power in creating and defining my own experience. Solitude is finding my center and using it as a baseboard for launching myself once again into the unpredictable nebula of the next moment.