Dear Lily June,
This morning was mine to rise with you. At 4:00am–your favorite time to emerge into the waking world burbling like a pot of coffee until your cries about boil over and I know it’s time to peel my sleepy bones from the bed to fetch you a bottle–we spent the morning in utter solitude. Because your father was asleep in the next room, and because you are still preverbal despite some overwhelmingly adorable proclamations of “coo,” being awake at this time in the day almost feels like being the only person awake in the world.
I can feed you, set you in your bouncy sleep to either drift off or happily flop about for a bit with the chair’s vibrations, and then I can step out onto the balcony–still within eyeline of where you’re at–to truly be all by myself for a moment. I generally smoke (though your dad and I are set to kick the habit for the umpteenth time this weekend) and stare up momentarily at the stars. In doing so, I’m reminded of the inherent joy I take from being alone.
I love you and your father like it’s breathing–it sustains my heart and mind–but as an introverted soul, I need the recharging power of a few even seconds alone to truly feel at peace in the universe.
One of my favorite early American essayists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in an piece called “Nature,”
“But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.”
He knew that in his chamber he would indulge in books and hear the perpetually living voices even of dead authors clatter around in his head. And to go out into the public realm was surely to invite the sometimes welcome and sometimes excruciating society of family, friends and strangers. Only by stepping out into nature and contemplating the smallness of herself can a person feel the value of solitude–its restorative powers, its simultaneous haunting and humbling of humanity, its echoes of calming yet stimulating quiet. Alone, a woman can hear herself think.
On Solitude & Memory
Part of my bent towards wanting to be alone as an adult came from living in a violent family as a child. Used to coming home to a tension so thick, you could practically chew the air (not unlike, I learned, the thickness of Southern humidity), retreating immediately to my bedroom upon returning from school gave me the safe haven I craved.
I could pretend my bed was a raft, and I was adrift at sea. The waves of sound caught from my parents’ fights threatened often to capsize me, but I stayed afloat with solitary activities: I inherited the art of cross-stitch from my grandmother, was bequeathed a love of books from my mother and a love of listening to music at high volumes from my father, and I would even actively play games of Monopoly with myself enjoying being able to dole out properties at my own speed and count all the “players'” money. (Guess who won each time, Lily?)
I know I was never “properly socialized,” so that though I had dreams of being an entertainer and an actress in grade school (in no small part so someone would pay attention to me), by high school I had mostly retreated into myself, keeping a small, but intimate constellation of friends who were as weird as me. We were freaks, Lily, but willingly. And still, I mostly enjoyed coming home alone, shutting the door to my private space, waiting until the rest of the world had fallen asleep, and then creeping out into the yard in the wee hours, like one of painter Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks at the diner.
I would look up at the stars and listen to the crickets. I would count fireflies, create a makeshift bed of leaves, or watch my breath pool into clouds, depending on the season. I could commune with nothing and no one and always find the communion of value to me. I didn’t have to be “on.” I didn’t have to be interesting. I just had to be.
On Solitude & Technology
One of my biggest fears about the generational gap between us is that you will, like your peers, learn to constantly be “plugged in.” While Emerson and his transcendentalist pals feared the ways the railroad and the post and the newspaper threatened an individual’s ability to be alone, I have so much greater–and faster spread–threats to your solitude to think about: massive multiplayer online games and the world wide webiverse and OMG WTF BBQ texting. I’m not necessarily saying the march of progress isn’t a great thing, but it’s called a march in part because someone or something gets a boot heel to the face when the new pace sets in.
In this case, I think our interactions suffer when we’re interacting with others constantly. Thoreau, another transcendentalist, wrote in Walden,
“We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are.”
Of course, he couldn’t have imagined how much truer this would be when all parties gathered around the table have buried their faces in the touch screens of glowing phones, not only having nothing new to offer their fellow diners, but having little new to contribute to their long-distance friends via SMS. And the thing is, you don’t get to know the most important person at the table–you–so that your personality ends up rotting like a bad dairy product, and everyone you know becomes a bit more lactose intolerant. Or so it seems to me.
