Open any Oprah-esque magazine and you’ll find scads of articles about the importance of solitude. These articles always end with advice that breaks one of two ways. The first is banal tips like deleting Facebook off your phone, or (heaven forbid!) turning your phone off completely for a few hours.
The second is to dedicate yourself to the pursuit of solitude through yoga or meditation or a morning cup of coffee on the back deck. Or a Gilbertian trek of eating, praying, and loving your way through foreign countries.
But this makes solitude too much like work, a chore to be ticked off a list, up there with packing lunches, washing dishes, and doing the laundry.
Finding solitude has never been a struggle for me. I am reminded of a passage from Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, written in 1938:
I wondered why it was that places are so much lovelier when one is alone. How commonplace and stupid it would be if I had a friend now, sitting beside me, someone I had known at school, who would say, “By-the-way, I saw old Hilda the other day. You remember her, the one who was so good at tennis. She’s married, with two children. And the bluebells beside us unnoticed, and the pigeons overhead unheard. I did not want anyone with me. Not even Maxim. If Maxim had been there I should not be lying as I was now, chewing my piece of grass, my eyes shut. I should have been watching him, watching his eyes, his expression. Wondering if he liked it, if he was bored. Wondering what he was thinking. Now I could relax, none of these things mattered. Maxim was in London. How lovely it was to be alone again.
I first read those words in 2004 and have never forgotten them. There is a pleasure in going off the grid, even if only for a little while, to a place where no one can find you. It’s why I sometimes write in the library even though I have a perfectly good home office. I like getting lost in the quiet stacks of books.
I go to movies and restaurants alone, and always have. I love driving at night alone, and walks through old neighborhoods.
It’s the way I draw a circle around myself to keep the noise of the world out. It’s the way I figure out what I want to do and momentarily set aside what the world wants me to do.
The unnamed narrator in Rebecca deeply loves her husband Maxim. She doesn’t want to get rid of him because he mistreats her or because she is happier without him. She just understands the importance and joy of having some time to herself.
We live in an age of extraordinary distractions. We have more information—and noise—at our fingertips than anyone in history. But the more history I learn, the more I come to believe that the most overused word in our language is “unprecedented.”
The fight for solitude has never come easy. Our unnamed narrator didn’t have a smartphone to lure her from the bluebirds, but she did have chatty friends and responsibilities. She had a house to clean and meals to prepare, all of which took many more hours than they do today. Still she found time to refuel her soul.
It is as important for us as it was for her to notice the bluebirds and pigeons in our lives.