I’m alone right now, and it’s great.
It happens so rarely that I get antsy when I’ve waited too long. I need time alone, and a lot of it. I felt it most acutely last week, when in the middle of several very long classes (with, albeit, incredible, fun students), time with colleagues in my shared office, and no time at home alone, I wound up uncharacteristically running late and waiting for the subway. I try to avoid the worst of the rush hour crush, but somehow I was there in the middle of it. And when you’re late, the subway is inevitably delayed, so it was literally a crush as I was swept into the middle of the car by a wave of people, folded into the man in front of me in a most inappropriate way. I can’t help but wonder why I live and work in the middle of Canada’s biggest city at these moments.
The problem is, I grew up with a lot of space around me. In some ways. Our family of five was crammed into the main level of our small house; being the only girl I managed to score my own bedroom around age 12, a small oasis amidst the chaos. But the world outside was spacious. People who aren’t from the prairies don’t understand what it’s like to not have your view interrupted by tall buildings and throngs of people. When I moved to Edmonton, I drove between it and Calgary regularly, watching the space unfold around me quickly as I left each city. People complain about the dull Highway 2 drive, but I secretly liked it.
When I got to Toronto, I remember literally hiding under my blankets in the first week, trying to escape the oppressive heat (not the way to do it), wondering how I was going to adjust to such an unfriendly, crowded place.
Obviously, everything worked out fine. But the upshot is that now I’m never alone, and never with some space. I have two sayings that I repeat (mostly in my head) regularly: “I need space” and “If you love someone, leave them alone.”
We are not a society who values being alone, though that attitude is rapidly changing. People who choose to avoid marriage and children, who become disillusioned by the expected benchmarks of maturity and socialization and go off to live by themselves in remote locations are considered weird, inadaptable, or just plain antisocial. But is it really all that bad? For me, relationships are made so much better by spending time apart, and that’s especially true of partnerships. Why not spend your life doing interesting things, only coming together occasionally to report on said things and to offer each other companionship and support when it’s needed? I can’t understand those who work together, go home together, raise a family together, travel together – but those who do that are different from me.
I have friends who, like me, crave alone time. They plan excitedly for when their partners leave town on a business trip, daydreaming about the stupid things they’ll make for dinner or what they’ll watch with the TV to themselves. I have other friends (some in partnerships with these loners) who do the opposite – fill their calendar with social activities when the partner is away, have people over every night, post continuously to their thousand facebook friends when they have a quiet moment. These types are popularly referred to as extroverts, though their counterparts have been getting some good press lately.
Sometimes time alone is meaningless, such as when you’re engaging in what Sex and the City’s Carrie referred to as “secret single behaviour”, or SSB. For her, it was something like eating a stack of crackers with grape jelly on them – something that is apparently too embarrassing to do in front of someone else. For me, sometimes it’s just zonking out on the couch to Gilmore Girls reruns with the cat on my lap, or putting on an album I know all the words to and singing loudly, but more often it’s productive time. I can practice, work on all the projects scattered in my head, daydream, read... and not worry about being “on” for someone else, whether that’s a family member, a partner, a colleague, or a bunch of students waiting for me to say something profound (oh, the pressure).
In popular music, being alone is most definitely weird. Type “Alone” into youtube’s search box, and all you get are songs where artists whine about not being in a relationship. Get over it, people. It can be great.
Of course, if that’s what you need, just buy Dusty Springfield’s Greatest Hits. Great if you don’t like being alone, or want some comfort in the fact that even Dusty had some tough times on her own:
“I just don’t know what to do with my time..../Going to a movie only makes me sad”... my god, so sad! When I was at the Ian Tyson show, which I attended by myself, back in the summer, I bought a beer during intermission and hung around the lobby, watching everyone else. Someone nearby, in a not very quiet voice, said, “Look at that poor girl! She’s here all alone.” Honestly, I thought it was the best night ever.
I often ask my students to question why they choose the music they listen to, and a common answer is to get over a breakup. If songwriters were honest about enjoying time alone, they probably wouldn’t sell many records, or appear to be all that normal, so they avoid the topic. If being alone (note that this is a distinct state not to be equated with loneliness) is addressed, it’s generally treated as a sort of surprise to be noted, like in NQ Arbuckle’s “Canada Day Off/Toronto”.
Or it’s the result of an ending relationship:
Or, surprise, it’s the result of, or leads to, drinking:
’Course, you don’t want to be alone so much that you get to this point:
I always liked the Cowboy Junkies’ song, “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning” because even though the character’s alone state is the result of an ending relationship, she finds pleasure in all the things she missed when partnered, like the “extra four feet” in her bed.
“There's something about an afternoon spent doing nothing
Just listening to records and watching the sun falling
Thinking of things that don't have to add up to something
And this spell won't be broken
By the sound of keys scraping in the lock”
I suppose I haven’t made myself popular with the last few posts – at this point, I’m coming across like a crazed hermit grammarian with a drinking problem, but I swear, I am usually out in the world being friendly as I should. I only wish sometimes I could run away – me and the cat on our great adventure of being alone in the woods (or the prairies), just for a little while.