Wilderness aloneness

This past week I’ve been laid up with bronchitis following my trip to Melbourne. I’ve been feeling pretty wretched and just wanted to stay in bed and rest, so I decided it was a good time to finish reading Robert Kull’s Solitude.

This is the record of a man in his mid-50s, missing a foot as a result of a motorbike accident, who decides to spend a year on a remote island off the coast of Chile, in order to immerse himself in the experience of wilderness solitude.

His ‘study of himself’ is his PhD research. But the book is not his dissertation (at least I don’t think it is – if it is, it reads like no dissertation I’ve ever read, and thank goodness). It’s a pretty raw look at the struggles he faces — physical, emotional and spiritual — over the 12 months he is there.

The first months centre around building his cabin and getting to grips with the island, the weather, the wildlife, the wind and the cat he brought with him (supposedly to act as Taster – if the cat ate shellfish and died it meant the shellfish was poisoned by algal bloom.) Gradually he settles into the environment more and more and the urgent and aggressive approach to survival falls away to allow him more time and space to examine his relationship to where he is and what he’s doing.

As the year and the journal progress, he gradually moves towards a place of greater acceptance that he is a part of the world in which he is living, and frankly, I found this a relief as the early parts are pretty hard going (at least I found them so as a reader – I can only imagine how much harder they were in person for Kull).

I got quite upset by his treatment of Cat (his naming of the cat thus seems to sum up his ambivalence about the animal’s presence). Cat suffers seizures and seeks warmth and comfort as all cats do, but Kull seemed to resent Cat and was at times cruel in his treatment of him – at the same time as he was writing about his desire to sustain the feelings of transcendent unity with the living world that he was occasionally experiencing thanks to dolphins, eagles, ducks and limpets. It seemed to take him until the end of the year before he realised that he was projecting onto Cat all the human qualities about himself that he resented, and his cruelty to Cat was an acting out of his lack of compassion for his own weaknesses.

The book is a journal, so it reflects his day to day thoughts and experiences, and it can be repetitive as he circles back over old ground time and time again. It’s not a compendium of ‘Things I Learnt While Living Alone’ and it doesn’t pretend to offer any profound insights into spirituality to anyone else.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the fact that Kull rarely talks about loneliness, or even the fact that he is alone, as being an issue in his year’s ‘experiment’. He is more concerned that the temptation of contact via email (he does monthly email check-ins to let people know he is alive and okay) will overwhelm him and undermine the solitude. I’m not sure he ever felt particularly lonely. Loneliness certainly isn’t a dominant motif in the book.

If it had been, I think the whole book would have taken on a vastly different tone and would have made it an unbearable read. Kull clearly is used to being alone, is comfortable being alone and enjoys it. If he suffered from loneliness and had undertaken this experience as a way to learn to live with loneliness, it would be a very different book, and one I’m not sure I’d have wanted to read.







Am I still good at being with people?

I’ve been on holiday again, this time a long weekend in Melbourne. I came to see a friend from the US who is here for a couple of weeks and whom I haven’t seen for about 20 years. 

It’s been great. It’s also been exhausting. She is a great talker and that is, for me, very tiring. I feel like I am besieged by words after a while, and desperately need some silence. She, being an extrovert, believes silence is waiting to be filled. 

This kind of visit is always going to be a pressure cooker, because we’re  thrown together into one another’s company after so much time apart. It’s not like when we lived in the same town and could catch up for coffee once every few days, rather than eating breakfast, lunch and dinner together. 

Now, don’t misunderstand my point here. We get along very well and I have thoroughly enjoyed being with her. 

It’s simply that it’s difficult to go from “no human interaction for a weekend” to “24/7 company at 100 kph”. 

It’s made me quite conscious of just how much time I typically spend alone. Is it too much? Am I out of practice at being with people? Have I forgotten how to play nicely with others? 

I visited a relative, I spent the afternoon with a former colleague, and my US friend and I spent a whole day with two of her colleagues driving and exploring the coast. 

So I’ve had lots of contact with people and I think I behaved myself. But perhaps I should ask them. I may have become oblivious. 

