The Balancing Act Between Solitude and Sociability

I AM listening to my family sleep. I haven't been alone like this in months, not since my son was born, perhaps even before that. It's not that I've missed my solitude. Luckily, the new activities that demand so much time - preparing bottles, taking the baby to the park, watching his personality emerge and develop - are entirely pleasurable ones. This kind of absolute quietude, which is given an even more restful quality by the near presence of two people sleeping, is a rare luxury, and so I must do it justice by spending it well. But my attitude has not always been so reverent. Before and during my first year in Paris, I craved solitude. I cultivated it by creating distance, slinking around like a lone wolf, feeding on my misanthropy with narrowed eyes like a cat who removes herself to a far corner of the yard before devouring her victim, a mole or a blue jay, lest someone take it away. I savored every invitation I turned down with false regret: d really love to, but... ." The telephone was anathema; I bought an answering machine and left it on, preferring the remoteness and control of letters to the spoken word. In the conversations I couldn't escape I was aloof, laconic, watching my silence create an enigma in the minds of the people around me. Only I knew the solution was nothing more complicated than an unhealthy and unjust disregard for the value of human company. I came to Paris with the idea of leaving behind, not going toward. It was, in a way, a burning of bridges. That, in my mind, was a show of strength, the ultimate proof of independence. The fear of need - the need of others, of anyone else at all - eclipsed the importance of sharing time. I wandered this city's streets and parks alone, flagrantly unaccompanied, flaunting my aloneness the way others flaunted their attachments. Drinking coffee in cafes, I never looked at my watch, not once. I didn't want any curious eyes to jump to the wrong conclusions: I was not waiting for anyone, no one was coming to meet me. I was alone, perfectly alone, and quite happy that way. One day in November, I offered myself a treat by going to the Musee Rodin. It was a typical fall afternoon in Paris, neither hot nor cold and hinting of wetness. The sky was an obstinate gray, but the clouds seemed to gather and glow orange in it all by themselves. At once dark and luminous, they were somehow autonomous elements, indifferent to the oppressive background they floated in, giving off light in a splendid subtlety of colors. The museum was a revelation to me. Figures in velvety white marble and green-black bronze seemed to tremble, stretching toward each other or crouching alone, motionless incarnations of emotion more evocative than almost anything I'd witnessed in film or on the stage. I'd never seen such a sensitivity to passions translated into metal and stone. I felt like laughing and crying. I felt like falling in love. I wandered through the museum in awe, heedless of the hushed conversations around me, of the creakin g floorboards, of the rain outside. When I left at last, I felt I had experienced beauty itself. But I had no one to tell. My carefully drawn perimeter of personal space had expanded to such an extent that there was no one in view for miles. At the center I was alone. And, for the first time, lonely. In that moment of spontaneous joy when I had no one to share it with, all my deliberate indifference, all my studied insouciance was flung back at me in a great slap of retribution. There is something to be said for loneliness. It teaches you the difference between happy solitude and solitary confinement. It takes the swagger out of your step. When being alone is no longer a choice but a case of abandonment, you've no one to blame but yourself. Sitting in my apartment that evening, feeling my exaltation fizzle out for want of someone to share it with, I learned the hard way what loneliness is: a slap in the face for anyone insolent enough to feign indifference toward offerings of companionship or even love. Because, ultimately, people do stop calling. To my surprise, the lives of those whose invitations I had refused went on. To my even greater astonishment, I missed being a part of it. I had taken myself for an island, and I found myself marooned. That is how I learned the real value of being alone. While not exactly gregarious, I have nonetheless arrived at a healthier definition of solitude as the time-out one takes from giving and producing, a chosen moment to be with oneself to evaluate and plan, or just to be. It is not an end in itself, but a means of better appreciating time spent with others. Which is why I can sit here listening to my family sleep and feel alone, but not lonely.

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