In my adolescence, summer was a time of self-improvement. I planned my reinvention meticulously. Come the fresh school year, I’d breeze through the doors of my high school with perfect hair, new clothes, and a laser focus. Of course, I had a limited budget, hair that refused to straighten completely, and a tendency to get discouraged or distracted by the slightest obstacle. To be honest, the fun wasn’t in the result. It was the daydreaming, the dog-earing pages of Seventeen and the endless bookmarking of WikiHow articles in Internet Explorer that made everything seem possible.
This summer is my twenty-seventh. I’m looking forward to self-reflection, but I won’t be switching shampoos or going on a shopping spree. Instead, I’m going to live alone for the first time.
My partner accepted an exciting job at his childhood summer camp in another state. I’m thrilled for him. I’m proud of him for doing something that makes him happy. I’m also scared of being alone. I can be mean, jealous, petty, and insecure. I’ve lashed out at him: “Don’t you love me? Why do you want to leave me?” I think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote from The Crack-Up: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Unfortunately, I lack in the “ability to function” category. Every snide comment I mutter chips away at the foundation of trust and kindness we’ve worked so hard to build over the past four years. That’s not functioning; that’s sabotage.
My partner reassures me: I am not someone someone wants to leave. I tell myself: I’m someone worth returning to. I want to return to myself. So I’m taking the time to plan things I’ll do when I feel lonely. I haven’t let go of my self-improvement fetish completely; I’m planning to read Rising Strong, Journal of a Solitude, and Super You.
I’m going to take a solo trip or two, visit friends, and explore their hometowns. I’ll go to work. I’ll write. I’ll take long walks in the park and pet some dogs. I’ll do laundry and clean my co-habitant’s litter box. Along the way, I hope to return to the knowledge that I can take care of myself, that I deserve to feel well.
This week’s list is called “Adventures in Solitude.” I’m no hermit, but I do see this summer as something of a solo mission. I’m working on: “How to be surrounded. How to be the only,” like writer Delaney Nolan describes in her essay “On Being Unalone.” I feel my teenage optimism rising again — maybe this summer will be different. Maybe I’ll emerge, changed forever.
1. “Failing to Write a Novel in the Most Distraction-Free Place on Earth.” (Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, April 2017)
If I could choose my ideal writing locale, it would be close to a bookshop and a coffee shop, or some combination of the two. I would not, under any circumstance, relegate myself to, say, the Falkland Islands. But that’s exactly what aspiring novelist Nell Stevens did, choosing to spend a month-long writing residency on uninhabited Bleaker Island. The result is Bleaker House — part memoir, part fragmented novel. At the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead analyzes and ultimately praises the book’s unusual structure. Stevens, she writes, is “deftly comic about her predicament, while also being deeply earnest about her aspirations.” I may not see any penguins or ration my oatmeal like Stevens, but I’m going to try to integrate her perspective into my own experience with solitude: comic and earnest, creative and determined.
2. “May Sarton, The Art of Poetry No. 32.” (Karen Saum, The Paris Review, Fall 1983)
May Sarton, author of Journal of a Solitude, discusses her vast body of work, coming out as a lesbian when that was “not done,” meeting Virginia Woolf, and her experiences with the Muse.
3. “Since Living Alone.” (Durga Chew-Bose, The Hairpin, January 2015)
I broke my no-new-books rule to buy Too Much and Not The Mood, Durga Chew-Bose’s new essay collection. I think she’s one of the most interesting writers working today, and I always feel smarter for having read her. I was delighted to discover she wrote about her experience living alone back in 2015 and enjoyed this observation in particular:
“But living alone is the reverse of mastery. It’s scuttling around in surrender while hoping you don’t stub your toe because living alone is also a series of indignities like bouncing around on one foot, writhing in pain. Living alone is an elaborately clumsy wisening up.”
4. “She Wants to Be Alone.” (Rhian Sasseen, Aeon, February 2015)
Rhian Sasseen writes about female ascetics, Buddhist nuns, the male gaze, and our Thoreau-ly patriarchal double standards regarding who deserves solitude.
5. “On Being Unalone.” (Delaney Nolan, Vela, October 2013)
As this gorgeous essay progresses, Delaney Nolan’s attitude towards solitude ebbs and flows. Some days, she revels in the sparse environment surrounding her rural Icelandic cabin (her descriptions of the ponies are hilarious); during the evenings, she craves “the shiny gold coin of their attention,” the voices of the people she phones from isolation.