Finding solitude

I love my work and the people I encounter while doing it.  That’s a good thing, because very little of my work is solitary. Going to meetings – in person and online – attending or speaking at conferences, delivering training, talking to the media: all of this is interactive and involves other people; often lots of them.

Even email communication can require a lot of engagement and emotional energy, especially when I hear from women looking for help. I’m not always able to offer what they need – a better family court outcome; a trauma-informed police response when they report violence; safety for themselves and their children – but I like to think I can offer them something that makes them feel a bit better about themselves, even if it is just an acknowledgement and validation that what has been done to them is wrong and not their fault or a reassurance that their children are fortunate to have them for a mother.

Herd mentality

I’ve never lived alone. I grew up in a house filled with my parents and five younger siblings. We spent our summers jammed into the family car, driving and camping our way across Canada and, once, through parts of Europe. There never seemed to be quite enough space for everyone. I particularly remember one trip from our home in Waterloo, Ontario, to Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. I had just turned 10, and the newest arrival to the family – my youngest sister — had been born about two weeks before the expedition. In between us, there were three more: two sisters and one brother.

Our car was a sedan of some kind; baby blue in colour, maybe a Chevrolet. By the time all of our gear – we were camping, so there was a lot of it – was packed in, there wasn’t a lot of room for us. Thank goodness, seat belt laws were a thing of the future. With our baby sister in a car bed slung over the back of the front bench seat, the other four of us scrabbled for space on the back seat or the floor. When someone misbehaved and got summoned to sit in the front between our parents, which was not infrequent, the rest of us cheered, because it meant we had a bit more space to spread out.

By the time my youngest brother came along, I was old enough to be left at home on my own – good thing, because I’m not sure there was a car in those pre-mini-van days that could have held all of us.

Those trips were fantastic learning opportunities for us kids — and a lot of work for our parents — but alone time was not part of them.

When I got pregnant as a teenager, I left that house full of people for another: my in-laws’ home. And so it went, from one houseful of people to another. For a long time, I didn’t know how to function when I was alone: it was as though I only existed when I was in the company of others.

I love sharing a meal or going to a movie with friends, throwing a party or sitting in our backyard in the summer with visitors sipping cold drinks and solving the problems of the world. Generally, I have preferred the company of others to my own.

My pleasure in being in the company of others has extended beyond social and work interactions. I’ve long been committed to the idea of living with a crowd. For years, my partner and I were involved in an attempt to create a rurally-based intentional community of like-minded folks. The notion of pooling resources, sharing the work and spending time together with others made sense to us. Over the years of attempting to build that intentional community, there were plenty of highs but, eventually, they were outnumbered by the lows, and we abandoned the effort, sold the land and moved back to the city to resume a nuclear living arrangement.

In many ways, I’ve missed the camaraderie – and irritations — of living with other people ever since.

Alone but not lonely

But, over the past year or so, I find myself seeking opportunities for solitude. In terms of my work, I have to admit that it is getting harder and harder to manage the interpersonal connections that are required. They tire me, I become impatient, and it takes me longer to feel restored and ready to get back at it.

In my personal and social life, I am less interested than I used to be in spending time in large groups of people, preferring to gather with friends in twos and threes. When we bring our kids, partners and their kids together, managing the interpersonal dynamics among all of them leaves me little time or energy to really connect with any one of them.

As I build space to work on my book, I have discovered the joys of being alone, really for the first time in my life. I have been fortunate enough to be able to rent a small get-away in Prince Edward County for a few one-week writing retreats and, while writing is the reason I am there, I have certainly enjoyed the spin-off benefits of being on my own.

Our oldest grandson recently spent a couple of months travelling around western Europe by himself. when he returned, I asked him if he had ever felt lonely. No, he said; in fact, he learned that he liked his own company just fine.

I feel as though, at a much older age, I am learning the same thing about myself. Time alone for me is no longer something to be feared; rather it is something to be treasured and protected.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not about to become a hermit. I still enjoy –and I hope I always will – the stimulation that comes from working with others and the pleasures of a good conversation or raucous dinner party. 

As the Highwomen sing, with one minor adaptation by me:

“I want a house with a crowded table/And a place by the fire for everyone/Let us take on the world while we’re [all still] able/And bring us back together when the day is done.”

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