#35. Goin' it alone

There was a time in my life when I couldn’t stand to be alone. In my young, drunken adulthood, being by myself led to the hyperbolic extrapolation that I was solo because I had to be, because I had no friends, because everyone hated me. It didn’t help that I wasn’t that fond of me, either, so having to spend time alone felt like the worst kind of punishment.

Somewhere along the line, however, that changed for me. Not magically, and not overnight, but I slowly became fond of my own company and turned into someone who quite likes to be alone. I’ve written before, in fact, about how sometimes my preference to be alone can verge on the unhealthy – and if there’s any one Big Lesson I’m getting from this change project, it’s less about transformation and more about seeking balance.

To that end, I decided to aim for a week where I spent at least an hour of Quality Alone Time each day. Just me, all by myself. (I admit, editing an anthology of non-fiction entitled “Goin’ It Alone,” might have helped set the wheels a-turnin’.) Now, at home that might not seem such a difficult undertaking, even though I determined  that watching TV or surfing the net did not qualify. But I specifically chose this week for this change because I knew I’d spend five days of it traveling and the difficulty level would be increased.

My husband and I took my mother-in-law to Santa Fe for five days as a belated celebration of her 80th birthday. Now, I love my husband and I love his mother, but I also know that I reach limits with companionship, especially when the stress of travel is added in and we’re staying in relatively close quarters. At home, I spend the vast majority of my day alone in my office, so to sally forth and be a good team player would be a challenge. And it would make the seeking of this Quality Alone Time (QAT) even more crucial.

The first day of this week's change was a travel day, which complicated matters greatly. When you travel through major airports, holy shit are you not alone. You are whatever the polar opposite of alone is. We had a long day ahead of us, with stupid routing from Detroit through Minneapolis to Albuquerque, then an hour’s drive to Santa Fe. From the minute I left the house, I was decidedly Not Alone.

It posed an interesting question, though: can you find solitude in the midst of a crowd? Not the sad, distancing “I don’t belong” type of solitude most of us have felt at some point, but a meaningful, restorative type of solitude.

The answer is not nearly as interesting as the question. It appears to be: sort of.

The key, it turns out, is headphones. I’m easily distracted, so I figured the only way to have QAT in a crowded space was to my attention inward with the help of a handy dandy meditation app. Believe me, I am hyper-aware of the cheesiness of being the sort of person who needs an app to help her clear her mind. I know it’s probably not what Buddha or Ghandi had in mind, but they didn’t have iPhones, so what did they know?

I was making some rules on the fly: mere distraction didn’t count as QAT. In other words, flipping through tabloid mags on the plane while rockin’ out wasn’t going to make the cut. The idea was quality -- whatever the hell that meant. And so I played my cheesy meditation app. Three times in a row. And while I didn’t find it completely relaxing – considering I don’t fly so well and I was half-focused on thoughts of fiery death – I did my time. My quality time.

Day two was a piece of cake, because we live in a consumer society and sometimes if you want Quality Alone Time, you just have to pay for it. It’s the American way. So I did. Five hours of it at one of my most favorite places in the world, Ten Thousand Waves Japanese-style spa in Santa Fe. Even if you discount the time I spent having treatments, since I was technically in the company of people who were talking to me from time to time, I still had at least two hours of good, solid alone time.

I sat by the koi pond, soaking my feet in a warm tub of mineral water and just watched the fishies swim around. I had 45 minutes to myself in a private outdoor soaking tub, and I’ll confess – after about 20 of just sitting still, enjoying the water, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. The alone time was piling up and I was getting squirrely. But I stuck in there. I passed on my urge to get a magazine or something else for mental distraction, and the second half of my time there flew by.

I think a really good experiment would be for me to go there by myself for three days and see if I can hack it. In the name of science. Subsidized by a kind benefactor. (Are you reading this, honey?)

The third day of our trip was some full-on touristing, so I had a harder time eking out moments alone. To be honest, the constant companionship was catching up with me. I love everyone I was with, all two of them, but I missed the silence, the contained-ness of being alone.

