Long, long ago, before I got married and had children, I wondered about the lives of the adults I passed while running between class and work. They were out in the middle of the day, doing nothing. I saw them in book stores, sprawled out on armchairs immersed in comic book and poetry. They lounged around coffee shops, enjoying a nice dark roast Columbian half-caf. They languished over meals in restaurants, debating between something healthy like soup and salad or the chicken parmesan lunch special. They joked with the waitress. And they had the gall to jog, right through my neighborhood, in the middle of the day. What was the deal with these freewheeling slackers who wandered around my supermarket, reading labels off the side of cereal boxes? They looked perfectly content just being alone.
Eventually, I married and had kids, and I became one of those people you see out alone in the middle of the day. In between dropping off my kids at school, and picking them up, there's a nice gaping hole smack dab in the middle of my day. It's taken me awhile to adjust to this hole. It benefits my family more for me to be at home than work outside, and I cherish the rewards being a stay-at-home mom offers. But managing, and embracing, my alone-time has been another matter.
There's an emerging body of research which suggests that despite the fact that we are social animals, spending time alone can be good for us. Blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, so can being alone.
That said, there is an important distinction to be established between solitude and loneliness. From the outside, they look a lot alike. But loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. Solitude is being alone without being lonely. Solitude is a means of enjoying the quiet and whatever it brings that is satisfying. It is refreshing; an opportunity to renew ourselves and replenishes us.
Being by yourself is one thing when you're at home, within the safety and privacy of your own space. But it's something else entirely when you're out in public. To sit alone in a bar or bookstore or restaurant full of people is a liberating experience. No one cares what you're thinking or wearing. No one cares that you've ordered dessert for dinner. And no one cares whether you've made a habit out of being alone, or are attempting to enjoy some solitude for the first time.
I've gotten pretty good at filling up my alone time, and I've grown to look forward to an afternoon with no one to entertain except myself. So now I present to you a list of my top five favorite things to do alone:
- Seeing a movie: A midday movie is not only cheap, but surprisingly joyful. Theaters are usually empty, and you don't have to share your popcorn or soda with anyone else. There's no need to make small talk while waiting for the previews to start. And if you hate the movie, and want desperately to leave before it ends, there's no one stopping you.
- Drinking in a bar: There's a lovely little Irish pub near my house, with snug little booths and a fireplace and an enticing selection of bourbons. I'm not much of a drinker, but on a chilly winter evening an escape to this pub is a simple refuge. Yes, it takes courage for a woman to sit in a bar and enjoy a drink alone. But bartenders don't care.
- Reading in a bookstore: I love everything about bookstores - the way they smell, the easy escape a stack of books provides, the quiet hush that surrounds me and my fellow readers. Give me a stack of magazines and cup of coffee in the cafe and I'm a happy girl.
- Going for a walk (or run): I doubt few of us would have a problem leaving the house for a walk around the neighborhood. But have you ever done so without listening to music, or talking on your phone, or checking for texts every few minutes? I'm always surprised by the little things I notice when I'm out for a walk with just my thoughts for companionship.
- Thifting: I love thrifting, period, whether with friends or on my own. But there's a certain amount of pleasure in wandering around a thrift store by myself. The act of thrifting lends itself to leisurely browsing and daydreams about how items ended up getting donated and who owned them previously.