Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Solitude

A few summer's ago I was alone in Prague for a couple of weeks. I was staying in Jana's apartment - a place I'd rented before. It is a small apartment, but with a terrific view of the Castle, especially at night, and a roof terrace where I sun and dry my clothes.

From Jana's apartment I can gaze down at the roof tops of Prague. At night during other summer's I've spent here, I drifted off, gazing at the Castle, illumined until midnight when the lights went out and the city darkened. But this summer it was stinking hot and I was alone. It was in fact the hottest anyone could remember in Prague.

I had work to do so my days were busy, but in the evenings I was alone. Neither Larry nor Kate joined me this time and the few friends I had in Prague weren't around. Normally this would be all right. I'd hang out on the Kampa with all the dachshunds and Frisbee players or sit by the Vlatava, sipping prosecco and writing in my journal. But these activities on this particular summer had lost their appeal. In the evenings especially I found myself at a loss with what to do. Time seemed interminable.

After dinner or whatever I did that evening, I made my way home. But the apartment was boiling. It was unbearable really. And there were no screens (which I often find in Europe) or fan. In order to get any air I had to open all the windows wide. But then, if I had the lights on, the bugs flew in. Thousands of bugs. Big ones, little ones. They took over the entire ceiling. There was one bug in particular, a huge winged flying thing that looked like the alien from War of the Worlds, the first film that terrified me, and it would bang its head into the walls. So I would read as long as I could stand it and then when the insect population overpowered me,

I turned off my lights and sat in the dark, just staring at the Castle. I'd sit up for hours, until the Castle lights dimmed. Somewhere in the building almost every night a woman was making love. (It turns out she was rather famous in the building) I listened to her cries.

I am a person who once prided herself in traveling alone. I went to remote parts of Mexico and Latin America where I stayed for years. I traveled from Beijing to Berlin alone. I wrote about my solitary journeys for years. I never really minded not sharing a meal or walking city streets unaccompanied. I was content just to watch the world passing around me. But now I did mind. Something in me had shifted. I thought these weeks would never end.

I was a different person when I made those other journeys. My DNA wasn't the same. I didn't want to be alone anymore. This was a hard truth to admit, but I didn't want to. I had a daughter, a husband, a dog. A parrot, for god's sake. While I was happy to be away, I couldn't bear the lack of companionship. I wanted my solitude, but was not enjoying my loneliness. And it took me a awhile to make this distinction.

Solitude implies a choice. But loneliness is imposed. It's a kind of stealth emotion. Time moves slowly. Boredom settles in. You find yourself engaaging strangers in conversation like the crazy women back home. Writers, of course, are people who need to be alone. We need that time to ourselves, to stoke up, fan the flames, whatever you want to call it. But I'm not drawn to around-the-clock aloneness.

I like my solitude, but at the end of the day I want to share a glass of wine with someone I love. Prophets in the desert, a tree dormant in winter, the writer at her desk. These are all portraits of solitude, but it is also when the work is getting done. Moses needed his time in the desert, the same way the oak tree in my back yard needs to winter over. The artist needs his or her solitude. But I'm not sure we need to be alone.

I recall hearing once that Shakespeare couldn't bear to write in a room. He had to be out in the world, among people, in the pubs. I've written before in this blog about writing in cafes. How one has solitude yet you are in the world. The solitude of the writer isn't exile exactly. We need it, but it must be self-imposed.

The weeks in Prague, as I pulled the sheet over my head at night to avoid the insects that crashed into my pillow, were endless. And too many nights I found myself, sweating, sitting in the dark. Even after the Castle lights were extinguished, I was awake, listening to that woman's cries.


  1. I think this is my favorite post so far.