Solitude is relative

A beautiful weekend, so I spent most of it on my porch in the sun reading. I came home on Thursday after work hoping my book order had arrived and found five (of the 11 I ordered) waiting for me. Delicious. 

Over the weekend I read May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude and The House By The Sea, both focusing on her life alone but in two different homes. I knew nothing of Sarton and haven’t read her poems or novels, but I did enjoy these two of her journals very much. I don’t feel especially drawn to her as a person although I enjoyed her writing and the insights into her life. 

What struck me about both books  was the lack of solitude in her life. She was very much connected to people around her and to those at a distance and seemed to have an endless stream of visitors both invited and of the groupie variety, the latter not surprisingly a source of great irritation. She also travelled quite a lot, to give readings or talks. Plus, like a lot of writers I assume, she had a lot of correspondents. 

It seemed to me her solitude was busy and full of people. Which made me think that the definition of solitude and the need for time alone is a very broad spectrum indeed. For some, a day or two between visitors is solitude. For others (me), that’s a hectic and overwhelmingly busy social time. 

Sarton needed the time alone to write, but I sensed she wasn’t a natural solitary and liked to have or even needed people nearby. That’s an interesting aspect of solitude, how it gets balanced with our need for human contact. Her balance isn’t mine, but she did seem to find what worked for her. 

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No one to talk to

Let’s face it: one of the downsides of living alone is having no one to talk to on those occasions when you really DO want to talk. 

Admittedly this is entirely selfish. I don’t want someone else there because I want to listen to someone else. No, I want to hog the microphone. 

I can fully understand why this mightn’t be appealing to anyone else, to voluntarily spend time in my company while I launch into diatribes on whatever topic I see fit. Come to think of it, no one ever really volunteers to listen except for paid listeners like psychiatrists. We all get together with others to talk.  No one ever greets a friend with “oh I haven’t listened to you in ages!” even when that might be factually true. 

Here’s a list of possible dangers in not having someone to talk to when you need to:

  1.  You unburden yourself inappropriately through desperation e.g. you tell your intimate relationship/ medical/ financial woes to the person next to you in the supermarket queue 
  2. You tell ALL your friends what’s going on and update them daily — except it’s never the same friend twice so they all get fragments of the story and think you’re mad
  3. You tell ONE friend everything but they get totally sick of hearing about it all and start to avoid you. 

I suspect (okay, I know) I’ve done all of these at one time or another in my life. I’m far more careful now about respecting the burden I place on friends by sharing with them. While I believe that sharing burdens and listening to one another’s trials and sufferings is part of being friends, I do believe it’s still a privilege to be able to do it and therefore I try not to abuse it. 

Sometimes I just need someone to  have a thorough moan to about why life sucks right now, and get it off my chest. I know when the urge creeps up on me to tell strangers why my life is hard, it’s time to find a long-suffering friend and ask for their forbearance while I unload. And to return the favour when the time comes. 

Balancing company and solitude at work

I’m fortunate that I work with a great bunch of people. There are six of us in our team and we all get along well. We have complementary skills, so we rarely encroach on one another’s turf and we frequently seek out one another’s expertise. Our team leader is an excellent manager, both highly efficient and very laid back so there’s never any stress generated by him even when the Higher Ups are running around like headless chickens.

We also laugh. A lot. There is non-stop ribbing of one another, and endless poking of fun at the wider organisation, taking the heat and self-importance out of the situations we find ourselves in. Don’t get me wrong: we’re very professional in our work in terms of what we deliver and how we present it, but within the team no-one is allowed to feel too important or too indispensable.

We seem to have struck a balance between knowing enough about what is happening in one another’s lives to care, but not so much that we feel like we’re enmeshed in one another’s problems.

This is a vital support group for me. At times in the past, I’ve wondered how long it would be before anyone would notice if I were to collapse at home and not show up for work. I’m pretty sure someone in my current team would not only notice but they’d come round to find out what’s wrong.

Much as the idea of working from home appeals to me, I recognise even in my most solitary moments, that it’s reassuring to know that there are people who would notice if I weren’t around. I value their company at work as much as I value my privacy at home.