The second half of this piece began as a writing prompt in my adult class: “Write about something that can be good and bad at the same time.” I wrote the rest of it a little while ago, but thought it might be relevant to some folks right now. I hope you all enjoy your alone time and also reach out to others. Both make us human.
I tell my students that I like going to movies alone. The joys are simple to encapsulate: no one to take the popcorn from me, the air conditioning in summer, the ease of arriving on time instead of rushing, the freedom to sit where I want without negotiating the Treaty of Versailles.
It’s more than that, however; it is keeping my eyes trained on the screen the whole time, without scanning my boyfriend’s face for enjoyment after each joke. After all, I probably picked the movie and I am a loud laugher, and I don’t want to be embarrassed if he’s not having a good time. I’ll flick my head from The Rock to my boyfriend and back a few times before I think maybe I am being anoying, and then I start thinking about that.
When I am alone, I get to be engrossed in story — and that’s what this is all really about. Stories are made for our minds to embrace internally. We gather stories into our arms, bring them in from the cold, check for bruises. We cry with them. Yes, I have cried alone in a movie theater. It’s dark, and with a few seats between me and anyone else, it feels safe. And at the end of it, when the lights come up, I don’t have to be alone. So it feels easier to stop crying.
Stories are meant to be shared, but they’re also meant to be felt and lived alone.
Maybe that is the difference between when I like being alone and when I don’t. What story am I experiencing? Am I in a narrative, or just in my own whirling thoughts?
The band Joseph has a song called “In My Head.” It tells the story of a first date through the lens of an anxious woman’s internal monologue. Before the date even starts, she is playing out how it will go, everything her date will say, how she will mess it all up. And the imaginary future in her head gets in the way of enjoying the actual story happening around her. It’s a #relatable song, and it’s poignant for the impossibility it presents: we can’t get out of our heads. We have to be in our feelings, in our futures, and in the moment at the same time.
That’s why being alone can be magical. I get to experience all my feelings and think all my thoughts without ever having to say them out loud. I can decide as the wind blows to follow it; I can drive side streets without explaining what I’m curious about.
But being alone means I don’t hear my voice as much. Being alone makes me want to hear someone else answering my questions, even if it’s just to say “no.” When I’m alone it’s too quiet sometimes, like nothing is moving, like everything is stuck in its place, cemented in its spot.
I love quiet sometimes. I like to be almost alone in a library or a bookstore, not completely abandoned but rather, being in a place that was built for silence. A place that leaves space for breathing. When I’m on my own with books or a piano or the lavender scent in my shower, I don’t have to move fast or work hard or prove myself. I get the space to spread myself out a little bit.
Being alone doesn’t always make me relaxed. Sometimes it makes me feel like time is moving too fast and leaving me behind. Like how I’ve felt for the past few years, that I am behind the times, not having a house or a partner or a baby. I get all swirled up in my head instead of just living along the timeline as it happens.
Of course, sometimes when I’m on my own I can convince myself that I don’t need to be on anyone’s timeline but my own. But I can also convince myself never to leave the house and never to pursue those goals that I do want. Without anyone telling me what I am supposed to want, you’d think I could listen to myself more, but it turns out I’m a little intimidating too, even on my own.
Then more time passes, and more silence, and I am not sure where to go.
Maybe the best alone time is when I’m writing (although I also like being with other people when I write). I think when I sit with myself and write, I listen to my own voice, and create a space for story. It’s like opening the door and inviting myself in.