Years ago, after a clandestine coffee with a very old friend — I’m harmless and uninterested; his wife entertains different ideas — I noted the ways in which I felt we were similar. Specifically, that no matter how many people we surround ourselves with, we’re just fundamentally lonely people. Purpose built, almost.
He disagreed. Told me there was a difference between wanting to be alone, and feeling true loneliness. He wasn’t wrong. I think about that exchange a lot. Like, a LOT. Probably once a month or more. And every time I come to pretty much the same conclusion: I crave the former, but find my hands full of the latter. Like a hungry bride sampling wedding cakes, only to be left with a transient bellyache and a lifelong hatred of fondant.
The long and the short of it is that I like being alone.
Truly, one of the single best moments of my half-century life came when I was in my 20s, and me and my boyfriend at the time landed a free ticket to anywhere in North America, and we chose to go to Newfoundland. We were driving through the barrens of the Avalon peninsula, and I asked him to stop the car and let me out, then drive away … at least far enough that I couldn’t see the car anymore.
In retrospect, stupid stupid stupid decision, because that made me the tallest warm-blooded thing for miles, and the local population of biting insects knew it. But it was stupid AND worth it, because for that moment in time, it was just me, and a landscape that moved me to tears, described better than I ever could by Wayne Johnston:
There was beauty everywhere, but it was the bleak beauty of sparsity, scarcity and stuntedness, with nothing left but what a thousand years ago had been the forest floor, a landscape clear-cut by nature that never would recover on its own. It was a beauty so elusive, so tantalizingly suggestive of something you could not quite put into words that it could drive you mad and, however much you loved it, make you want to get away from it and recall it from some city and content yourself with knowing it was there.The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998)
So what am I getting at, you’re asking, with the morally dubious coffee dates and weird cake analogies and vacation reminiscences …
That I like being alone, and that thanks to COVID-19, it’s a thing that I like that almost never happens.
There were flashes of solitude last summer. I’d started a new job at a university, and in between reading and course prep and whoa-this-is-all-new-and-I-am-100%-not-qualified-to-do-this (spoiler: I was) panic attacks, there were several lovely moments where my partner took the kids to go swim or hike or just not be around, so that I could have some quiet, focused time to work.
That continued, in a different way, into the fall. Kids went back to school. We had a beautiful, probably (too lazy to look it up) unprecedentedly warm September and October, which meant that I could work outside, sort of around people (on coffee shop patios), but still apart. Partner went to work in an otherwise 100% empty office every day. It wasn’t normal, but it was good, you know?
And then it got cold, because axial tilt is a real thing and also sort of an asshole. Back inside. Still mostly alone. Until just after Christmas, when COVID numbers started to do exactly what experts expected, and kids shifted back to school-at-home. Again. I don’t want to actually add up the days of in-person learning they’ve lost, but I’m assured that it’s a lot, and how could it not be, when kids here in Ottawa were out mid-March 2020 to end of June 2020, and early January 2021 to early February 2021, AND mid-April 2021 to end of June 2021?
Working from home when kids are learning from home is not impossible, but in my experience, it’s not always possible-adjacent. It’s hard on kids, hard on parents, hard all around.
And it’s harder — and here, at last, huzzah, confetti … is my main point — on those of us who really like to be alone. I like my kids, which is a true bonus (contract only obliges me to love them). I like spending time with them. Ditto partner. But all of them, all the time, always, never not … hoo boy.
Things got hardest a few months ago when my partner switched jobs to one where, responsibly, he was expected to work from home. Have I mentioned that we live in an objectively tiny two-bedroom apartment? That’s two large humans, two en-route-to-large kids, and one large dog, and very few separate and distinct places for all of us to work and learn and run in our sleep.
But it’s not just about space management and sound management, although it is also those things. It strikes at the reason alone-seekers seek aloneness. Not only solitude and quiet, but the absence of judgment. The ability to just … be. Without feeling the need to be “always on.” Without feeling the need to be better than the version of you that you are.
I’m not talking about the freedom to wear pyjama pants while one works, which is of course right and good and wholly defensible. It’s more like … you can leave that empty coffee cup on the counter for now, and put it away later, and no one will give you grief about it. You can stomp and sigh and roll your eyes at whoever else didn’t put their dishes away, free of (fair and accurate) charges of hypocrisy. You can spend your lunch hour watching sweet, delicious, terrible television. While you’re at it, you can eat 15 cherries for lunch. Or half a tube of Pringles. Or nothing. Who cares, you’re alone! No one is watching! Or listening! Or anything!
There are very (very) serious problems that go hand-in-hand with this new non-normal, from lost educational opportunities to domestic violence to eating disorders … and worse. Up against all of that potential pain and grief, it feels a bit silly to complain about a kid who hogs the couch or a partner who talks too loudly on work calls — and even more absurd to whine about wanting to be let alone.
But if you, like me, really need to be alone — not, hey, that would be nice, but like, NEED need — I just want to say: I get it. Being around other people all the time is exhausting. Feeling like you’re constantly defending your own space and encroaching on others’ wears you down. Being told that you shouldn’t sing along with the radio is, I assume, hard to hear (I wouldn’t know; I have a lovely singing voice, and will prove it to you BY SINGING LOUDER).
COVID-19 has taken so much from all of us: people we love; the comfort of friends; financial security; the ability to travel, and learn, and grow. For those of us with partners and kids and work and school all crammed under one roof, it’s also stolen most of our alone time and, in a classic d*ck move, handed us more loneliness.
I’m sure there’s some kind of profound conclusion to be drawn here, about how one must come to terms with oneself (via alone time) so as to be a better and more capable companion (aka: keep loneliness at bay). I don’t know if those dots connect for me. I just know that I need these people I love to get out of my damn house.
And I need to tell my friend he was right.