solitude

Classic wisdom dictates that introverts and extroverts are diametrically opposed. Introverts are inward-focused, not terribly social, quiet and thinky and uncommunicative. Extroverts are loud and friendly and sociable, given to action rather than thought, and more than happy to express themselves. As Wikipedia tells me, “Extroversion and introversion are generally understood as a single continuum. Thus, to be high on one is necessarily to be low on the other.”

A friend of mine once explained it in a different way. She said that classically, an introvert is perfectly capable of being sociable, but finds that the more intense social interaction is, the more draining it is; they recharge by being alone. On the flip side, an extrovert finds that social interaction itself is what recharges them and brings their energy up.

The Wikipedia definition does make room for the existence of what are termed “ambiverts,” or people who sit in the middle of the continuum. It also makes room for people who fluctuate throughout their lives, going through stages of greater introversion and greater extroversion.

What’s missing, though, is a discussion of those who sit on the whole continuum at once, or who fluctuate based on circumstances. For example, their sample questionnaire features ten questions, all of which I would answer with both “I agree” and “I disagree,” or perhaps by stubbornly writing “it depends” on each one. Binaries just don’t work for me, I guess. I wonder though – I am surely not the only one who feels this way. Is there really no theory that makes room for that? For people who can both be the life of the party and be a wallflower, maybe even on the same night? Are these personality traits necessarily mutually exclusive, such that to become higher on one causes its “opposite” to go lower? It just seems awfully simplistic. Of course I’m no psychologist, and I don’t believe Wiki has all the answers, so maybe theories do exist to encompass people’s more nuanced realities. But it’s late and I’m tired and I wouldn’t know where to start researching anyway. So I’ll simply suggest that people who don’t fit the seesaw model do exist. Maybe we should call ourselves multiverts. I know, that sounds a lot like a person who has multiple perversions, but hey, that’s okay with me too.

Needless to say, this hearkens back to some classic discussions around issues of bisexuality and queerness, of gender identity, and many others. But that’s not really where I’m going with this one tonight. No, I think my only real purpose in musing about this stuff right now is to preface a brief comment about introversion and the pleasures of being alone. As a confirmed multivert, I feel like most of what I write about reflects questions of relationship and community, but tonight, I just wanted to reflect a bit on solitude.

I don’t have a brilliant point to make, really. I just want to put it out there that solitude can be a rich, deep, fulfilling experience. It can feed us and help keep us whole. It doesn’t have to be about the rejection of friends, partners, communities; it doesn’t have to call to mind visions of crazy old cat ladies or fears about the inability to hold onto a relationship. Solitude – whether chosen or imposed – can simply be about reveling in being alone.

With that in mind, I’m going to list off a few of the things I enjoy doing alone, and why.

1. A long, hot shower. It’s a routine I’ve perfected over the past fifteen years. I close the bathroom door because I like the room steamy, but I leave it open about two inches so that I can still breathe. I light two or three candles, and the smell of the match when blown out always sets the tone for me. The lights go off; the room is lit only with dim gold. I strip, toss the dirty clothes in a pile and lay the clean ones down nicely. I turn on the water and test the stream until it’s perfect. I pull the handle, and the shower bursts to life. I step in and let the water sluice down my body. It coaxes the tension out of my shoulders, rinses the layer of outdoor grime off my skin, gradually warms me from the core. I pick the scent that fits my mood best and use a loofah to scrub all my skin, like a delicious back scratch that always hits exactly the right place. Sometimes I wash my hair, digging my fingers into my scalp. Sometimes I shave, and enjoy the meticulous process of razor against curve, the ensuing slickness of smooth skin, another layer peeled away. Sometimes I just stand there and let the water take me where it wants.

I’ve been taking this shower once a day for a long time. When I lived with my parents, it was one of the only ways to guarantee some privacy in a house with four kids and plenty of visitors. When I left home, I was poor for a really long time, and it was one of the only affordable luxuries available to me. And today, the routine is comforting in its familiarity.

2. Work. It’s me and my computer screen and a keyboard. I know what needs to get done, and I do it thoroughly and then I check the job off my list when I’m done. It’s a wonderfully satisfying experience. Task, effort, accomplishment. My fingers move quickly on the keys; words are born, they shift places, text is tightened up and loosened and combed and massaged. A piece that came to me in French flows out in English, with discrepancies corrected and formatting smoothed and vocabulary checked. I make sure the whole thing reads like an original, not a translation – no awkward turns of phrase or clunky sentence formulations. A piece that came to me messy comes out clean. I groom it, style it, polish the rough bits and fill in the cracks. Sometimes I leave questions, clearly colour-coded so the author can fill in the missing links. A piece that comes to me as an idea spills out of my head into concrete form, form that others can then take up and read and react to, critique and edit and move around. A conversation in silence.

I’m not sure if it truly counts as solitude when in fact the work I do is profoundly about communication, which necessarily implies the participation of others. But when I’m sifting through words and tapping on keys alone at my computer, usually in the middle of the night while the world around me sleeps, the silence and speed and focus of my work, with nary a fellow human being in sight, never fails to energize my mind.

3. Weight-lifting. I breathe, feel my heart beat. I position myself. Body lined up correctly, stable, focused. I wrap my hands around a bar, nestling the smooth, cool metal shape of it in the meaty parts of my palms, making sure that it’s not pinching my skin or resting on a knuckle. I lift. The weight resists my efforts and causes me to be acutely aware of the muscles that are working to make it move despite its stubbornness. Do they feel right? Is everything aligned? Slow, deliberate, controlled. Weight lifting, for me, is never fast. I don’t swing or grunt. I breathe and pull or push, same count every time. First rep, the body’s getting used to the sensation. Second, third, fourth, it’s a crescendo of strength. By the last one the muscle is tight, burning a bit, maybe beginning to shake. The stress causes a slight surge in the heartbeat, and the out-breath is longer and deeper when I rest the weight carefully back where it comes from. I breathe a few more times, stretch the muscle, move around. Second set. I start over again.

Weight-lifting makes me feel strong. It shows me what my body is capable of, and I am sometimes pleasantly surprised.  It shows me where I am still flawed, where I can grow or develop, where I am weak. But the weights don’t judge; they just give me the facts. Your triceps are stronger than your biceps. Your shoulder pinches just so when you move like that, be careful, you might hurt it. One inch further forward, there, that’s better. This move, you just can’t do. That one, you are strong and solid. The precision of it, the acute awareness, the intense and pointed physical effort, all bring me into a slightly floaty place where I’m not really thinking anymore, except through blood and tissue and breath and bone. In some ways weight lifting is my connection to the divine.

4. Reading. Thick book. Smells good – freshly printed ink, or musty older paper, or anything in between. A topic that engages my mind. Usually, first, I’ll put some music on. Some sweet mellow jazz, or Latin music, or something old that sets a mood rather than being the focus of attention. I sit in the reading chair, the brown one that’s both firm and soft, that supports my body but lets me relax. Within easy reach are a snack – rice chips, fruit, crunchy veggies, nuts – and a drink, water or warm tea or maybe wine. A blanket if I’m chilled. A lamp if night has fallen. I’ve already gone pee, checked my e-mail, talked on the phone – whatever might have been about to interrupt me is taken care of. I open the book and I forget that time exists. Five or ten pages go by, and I’m still aware of my surroundings. But the good part begins when it all starts to flow. I forget page counts and deadlines. I’m no longer thinking about the things I need to get done later. My mind is intent on the story – fictional or otherwise – that’s unfolding in front of me, and the book itself isn’t even really the point anymore. It has transformed from a brick of bound paper into a glass full of knowledge, and I tip it and pour it directly into my mind. The rest stops mattering. Hours slip away. Eventually I stop, but even when the cover is closed, I’m fuller than I was before.

5. Walking in the desert. I rarely get to do this at all, let alone completely alone, but the emotional experience of the desert is one that’s so profoundly about solitude that it almost doesn’t matter that I usually have company. It’s about a stark landscape, flat or craggy, sand or rock, no great towering trees or flowing rushing water. Silence, wind, hardness. It’s a lonely kind of beauty, an emptiness that speaks volumes. No protection, no place to hide, just sky and earth and dryness. Yes, deserts are in many ways teeming with life, and I can enjoy that too. But the thing I love so much about deserts, crave about them perhaps, is their bluntness, their sharpness, their lack of distraction. Whether it’s the perfectly flat expanse of sand that rises into a blur of dust against the sunset at Burning Man, or the craggy, bright-red alien landscape of Red Rock Desert in Nevada, the desert reminds me every time that lushness is not necessary for beauty, that absence can be as satisfying as presence, that silence sings, that the sun heats and darkness chills. The sheer simplicity of it all eases my mind.

And you? Introvert, extrovert, ambivert, multivert – what solitudes do you hold dear?


7 thoughts on “solitude

  1. I’m a classic introvert in basically all respects. I’m not saying I hate being around people, and if I’m all by myself for long enough I do start to crave some company, but while I can be alone for a few days and still be fine, if a little lonely, if I don’t get a few hours of alone time every single day I get really punchy really fast. It makes christmas with my mom’s family extremely difficult, let me tell you, but I’ll give you a non-emotionally-loaded example:

    Last weekend a bunch of us were in Kingston helping the MEME move house. It took us until about 3 or 4 o’clock to load the truck, move to the new house, eat lunch, and unload the truck. Nothing unpleasant had happened, my allergies weren’t being horrible, and everyone was still friendly with everyone else, but by that time I was getting *thisclose* to extreme punchiness and I took off to a quiet room of the new house for some alone time. Not ten minutes either, it was a full hour and a half at least before I felt up to company again.

    A lot of the time I worry that this need makes people think that I’m lazy, because participating in group chores can be really difficult for me. At gatherings of my mom’s family the rule is that the kids (that’s my generation) does the dishes after dinner. This is totally reasonable, except that after I’ve already been surrounded by 14 people for dinner (plus whatever activities preceded), being surrounded by my younger cousins for another half hour is really hard. I would happily do more than my share of the dishes, if only I could be alone in the kitchen to do them, but I can’t. Similarly, when I’m moving, once the truck is unpacked and everyone has had pizza, I kick all my friends who came to help out (with thanks), and then immediately set about unpacking by myself. But in Kingston this weekend there was no unpacking I could have done that wouldn’t have involved regular consultation with the people who lived there. Often the only way to get real alone time is to completely bow out of a group chore.

    *sigh*

    For all that, though, there are very few particular activities that I need to do solo. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is exercise. I don’t like company at the gym at all and while I can’t stop friends from working out at the same time as me, I try to make it clear that we won’t being going to the gym together in any real sense, because I spend that time completely in my own world.

  2. I’m a social introvert. I enjoy company but prefer one on one or small group interaction, and I definitely need alone time on a regular basis.

    Lately, I’ve particularly enjoyed taking a bath in the evening, slipping into my jammies, lighting candles and reading while listening to soft jazz.

    Other favourite solitary activities include sipping my first cup of coffee at sunrise, walking (especially in parks), reading newspapers in cafe and going to the movies.

    Solitude is as essential to me as the air that I breathe.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (when my brain gets a chance to think of something other than my dissertation topic) so it’s interesting that this post should pop up on my feed. For a while, I thought that I was an extreme extrovert. Even though I was shy as a kid, I figured that it was the fucked up home life that made me shy and that, freed from those burdens as a grown-up, I grew into my true nature. Lately, though, being at home alone a lot, I’m starting to think that I’m going back to my true nature as an introvert and that my social butterfly days were an adaptive strategy to run away from myself.

    I guess “multivert” would suit me. Like anything else, I can never be only one thing – HA! I go through phases where I can be at one extreme or the other but, for the most part, I’m pretty much middle of the road.

    As for solitude, I love my alone time with my laptop. These past weeks of intense writing have been immensely satisfying and I actually don’t mind waking up in the morning knowing that I’m about to put in several more hours of it.

    I also enjoy evenings to myself when my son is at my ex’s and I can listen to some quiet new age music and do some trance work, or simply sip some wine and listen to music. Reading fiction is always a great way to get lost in a world while acquiring fresh perspectives on life.

    As for landscapes – I don’t have much desert experience but my “barren landscape” of choice is the tundra. *sigh* I do love mountains and the forest too though. I never really feel alone there though. By myself, maybe, but not alone.

  4. For me, I love walking alone. I used to do this at least two or three times a week – go for a 2-4 hour walk around Hamilton. I’d meander downtown, along the escarpment, to the lake, etc. Even once started walking around 2am and ended up near Stoney Creek later in the morning.

    Cycling does it for me mostly now. I find the biggest hills or mountains (was in BC for the last year…) and most barren roads and I just ride. The repetitive nature of it, like running too, becomes a body mantra, allowing my mind to sort out whatever is stuck.

    Walking, cycling, running – so long as it is for at least 2-3 hours, that is the time I need to really feel renewed. The exhaustion of the body, the pleasure of exertion, endorphins, etc all combine to really put me in a pleasant state ready to adventure into whatever chaos I feel I want to bring into my life.

    And, I share a love of hot long showers. The radical environmentalist in me is at odds with this, but the amount of emotional and psychological comfort makes it well worth it. The feeling of my skin, alive and warm, indeed – the way the water seems to melt tensions, the scent, feel and taste of fresh clean wet skin. This is also one of the most intimate things I share with people.

    And, a more recent activity has been camping with my Hennessey Hammock. It is a very self-contained hammock that is dark, extremely comfortable and pleasantly snug, and all encompassing, cradling really. A form of sensory deprivation. I wrap myself in my sleeping bag, and the slight sway of the hammock rocks me deep into my mind, where after some time (depending on my mood and what I have on my mind), I will finally succumb to the most peaceful sleep (after mental loops and even sometimes hallucinations). Feels like a big psychic purge. I spent a month camping with that hammock biking across Ontario and Manitoba and did wonders for me.

    There are others, but those are the things that I do currently.

  5. I describe myself in 2 words
    “sociable loner” – probably because I was an only child raised in a close and highly functional fun family.

    party organizing skills well developed. Love it when you all show up. Love it when you all decide it’s time to leave.

  6. Ah, the old introvert/extrovert question…however you answer it, this post is a beautifully rendered celebration of solitude.

    I’ve always cherished my alone-time as well, and I struggle with a primary partner who’s an extrovert and indulges in more social interaction than I can even conceive of as healthy. The Myers-Briggs personality type sorter has the distinction down, I think: the second example you gave, where the introvert is basically drained by social interaction and the extrovert is fed by it. I usually come out right in the middle of the I/E scale on that test, but am definitely introvert-leaning. Mostly I notice that I can spend a whole lot of time with one other person – someone I care about a lot – and not have it drain me. At parties, this translates to my usual behavior at such things: I tend to spend hours talking to one person in a corner, someone I find fascinating and/or who I haven’t talked to in a while.

    That said, I’ve done theatre and other types of performance for years, and sometimes find myself the center of attention at parties.

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