I really like being alone. How does that ‘fit’ with friendship? It’s clear that friendships require maintenance. As with any organic, living thing, they need to be nurtured. For the purposes of this conversation, I am including family relationships with the chosen relationships we have with friends.
Then there is ‘self care’, a relatively new age term, once known more commonly as ‘time to myself’. For mid-20th century women, this was often time spent on maintaining their appearance: the beauty parlor (hair, nails), and clothes shopping being two obvious examples. In some life situations, it might mean simply having a quiet cup of tea or attending religious services.
The self care phenomena has blossomed well beyond the beauty salon, with fitness centers, yoga classes and an ever widening pool of health producing and stress reducing options available. I mean no disrespect; to each their own, I have and do partake of these activities myself. In addition to reading, music, sewing, crafting, gardening and cooking for pleasure, there are now a multitude of electronic choices for enjoying in ‘downtime’. And, of course, many of these self care opportunities are or can be social in nature, from the time honored relationship with one’s hair dresser, to a personal trainer, reading group or a hiking buddy.
A third element to everyday life is work. There is the traditional nine-to-five job to earn money, attending school or a training program, engaging in creative work, or running a household and raising children. Yes, they are all, or can be, creative work. The point being that these endeavors occupy a significant amount of time in our daily lives, separate from and also intermingled with the pieces I am calling ‘relationships’ and ‘self care’.
I‘ve seen various pie charts over the years that show research results about how most people use their time and suggest the optimal division of one’s time into these areas of existence. What I know, from my own experience, is that the work piece seems to take up as much space as possible, squeezing relationship time and alone time into a small portions of the pie. In this admittedly personal analysis of friendship and the role it plays in one’s life over the years, I want to re-examine those slices of the pie.
One thing that is undeniably true for me, is that unless I have time to myself, I cannot enjoy time with others. This has always been true and seems to be increasingly important as I age. I am well aware that many people do not feel this way; and that my need for solitude is as unfathomable to them as their pleasure in crowded places is to me. I’m not sure how to quantify my aversion to an excess of humanity: over-stimulation? Or to explain my need for substantial stretches of quiet time: my thoughts need room to percolate? But I am clear about what makes me happy and what makes me… well, irritable and difficult to be around, to phrase it most kindly.
What is the distinction between solitude and isolation? I have a dear friend with whom I have had endless discussions about our shared inclination to isolate when in emotional pain. We know it’s ‘not good for us’. He lives alone and can indulge in hermit behavior whenever and for as long as he desires. Living, as I do, with spouse and daughter, I do not have that dubious ‘luxury’. There have been countless occasions where I envied him the option of total withdrawal and also some times when I have, even in extreme distress, acknowledged the helpful necessity of not abandoning my child.
I spent a fair amount of time with the elderly in the decades of my youth and middle age, both family members and their fellow residents in various settings for elderly living. It was always strikingly clear who was making a choice to stay engaged with the world, in spite of disability or ill health, and who was copping an attitude (angry? defeatist?), saying: “Who cares? I’m old and lonely and that’s the way it is.” Through all those years I promised myself that I would find ways ‘to be of use’ (another Marge Piercy line) when I was elderly. That I would make connections with people, with younger people, as my peers began to die. That is still my plan. I keep it at the forefront of my thoughts, building the muscle memory of wanting and needing connection, as I experience my ‘young old age’ (a phrase from Mary Pipher’s brilliant and extraordinary book, Another Country.)
I expect to still enjoy solitude as I age, but I am clear that relationships will become ever more vital as the years pass. But for today, I aspire to a pie that contains a slice of solitude that is equal to the time spent on and in relationships, balanced by a necessary, but not outsized slab of work time. I believe this is possible, if I make choices that support this vision.
And what about you? What is the current state of your life energy pie chart and how would you like to reconfigure the balance of its parts?