When I was in my early 20s, my mom told my fiancé (now ex-husband), “You need to remember that Kerri needs lots of time alone.”
I was frequently struck by my mother’s confident knowledge about me that was completely wrong. She once told me, at dinner at a friend’s house, to take some peas. “Kerri loves peas.”
Some moms might say such a thing in order to manipulate their kid to eat peas in public, but my mom was just clueless. She somehow never noticed that for years I’d been feeding peas to my dog. My dad would sometimes scrape my peas to his plate to save me the agony.
I don’t actually need lots of time alone, nor do I really want lots of time alone. Instead, I was the kid that sat in the middle of the kitchen to do homework, needing the swirl of activity and voices around me.
It was my mother who needed lots of time alone. She used to retreat to her bedroom, close the door and read for hours. There was some sort of emotional recharging station in there that gave her the strength to interact with the rest of us.
As a youngest child, I’ve always had the feeling that I don’t exist unless I’m around other people. I need to be seen, spoken to, and listened to in order to feel alive.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t spend a lot of time alone growing up, nor does it mean that I’m not socially anxious. I once went to a cocktail party and had to leave because I couldn’t make myself answer the questions the person next to me was asking.
I’ve been adventurous on my own, traveling alone to New York City and to London. As a teenager, I used to attend chamber music performances alone when I lived in Santa Fe.
Because as a child of people for whom moving was one of the four seasons, I had to learn to be alone. The new kid is the alone kid. I retreated inside my head and became a person who spent much too much time thinking and much too little time in the company of others.
I learned, erroneously, that I could depend on very few people except for my brother, my dog, and myself.
It has only been recently that I’ve admitted to myself that I don’t much enjoy being alone. That’s always sounded like weakness to me. My mom’s perception that I needed time alone somehow morphed into an aspiration. I told myself that I should like spending time alone.
My husband and daughter love to travel, and since my husband is British he frequently travels to Europe. I beg off most years for a host of reasons that don’t need detailing. The point is that I end up alone for several weeks in the summer.
And, I dread it. The quietness and loneliness start seeping into me and I seem to unravel. I stop bathing and sleeping. My food dwindles to only what’s left in the refrigerator and cupboard. I retreat and it gets quieter and quieter.
They left yesterday, and when I finally started my bedtime routine, around midnight, I fed the cats and jumped when I heard my own voice talking to them. The quiet builds up inside my head like the air pressure inside your ears when you’re climbing in altitude on a jet. I feel like the quietness will explode inside me.
It’s silly, really. I am not a child, and I haven’t just moved to a new school. I have every tool I need to fill my world with people. And, I will bathe and dress and find a coffee shop where I can do my work in the middle of a swirl of noise and voices.
When, I tried to save this as “Solitude,” I was told a file with that name already existed. Here’s the piece I posted last year during the same circumstance, “Learning to be Alone.”
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