This week I am in Atlanta at Emory University for a seminar. I basically get to take a class on 70s and 80s politics from a top scholar in the field, but my excitement is heavily tempered by having to be hundreds of miles away from my family for a week.
Moments like these bring me back to my old solitary existence. In college and grad school I mostly roomed with friends, which always kept me from feeling lonely. After that followed two years in Michigan and three years in Texas living in a one bedroom apartment. My first five months in Michigan, which were unbearably lonely, actually prompted me to get a cat. There is an art to being alone, and after awhile, I figured it out. I made sure to go out to the local diner every Wednesday for dinner, where I would sit at the counter and join the conversations. Before I made some great friends I would go to the bar on Saturday and talk with folks there too. Saturday morning also meant a trip to the diner, usually walking while I read from the Times (this was before smart phones.) I spent a lot of time at the local coffee house on the days when I didn't have to teach, and would walk instead of drive. I found these rituals fulfilling, and tried to copy them once I moved to Texas, although walking there was more difficult. Instead of walking to destinations I would take a Saturday morning stroll on a trail by a creek, enjoying the early morning silence and the beautiful East Texas trees.
In both places I had great friends to lean on, but when you live alone and your friends are married, it is not an emotionally equal exchange. You need them more than they need you, which is nothing against them, it's just the way of things. But without those friends, solitude can be really hard. I learned that during my research year abroad in Germany, where solitude was compounded by being a stranger in a strange land. That year, however, I also learned how to live with being alone, which was a great help later on. I also found my mind to be at its creative peak. There were no distractions, just myself and my research. I read more books that year than in any other year of my life, walked more steps, and exposed myself to more new things. When I came back to America I was happy to be back, but also energized by my year of solitude. Solitude can be good in isolation, but wearying as a permanent condition. It can bring almost unbearable moments of self doubt and isolation.
Nowadays these moments are rare, mostly riding the train to work. Because of my wife and daughters, I never have the feeling that I am alone in the world, and it is a comfort that I often take for granted. I was reminded of that today, walking into my absolutely bare dorm room home for this week. The sterile emptiness of this room where I am writing feels oppressive. Where are my wife, the children, the dog, the piles of clutter I normally complain about? There is nothing here but me and my thoughts. I guess the one truly great thing about spending a lot of time alone in my life is that it has trained me to face my thoughts, especially those nagging doubts that bubble up when I have the time and quiet to let them gurgle, as I am sure they do for you. I'll try to enjoy the pleasures of solitude this week, but I am glad that I already had a chance to meet up with an old friend today, and will see more this week.