Since I didn’t have a full free hour during the day, I decided to see if breaking up my QAT over the course of the day was as effective as, say, five hours at a spa. Oddly enough, it is not.

But it still helped. I stole 20 minutes for meditation during the day, then took a long, luxurious bath in the evening. And it was awesome. I am an avid bath-taker at home, which I’ve always thought I liked for the relaxation and pain-relieving value. But while we were on vacation, I realized that the bath time is also some of my best quality alone time. Lovely smells. Warm water. No distractions. Good stuff.

On the fourth day, we headed out of Santa Fe to Bandolier National Monument, an amazing state park, and this is where I had one of the most meaningful alone experiences I’ve ever had. (Although, having said that, you should probably lower your expectations. I don’t have very many meaningful alone experiences to compare this to.) At the park, there’s a main loop trail that takes you on a relatively easy hike up around some Pueblo ruins and peering into cliff dwellings.

My mother-in-law hung in there for half the hike, until the steep stone stairs leading up to the cave dwellings became too much for her. We were ready to turn back as a group, when I asked Chris if he would mind if I went on to finish the trail without him. And so I did, feeling strange and brave and overwhelmed by the world around me.

Sure, there were other people on the trail, but for the most part, I was acutely aware of Doing Something By Myself. Just me ‘n nature, hanging out like old buddies. I took my time ambling along the last part of the trail, noticing when my mind wandered and trying hard to bring it back to my surroundings. I stopped and sat for a few minutes on a bench by a little creek, when suddenly a large bus group walked past, yammering loudly.

I made eye contact with a couple of the women as they strolled past, usually the one closest to me in a group walking three or four abreast. And they smiled. Maybe I was reading something in to it, but they didn’t seem like superficial smiles. They seemed like slightly envious smiles. Like they say me, all alone, and were telling me with their eyes how much they’d like to trade places. How much they envied my solitude.

Oh, I felt beatific. I felt Zen. I felt calm. Right up until I came across a sign naming native animals to the area and noticed the pencil drawing of the black bear in the upper right corner. Huh. Sometimes the benefit of being in a group is that it significantly reduced your odds of being the one eaten. I picked up my pace. Being alone is nice. Being a pile of bones alone on a path is not.

Our fifth day was our last full day in Santa Fe, and so we spent it wandering around galleries, looking in shops, eating stuff we shouldn’t – all as a group. I knew I had the bath to look forward to that evening, but I noticed that waiting until night for my solitude didn’t have as positive an impact on my interactions with others as stealing time in the day did.

Again, I was faced with the question of how to steal time alone in the presence of others. The answer this time? A museum. We headed into the New Mexico History Museum, which happened to be free that day, with just an hour to spend before it closed. It’s a beautifully done museum and it reminded me that one of the best things about museums is the personal experience they provide. The quiet discourages conversation and everyone seems to find their own rhythm, moving through the place at their own pace. I even stole into a room showing a video about the Southwest and enjoyed sitting alone in the back, watching gorgeous photograph after photograph scroll across a giant screen.

Of course I still took a long-ass bath later that night.

And day six, we headed home. Same as travel out, only in reverse. Solitude through headphones, then a bath when we finally got to our own house.

That just left day seven, when I was back in my regular routine, wondering if there would be any change as a result of the previous six days. I had hours to myself at my desk and then, later, on the couch as Chris caught up on work in his office. But I was now increasingly aware of the weight of that time, the value of it. I now had the urge to spend it in the best possible way, not just distracting myself with bright screens and electronic voices.

I pulled the headphones out again. I took a cross-legged position on my chair and I did my meditation, feeling deeply grateful for the luxury of the time to spend by myself. Feeling profoundly happy that I no longer find my own company loathsome. Feeling happy at the prospect of following it up with a long, hot bubble bath. All by myself. Just me. And my tabloids.

It can’t all be quality time, right?