Solitude, Being Alone, Loneliness

The British government recently appointed a Minister to deal with the problem of loneliness. This, as well as several other things, has made me think about the differences between loneliness and being alone, or solitude — which can be a fertile, creative, refreshing, or calming experience. There are many activities people enjoy doing alone: a solitary walk in the woods or on the beach, or even through city streets; writing a poem, painting a picture, listening to and perhaps playing music; reading; gardening; woodworking; doing a science experiment; meditating; daydreaming; taking a bubble-bath; going to an art gallery; sometimes cooking; even cleaning out the cupboards. Sometimes, as Wordsworth said, “the world is too much with us,” and we just want a break — “the pause that refreshes,” to paraphrase an old ad. As a writer, I really value solitude — both for doing the actual writing/rewriting, and for the walks and other activities that let me “mull” ideas in my mind. Swimming laps in a pool or swimming in a calm lake often frees up a space for ideas to play around with each other and combine in new ways. I think the times we enjoy being alone are when we are really enjoying a relationship with ourselves, a kind of inner, silent dialogue and companionship. When we are lonely, on the other hand, we are missing someone (who has died, or just left – forever, or for a day), and feeling abandoned or rejected, or envious of other people’s connections and relationships. At these times, it is hard to do anything except “wallow” in the feeling; to quote Wordsworth again, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Or, as one of my writing students said, perhaps more aptly: “Lonely as the last pickle in the jar.” Sometimes we create groups to help us make connections: book clubs, yoga classes, drop-in centres. I recently heard on CBC-radio about the “Men’s Shed,” informal groups in cities around the world, where men who are alone in life can find non-judgemental companionship, talk, a cup of coffee.

I recently put together a booklet of poems that my mother wrote during her last two years of life, age 89-91, when she was living at an Assisted Living home. These were the first poems she wrote; she said she could understand her feelings better when she wrote them down. In her “frailing” years, she often felt lonelier at the home, surrounded by people, than she had in her own home for the sixteen years after my father died. She was good at being alone while she was well — though I’m sure she was also lonely, too. Here is one of her poems that really moves me, and expresses the difference between these two states of mind:

Tonight I Am Lonely
often alone, rarely lonely,
alone a state of being,
lonely a state of feeling
alone is not sad
lonely is heart-breaking.
(Viola A.Jaffe, 2008)

In life, we need nurturing time alone and we need well-spent time with others — family, friends, lovers, children, pets (who are good companions in solitude), and people we meet casually like the clerk in a store. All this provides a range of experience, and helps us learn to talk, to listen, to solve problems, and to discover just who we are. There will be times we are lonely — and maybe some growth can come out of that, too. As I wrote recently in a memoir: Physicist friends have told me about blue shift, blue waves of light we see when an object in space is coming closer, while red waves indicate that something is moving further away, red shift. In human terms, approaching, longing, loving, leaving, grieving. Life is a combination of both, as we come in and out of each other’s lives

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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