Being Alone

There is a storm before the quiet. Footsteps race and wander. Keys jangle. Wood floors creak. Dog’s nails click stacatto with hope. Yells good-bye and the door gasps shut.

The dog clicks back to her bed to sleep. The air conditioner clicks on. Finally, I am alone.

When I was a child, an only one, being alone was like oxygen. It surrounded me and I breathed in its coolness. It was a wind that sculpted me into who I am, a writer, a thinker, someone who can imagine both how else the world might be and what paint color will look good in the bathroom.

I took my solitude for granted. When long empty afternoons unfurled before me, I arranged a complex and luxurious house for Barbie and her friends from Kleenex boxes and the window sill. Yet I pined for someone to admire it. Leslie was at her grandmother’s. Julie was sick. Denise was at a birthday party I was not invited to. And Dena was mad at me. I was alone. Then my mother returned to me from her chores and night closed its arms around us; we shared dinner and watched TV and I was not alone.

In college I had the best of both worlds. When I encountered Virginia Woolf’s "A Room of One’s Own," an essay about what a woman needs in order to write great literature, I thought I might not have money but at least I had my room. It was the former servants’ quarters on the third floor of La Maison Française, an old mansion converted into housing for students studying French. My tiny corner room had a dormer window into which I pushed my desk. That was before computers, so I rat-a-tat-tat-ed on my blue-and-white Smith-Corona, composing college papers, blowsy poems, experimental and autobiographical stories, praying my fading ribbon would hold out until morning. At noon when I arose, I would fly down the stairs to the kitchen where half a dozen friends would be making half a dozen meals at the same time and I could share my night’s success. I loved living in this big family as much as I loved shutting my door to them.

Through the years I learned two ways of being alone. One is being removed from people, feeling as if you are the only soul alive, or at least the only one who cares about you. It was this deep-down loneliness I experienced after college, when I lived in a two-room apartment on a hill beneath a gnarled live oak dripping with spider moss. The year I took off from dating was especially hard. If I didn’t madly call all my single friends and line up plans for movies, music or Mexican by Thursday, I was doomed to spend from Friday night until Monday morning as a hermit. The hours ticked by, measured by books read, cigarettes smoked, cups of coffee consumed, and trips to the bathroom taken. My absence from the world went unnoticed.

Since then, my life has bloomed and the rare moments I am alone, I feel the fullness of myself rise up. I am so large and complex that nothing else exists for this time. It is religious. It is an art. I may write a novel or I may take a nap. Or I may just watch the wind chimes out the window ride the breeze. It doesn’t matter, because I am alone and no one will know.

I first encountered this nourishing solitude four years ago when I won a writing fellowship that required I move with my husband and our three-year-old son to a 350-acre ranch. Four days a week they drove into town for work and preschool and left me alone. The last time I’d had a single day by myself was my ultimate day of pregnancy which I’d spent alternately dancing to Aretha Franklin (to bring on labor), sewing tufts of yarn onto the baby quilt I’d made, and speed-walking (to bring on labor). Now, I said good-bye to my family in dawn’s fog. I turned back to face the silence with a fear not unlike that of the shy deer that leapt out of sight at daybreak. The house felt strange and empty. The wilderness lurked with hidden creatures. I ventured out with a stick. I read poetry aloud on the porch. I ate breakfast at my computer. I saved a fallen cardinal and checked the rain-filled creek. I wrote in my journal and practiced yoga and read something I found on the shelf and wrote a first draft of a story and cooked a tart for dinner. Solitude came empty-handed but soon was my best friend. Six months later we returned to our former lives, but I for one was changed. I demanded time alone.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artists’ Way and other guides to inviting the creative spirit into one’s life, claims that solitude is a requirement for artists. It is a vitamin for the soul. With it, we "fill the well" of listening and knowing and thinking and telling. But it can’t be just any solitude. It’s not enough to drop the kids off at school and have the car to yourself for a few miles until you get to work. It’s not enough to have a moment alone to pee (though for moms of young children, this achievement might seem like enough!). The solitude we all need—not just artists and thinkers and mothers—is that large unconstructed kind. The very emptiness I knew as a child, the same sprawling plain I wandered as a young single woman.

For mothers, to claim one’s solitude seems nearly impossible. We become so accustomed to sensing the hum of others’ needs that we can be tempted to let our own thoughts and discoveries simmer down to nothing, or what looks a lot like nothing. For some of us there is simply nothing left after working several jobs and caring for our kids. Our hours are so filled with purpose, even as we may encourage our kids to not over-schedule themselves, that to set aside time to just "be" sounds not only selfish, but wasteful.

But I have found I have more purpose when I have spent time alone. Luckily, my husband agrees. Solitude accomplishes a reconnection to one’s self. It is a place to work out a divine plan, listen without pause to a CD, remember important stuff, or just doze. It might be a time to put all those photos in albums. But it might not.

Myself, I have become a stalker of solitude. When friends let on that a weekend trip lies in their future, I am on them like a cable TV salesman. I feed cats. I water plants. Mostly I find a chair that feels right or a table that’s got good light. I set out my things. I do some of them. I don’t do others. Whatever this time alone brings, I welcome as I do the visit of an old friend.
Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Send feedback for Robin to: motherload@austinmama.com and visit her site at www.robinbradford.net