Solitude is hard to find and easy to lose. Jean-Paul Sartre understood it’s capricious nature: “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.” So did Balzac, up to a point: “Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.” Pooh thought that solitude was the house Christopher Robin went to when he wanted to be alone, whereas Aldous Huxley thought it was more akin to a religion. Me? I often crave it but if I find it, I eventually reject it. Go figure!
By now, you probably know that when I married my wife, I also married her “immediate” family, all forty-nine of them—at least I think that’s the current number but every time I do roll call, I get a different result. In that hurricane, it’s sometimes difficult to find the eye, but even if I do, I’ve learned that soon enough, the gale force winds will turn in the opposite direction and I’d better hold on. But tempestuous as her clan sometimes may be, they never fail to provide me with a lot of first-hand knowledge about the nature and the multiple manifestations of love.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m no hermit, nor am I likely to head off to a monastery in the near future. The Himalayas are way too crowded and high for me. I like people, a few people, anyway. I’m just not wired for big crowds and that has nothing to do with Covid. I’ve always preferred intimate dinner parties and one-on-one conversations to big soirees and gaggle conversations. I guess that makes me more of an introvert than an extrovert, but solitude is a different order of magnitude. Thoreau may have relished his year on Walden Pond, but I would miss the occasional martini night with my mates or the happy gatherings that spontaneously generate on our front porch on summer evenings. But the ability to chat that comes so naturally to my wife is a foreign language to me. I try to speak it sometimes, but my accent is all wrong and my vocabulary, limited. I’m working on it.
The solitude I prefer comes in a variety of forms. I can find it in a book and sometimes, if the book is good enough—like Amor Towles latest novel A Gentleman from Moscow, for example—I can even enjoy a small dose of solitude on the beach despite being surrounded by kids digging in the sand, adults throwing frisbees or drinking beer, often both at the same time. I’ve even been known to find a corner of solitude in a crowded room. I mentally wander off and if I’m really lucky, my expression doesn’t give me away. I occasionally nod or say, “Uh-huh” which usually works unless the person speaking to me has just asked me if I like kale. Then I’m in trouble.
So if we’re deep in conversation and you see a vacant expression flit across my face, please don’t take it personally. Chances are that if we got into the conversation in the first place, I like you just fine. I’ve just reached my word limit and need to rest my vocal cords or recharge my inner battery for a moment. Or maybe Christopher Robin has invited me over for tea for two.
Don’t worry; I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, MD. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.
Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com