To combat your generation’s impulse to never check out from society, I used to offer an extra-credit option in my American Literature course when we’d get to the transcendentalist unit: The Give-It-Up Experiment. I’d ask my students to abandon all technology for a weekend, logging off their email, shutting off their cells, avoiding their (irony!) blogs or other social media, and just spending that time with themselves. When I’d ask how it made them feel to be “off the grid” for a mere 48 hours, they almost unanimously would respond with some version of the expression “jittery.”
That, if nothing else, scares me, Lily. As you’ll likely be an only child–and as I never want you stepping into a legacy where you’ll depend upon an intimate partner for your psychological or financial stability–I hope you learn the lesson that being alone doesn’t have to mean feeling lonely.
On Solitude & Family
Of course, I likewise don’t want you to avoid your father and I altogether, nor do I want you to reject the notions of affectionate company. Because I’m such an introvert (and because of how I opened this letter on my being away from you and your dad momentarily), I’m afraid you’ll think I do not love my family. Lily, you can’t know how desperately I cling to you and your father in my heart’s clutches. Loving you, and embracing this family, has nothing to do with my need to have a balance of independence. One of my favorite poets–who your father introduced me to–is Rainer Maria Rilke. He writes of lovers,
“I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”
This means, in practice, that you don’t meld into your lover’s personality. That you recognize each person is an entity unto themselves. The expression “my better half” is all well and good for loving idiom, but too many people in this world have gotten themselves into trouble by imagining they aren’t whole all on their own–that they’re only a fraction of their relationship.
I love your father not for being half of a marriage but because he’s a whole person in his own right. He adores creature features, has a fondness for the American pasttime (baseball), allows for the possibility of ghosts and demons and Sasquatch. He could fish for an entire night (and has) and takes his coffee with heaping helpings of sugar-free Vanilla-flavored creamer. We hold absolutely none of that in common, Lily, and yet I love the man who loves them all and developed those affections and hobbies long before I was in his life–in a solitude from me. Likewise, he’s not so big on rom-coms and riverwalks and being a hard-nosed stickler for cynical reality. I could sit in the bathtub for hours (and have), and I take my sugar with a cup of coffee, if you please.
We let one another be ourselves, and my solitude–and thus my identity–have never had a better protector than your father. We can truly be “alone together” and treasure the company.
If you’re afraid, though, that my proclivity to be alone means I don’t want to be with you two, I beg of you to forgive me. Know that any time I’ve spent away from your father (before you were born), I’ve spent partly in a panic about how fast I could get back to him, even from the first night we spent apart that I still remember less than fondly (when he had to participate in a sleep study). In fact, I spent much of our early relationship “alone” because your father was suffering from apnea-induced migraines that caused him to sleep for almost whole days at a time. I would leave the apartment we shared and wander our neighborhood’s streets, wondering when he might wake up so I could hold him, talk to him, share what I’d heard or seen while he was unconsciously away from me.
Know, too, that the time I spend away from you each day–when I go to work and sit alone inside my two-walled cubicle–is often agony. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve desperately counted the minutes until I can return home and how much longer than five days long the work week feels on a Monday when I’m as far from our two days of absolute together-time as I can be. I spend my solitude, often, missing you, my sweet Lily. The way your face screws up into quirky smiles more and more often on your changing table. The way you slump into silly snores when parked in your car seat. The way you calm in a heartbeat when you’re held to my chest sometimes.
Even your blood-curdling, nothing-can-calm-me-this-time shriek echoes in my ears when you’re not around, though when I’m holding you and you’re screaming, I can’t help but admit sometimes I dream of the solitude of my tiny cubicle. And so I go through the cycle again, and again, miss you. It is as the ex-pat poet Gertrude Stein once wrote,
“When they are alone they want to be with others, and when they are with others they want to be alone. After all, human beings are like that.”
- “Milky Way Night Sky Black Rock Desert Nevada” by Steve Jurvetson – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_Nevada.jpg#/media/File:Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_Nevada.jpg
- “Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942” by Edward Hopper – email. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg#/media/File:Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg