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?