Grocery shopping for recluses

I went to the supermarket around lunchtime on Saturday. This of course was a mistake, because a lot of people go then and it was quite busy. At least it seemed so to me. I don’t like grocery shopping when it’s busy because I feel pressured to make my choices really quickly and get out of the way of other people. Perhaps I have an underdeveloped sense of entitlement: I am no more in the way of other shoppers than they are of me, but I feel like I’m the one who needs to get out of their way.

Grocery shopping is not something I enjoy. I dislike shopping with crowds – well, I dislike anything that involves a crowd, so it’s not really the grocery shopping I dislike. When I lived in the USA, some time ago now, the concept of 24 hour grocery shopping was fairly novel (to me, at least) so I went shopping at 2am when the store was completely empty. I only did that once, and then just because I could. But it was enjoyable reading labels in peace, having the aisle to myself, weighing the merits of boysenberry against blackberry jam, and contemplating the role of frosted pop tarts in the food pyramid (conclusion: pop tarts are not food).

The chocolate biscuit aisle was the place where I became aware I was falling apart. Years ago, I worked for a psychopath and it nearly undid me. I was standing in front of the biscuits, and found I was completely unable to understand the difference between $3.50 for Chocolate Wheatens and $3.49 for Chocolate Sultana Pasties – either the price difference or the difference in biscuits. At that point I abandoned my cart, went home, lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling. I had scared myself: I knew this was a trivial decision, and I also recognised I was completely unable to make it. Fortunately I was also aware that this was Not Normal or healthy and something needed to be done. I changed things (my life, mostly) and things improved to the point where once again I could buy chocolate biscuits.

So grocery shopping is a bit of an undertaking. It takes some mental preparation, and I have to get my game face on for dealing with crowds (I have no idea what my game face looks like, but in my head it’s steely-eyed determination exuding a ruthless sense of mission. Probably I just look cross.) There is a solution to this however: click and collect. Shop online, then just pull up and collect the bags of groceries from the lockers. All done and dusted in 5 minutes. Brilliant.

The only downside is that I will no longer bump into people I know at the checkout, and that was always a good way to catch up.

A solitary reading list

I mentioned I’d ordered a raft of books recently. All but one were on the subject of solitude.

May Sarton’s journals were one take on it. I also read Doris Grumbach’s Fifty Days of Solitude, a slim book describing her experience of sequestering herself away in order to write. I thought this was cheating because she went back to her usual social life after so it was more of a holiday.

I was beginning to wonder if the only legitimate reason for being alone was in order to write but of course, I was reading about it so naturally the people doing the writing about it were writers. Duh.

Next up was Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo, The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. This has some very interesting facts and figures about the rise of the one person household, but I kept feeling he was about to go down the route of ‘we are social creatures’ and living alone was the Wrong Way. I think he doesn’t really ‘get’ it, an individual needing or desiring that kind of solitude, but he didn’t find any research to say it was bad or dangerous so it must be okay.

Florence Falk wrote On My Own, aimed at women on their own. This arrived boasting a very chick-lit cover, which almost put me off, but the book was better than it looked. It veered  towards ‘woman living alone post divorce’, perhaps not surprising, and ran a little apologetic and defensive in tone in parts. Also, every woman in the book came with a physical description (“Amy, a petite redhead with glasses …” etc) which annoyed the crap out of me because the men weren’t described like that (“Derek, an accountant from a small town in Oklahoma …”) and also, how they looked had nothing to do with the point she was making except in one instance.

Come to think of it, Klinenberg did this too. It’s sexist and irritating.

So, next was the much cited Anthony Storr and Solitude. This is quite an old book now but it’s worth the read. For a start, he’s one of the few who doesn’t treat a desire for solitude as a pathology, and even suggests that the pathology lies more with adults who are unable to be alone. Amen to that, Mr Storr.

I’m nearing the end of Lonely by Emily White. I was nervous about this one because from the subtitle (Learning to live with solitude) I feared she might conflate loneliness with alone-ness, but she doesn’t. I still think ‘solitude’ is the wrong word in this instance because it’s not solitude she learns to live with, it’s loneliness. That aside, it’s an excellent book and well worth reading to understand loneliness in greater depth. A tweet-length summary: loneliness is a sense of not being connected to people and it’s not the same as having no friends or being alone.

