By Kassi Cowles
My husband and I just ended our three-week New Zealand vacation in Queenstown, and for our last day, I opted to stay to look at the mountains while he took a bus tour to see the coastal scenery.
For dinner I went to one of the waterfront restaurants and enjoyed a glass of wine, watching the sailboats as they drifted by. It was one of those evenings made for artists. The sun was softening in the horizon, the lake was calm, and the warm breeze was threaded with a ribbon of cool air off the water. I was in such a mellow reverie that I hardly noticed the patio getting busy. A man at a nearby table came over and asked if he could take one of the empty chairs. Before he walked away he pointed to my salad and said: “Is this just a lonely dinner for one?”
The people at the next tables turned to look at me.
He continued, eclipsing my view of the lake and mountains: “Are you just travelling all alone?”
I explained that I was with my husband but he was out on a tour, and so right now, it was, indeed, just me. The man looked at my bare ring finger and said, “Well, if your husband does turn up, you can come and get the chair.”
His words were saturated with such pity that I’m convinced he would have asked me to join him and his friend had my response been more inviting. You know, to save me from my loneliness.
I finished my wine feeling a little embarrassed by the attention he’d drawn to me. The restaurant seemed loud now, and the breeze nippy so I left, wondering why he couldn’t recognize what was going on at my table–that I was enjoying the quiet, reflective space of solitude–and why, in our culture, being alone is a sign of being in need.
My husband and I are introverts and devoutly committed to our alone time. We work in the same school abroad and have plenty of togetherness, but we’ve found that spending time apart pursing our own interests and curiosities makes the time we spend together richer. It works for us.
But we’ve been scrutinized for our independent behavior (more me than him; maybe as the woman, I should need him more.) And it surprises me, in this age of perpetual transience and transition, and in a culture that champions individualism, that solitude should be seen with such a narrow, prosaic view.
Extroverts have been considered the superior personality type for some time, although this is beginning to change as the workforce starts to better understand introverts and how to use them. But socially, introversion and the love of solitude are still misunderstood as awkwardness, rudeness, and worst of all, un-fun.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden–a mid-19th-century book written about his time living a solitary life in a cabin in the woods–celebrates the virtues of being alone and self-sufficient, particularly among nature. Although Thoreau believed that there was “no companion so companionable as solitude,” a quick 21st-century Google search brings up a bleak Wikipedia diagnosis of solitude as a condition that “may stem from bad relationships, loss of loved ones, deliberate choice, infectious disease [or] mental disorders.”
As a selectively social person, my solitude makes my social life more enjoyable, and knowing when to depart a party before, as Thoreau says, “the cheese gets musty,” is part of how I curate my time. My friends often interpret my early departure as a sign of dissatisfaction or strangeness, but I think, how much time does togetherness need? Why overwrite a perfectly articulated evening? Best to say goodnight when the breeze still has warmth and to arrive home just as the sun, and our smiles, are setting.
Although my companionship with solitude isn’t as poetic as Thoreau’s, in the last few years abroad I’ve experienced the nuanced, sensual, and limitless world that solitude provides, and I encourage others to try it.
Just do it quickly. It’s never long before a flock of extroverts arrive and start pecking at your solitude like pigeons in the piazza.
Kassi Cowles is a Toronto writer and educator teaching abroad. Her essay, “Year of the Pig,” was recently given an honourable mention by the literary journal Glimmer Train. She currently lives and teaches with her husband in Shanghai.