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Making space for solitude
I have to admit there were many times this month when I pondered whether to continue this series and stressed over what I would write next. When I wrote the last letter, I thought to myself that perhaps I would publish something every two weeks to see if I could stick to the habit. And as the weeks passed by, I found myself more and more anxious about this invisible deadline in my head. I picked a question to write about, I read books and listened to podcasts and wrote out some ideas. But I could never quite find a time to sit down, think deeply, and flesh out a letter.
Why? Because I’d been busy booking myself with social activity after social activity for the entire week, so much so that my time for thinking was restricted to rides on the subway, moments on the treadmill, and power walks to brunch. Even as I write this note, my eyes turn to the clock to track how many minutes I have left before I must get up to go meet a friend.
And don’t get me wrong, I think these moments of movement are important – I think of my best ideas during in-between moments – long walks, shower thoughts, people-watching on the train. But they don’t replace time for deep contemplation. Time set aside to fully investigate and pour out the thoughts in my brain.
I enjoy my alone time. It’s something I naturally crave. I could happily spend a week or two in my own company, and in fact, that would be quite a regular occurrence if I didn’t force myself to go out and meet new people. I love taking long walks on my own, sitting at coffeeshops by myself. On road trips, I’m the first to put on my headphones and spend the hours listening to new albums and letting my mind wander with the scenery. When hiking with friends, my feet itch to get a little ahead of the group and take in the surroundings on my own.
This tendency has always made me feel a little abnormal. I’m what most people would consider an extrovert. Amongst close friends, I am the first to get everyone together and make plans, to give people spontaneous calls, and to spark loud, unhinged late night conversations. Friends, family, and acquaintances never fail to ask me if I feel lonely living by myself in the city, leaving me to wonder if it’s odd that I don’t. To be honest, I feel more lonely amongst the wrong company than when on my own. Meeting new people is always so hit or miss, while solitude is so consistently sweet.
This week I’ve found some relief in reading words that laud the importance of solitude. In All About Love, Bell Hooks writes about the value of embracing solitude to heighten our capacity for connection and fellowship. In Even the Stars Look Lonesome, Maya Angelou writes:
It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves. In the silence we listen to ourselves. Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves to ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God.
(side note: while hopping between Bell Hooks and Maya Angelou quotes I stumbled upon this golden conversation between them that I highly recommend reading)
Despite these reassurances, like most people in their twenties, I continually shift between using my newfound freedom to do what I actually like doing as opposed to what I think I should be doing. My insecurity about the latter disservices both myself and the people I spend time with, taking away my ability to be fully present in any given moment. Whenever I feel slightly bored in a social interaction I think about what I could be doing my own. And whenever I’m spending time alone I feel guilt about not meeting other people, questioning whether I’m spending my time wisely in this new city.
I do think it’s important to make an effort to socialize, and I’ve gotten to know some really interesting people this year. Post-graduation is the first time most of us feel a significant lack of community in our lives. Young adults today generally don’t have ties to any community-building institutions, religious groups, or social organizations. With the influx of remote work, many of us are also losing the chance to connect with coworkers. We’re starved for connection, and the only way to build social bonds is to reach out and make a conscious effort.
But what is the right amount of social interaction? How do we find our people? In community settings, repetitive interaction breeds connection. My closest friends are ones I’ve grown with – we spent enough time together to shape shared world views, trade opinions on life decisions, and learn about each others’ upbringings. But with the rigidity of a 9 to 5 and the infinite optionality in a big city, it’s hard to see the same person twice, let alone form a friendship.
Perhaps the key to all of this, finding the balance between solitude and socializing, is intentionality. Relationships take time, and rushing to pack every day with activity is clearly draining me. Maybe I’d be happier leaving a weekend a month for solitary reflection, perhaps even a day every week. I’ve started to carve out some time every morning to spend as I choose, before having to face the obligations of the day. And writing all of this down has reminded me that I need to be more conscious of who and what bring me energy.
All that being said, this was not the letter I intended to write, but it’s turned out to be one all the same. Maybe next time I’ll be back with my planned programming, or maybe I’ll have found a new insecurity to dissect – we’ll see where my mind wanders :)
P.S. an album for your time ~ i leave you with my favorite album for main character city walks ✨