The book starts with the UCLA Loneliness Scale Quiz. I had a problem with question 6,”how often do you feel completely alone?” to which one can answer from Never to Always (Always being the high & lonely score.) But ‘Always’ is only a problem if being alone all the time is an undesirable state. That seems a common mistake in the literature, assuming a state is a bad thing when it’s more about how a person feels about it.

I began this reading marathon with Lionel Fisher’s Celebrating Time Alone, a compilation of stories from people in all walks of life and situations who have chosen solitude. It was a good place to start, because unlike so many books on living alone, Fisher focuses on those who have chosen to live alone rather than those who have had life alone thrust upon them and are gamely taking on the challenge. It’s refreshing in this genre to hear from people for whom solitude is a positive choice, and not just the dramatic solitude choice like running off to Patagonia to live on an uninhabited island for a year etc (that is next up – Robert Kull’s Solitude).

One other book I love that I read a couple of times is Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence. She builds a cottage in a remote area of the UK and explores her life in silence. It’s unusual in that she is clearly capable of being very social and outgoing, but chooses to explore silence (in part a religious exploration) and again, because it’s a very active choice, the tone of the book is neither apologetic nor defensive. A good read.

I’ve mentioned Party of One by Anneli Rufus before. Her tone is a bit more defensive and even borders aggressive at times. It was she who first drew my attention to the use of the word ‘loner’ in the media as a stereotypical categorisation of any nut-job, regardless of whether they are in fact alone or not. She quite rightly points out that there is a world of difference between someone who chooses to be alone (a true loner) and someone who is rejected and an outcast – they’re the ones to watch out for. Interesting in light of Emily White’s book though: you’d think people suffering from loneliness might be more likely to become nut-jobs. She doesn’t address this, but it did make me think, based on Rufus’ discussion of the topic, that anger at being rejected by society is the key distinction. Most lonely people aren’t angry at society. Incidentally, Rufus is married. To me, that’s not alone, but as I said a post or two ago, solitude is a spectrum.

I still have a couple more books to read. It’s proving to be an interesting journey, and the fact the books are written at all suggests a lot of people are trying to come to terms with what it means to go it alone in daily life.

PS All the links go to Book Depository. I’m feeling very anti-Amazon after hearing about how they run their business and treat their staff. I don’t get any benefit from linking to Book Depository, I just like them and I bought all these books from them.

I’m busy, leave me alone

I have recently been noticing how often people interrupt me in person or in email starting with “I know you’re busy but …”

Actually, I’m not that busy. I used to be much busier, running around like a headless chicken trying to be all things to too many people. Latterly I’ve stopped that nonsense and have a much more reasonable workload. 

But I never disagree when they say “I know you’re busy”, because I find it quite useful that they think I am. Not because I have a reputation to uphold but because it makes people a bit more respectful of my time. 

I realise I have been using ‘busy’ as a shield to hide behind, to buy myself time to focus and concentrate, and to reduce the time I spend interacting with people. 

I work in a culture where the ability to respond quickly is highly prized. Interrupting people is perfectly acceptable because no one is expected to be involved in anything beyond the instant, the here and now. This is a problem for me because I work in strategy and we are supposed to think ahead, plan. It requires sustained thought. So being busy is an acceptable way of saying “leave me alone, don’t interrupt me”. 

I’d like a better way of getting this message across but I haven’t come up with one. I do have pretty fierce powers of concentration, so people see me engrossed in what I’m working on and perhaps that’s why they think I’m busy. I’m occupied, yes, and engrossed, and that’s why interruptions are so annoying and disruptive. 

Busy seems to suggest I’m frantically multi tasking and rushing from meeting to meeting. I’d feel busy if I were, but I wouldn’t feel productive, just harried. 

Perhaps I should start asking people not to interrupt because I’m in the midst of being productive. That would be more accurate except it sounds a bit smug, as if I’m omitting “…unlike you, you time waster” off the end of the sentence. 

So I’ll stick with being busy. I still want to be left alone while I’m at it.