I am a creature of habit. Armed with this single bit of information, I can say with about 80% certainty that the conversation had something to do with Jeffrey’s Grocery. Or Westville. Or it could have been about something entirely non-food related, like the fact that every time an ambulance drives by I say “oh, my ride’s here”.
Learning to be alone is a matter of habit. Habits are the significant others of the single: the hands we hold, the lips we kiss, the shoulders we lean on. But of course, being alone isn’t just being single. Being alone is the privileged position of being just with your self. It’s when there are no other people around, and when you are with friends, and when you are surrounded by strangers. Being alone doesn’t mean that people don’t know or understand or care about you; it doesn’t mean you’re sad. It means you can stand up straight.
Being alone, like everything else, is something you have to learn. You have to adapt to it. You have to open your door and welcome alone-ness in, unsure what to expect from this stranger. At first, it will be awkward. You’ll both reach for the vegetable peeler at the same time, or it’ll take too long in the shower in the morning and you’ll get frustrated because you have to have to have to brush your teeth at precisely 8:03am. It will steal your fries at lunch without asking, or sleep with socks on. People will come over and you’ll be embarrassed by your alone-ness. You’ll make all sorts of defenses: “I want this”, “This is my choice”, “I really like it”.
But you’ll get used to it, being alone will start to feel familiar and comfortable. You’ll settle into a routine with your self and your habits. It will stop bothering you, and you’ll wake up one day and realize that alone-ness is the most beautiful creature you’ve ever laid eyes on, and you’ll wonder how you could have been so blind. You’ll scrunch up your eyes and stretch your arms above your head and point your toes as hard as you can and realize that there’s nowhere you would rather turn for peace of mind than inward. You’ll wake up one day and realize that you love just being alone with your self.
It may sound like a well-concealed justification, but I’m a firm believer in you-can’t-be-with-someone-until-you-can-be-with-your-self. And that makes sense. To be with someone is to offer up the trinkets of your self, the little things that make you you; if you don’t know what those are, how could someone else? If you don’t know what to do with them, how to act with them, what they mean, how could someone else? This is not to suggest that you need to know your self absolutely and completely; that kind of knowledge takes a lifetime, if not more. But you have to be with your self for someone else to be, too.
I rarely feel as alone as I do in the morning, and never more at peace. There’s something about the way the quiet light slips under my curtains and over my windowsill, spilling onto my bed, onto my face, onto my arms and legs all tangled up in the sheets. Even though I can’t see the sun rising from any of the windows in my apartment, being awake at sunrise makes me feel like I’m in on a secret. I like not talking and not hearing anyone talk. One day I didn’t speak until 4pm, and my voice was rough. I loved that.
I like running before the city has started to wake up. I like running before the eyes blink open in the early morning light, before the fingers are tugged through the tangled messes of missionary hair, before the drunken pieces of last nights start falling, hungover, into place, before the texts are responded to and the photos un-tagged and the to-do list checked. I like running by shopkeepers pulling up their heavy gates; I like running across town before the commuters start pouring into the city; I like running before the alcohol starts to leave my system and especially before the anxiety sets in.
A block—be it mental, writer’s, what have you—is most productively undone by running. Blocks are not baseless inconveniences or side effects of the weather or being over-worked or lack of inspiration. Blocks are the red flags that somewhere deep inside something is hiding, and even if I don’t know what it is (and I almost never do), that something is stopping me. It’s not stopping me from writing, or from thinking, or from making breakfast or getting dressed or tweezing my eyebrows. It’s stopping me from trying. And somehow, without even realizing it, I accept this something and in so doing, paralyze myself. To un-paralyze myself, I run.
Often the best way to hack the mind is to hack the body, and I only draw the distinction between the mind and the body for clarity’s sake (and I only draw attention to drawing the distinction so that Ben won’t give me a hard time). You can’t be alone if you can’t be in your body. You have to feel your lungs when you breathe, feel the way your joints move and your muscles contract and release. You have to feel your bones coming to life so that when you move through the world, you can feel what it’s like to move through the world as you.
Running is a very lonely sport, but it’s important that it be that way. Every time I go running I imagine I’m reintroducing my self to my body. As my body wakes up, my self wakes up, and I listen to them. Running is a time to break down and to tear away and to uncover. It’s a time to dispense with pretense and just be. It hurts and it’s tiring, but it’s cleansing, and in so much as it is cleansing, it is revealing.
Writing is a lonely sport, too, but in a different way. Of course, it depends on the kind of writing. Like running, writing is revealing, especially when you’re writing bits of your self. I recently started writing fiction in earnest, something I have never done before, and as physically alone as it is, when I sit down at my computer I feel like I’m sitting down with different bits of my self that I don’t yet know that well. It’s like an adventure, as romantic as that sounds. The more I write, the more I discover about my self, and being alone starts to feel more solid, more sustainable.
Really being with your self is the firm foundation from which you can explore the world without fear. Weeks, months, maybe even years will pass, and you’ll feel safe. But not a closed-off kind of safe; an open kind of safe. You’ll do and see things you might never have done or seen. You’ll meet strangers that resonate with you, and you’ll form odd but lasting friendships based on thoughts and ideas and likes and dislikes, not on age or gender or convenience. These friendships are as strong and as valid as your relationships with people who know you inside and out, who have watched you struggle into your self and who you have watched struggle into their selves. Some of my favorite people were complete strangers to me when I met them, strangers with no connection to me except that we happened to be sitting next to each other at a restaurant, or we happened to be on the same bus, or we happened to attend the same conference, or I happened to write them a letter. Strangers who were just as alone as I was when I met them, and just as okay with that. I met one of my closest friends at a John Mayer concert that I went to alone. Strangers with close-friend potential are everywhere, especially in a city like New York. Strangers with stories and points of view that you’ll want to devour because they’re so interesting. You’ll be amazed at the people you find when you’re not looking.
Eating alone is one of my favorite things. Then again, I’m never really alone when I eat alone, if that makes sense. When you solo-dine, when you spend hours tucked away at a corner table writing or reading, ordering coffee after coffee, you start to build a relationship with the people who work there, maybe with another solo-diner who is doing the same thing as you. You’ll go back to that place because you like the music and they only charge $1 for a cup off coffee and you should never pay more for a cup of coffee. The staff will recognize you, learn how you take your coffee and maybe bring you a cookie on the house. They’ll ask you about school and work and how your book is coming along. They’ll start to feel like family, and you’ll go see one of the waitresses play at a bar in SoHo and she’ll remember your birthday. You’ll start going there a lot, and you’ll start to recognize other regulars, and you’ll have the confidence to talk to them because you already have something in common.
Then one day you’ll meet someone, and this someone will knock the wind out of you. This stranger won’t feel like a stranger, and you’ll find yourself eating alone, like you always do, and you won’t be able to stop thinking about them. You’ll start to check your phone every few minutes, even though you’ve learned to be a real person without it, and you’ll be disappointed when you don’t hear from them. Wasn’t I content to eat alone, to sit at the end of the communal table for hours with no company but a book? Why do I feel like I want to invite them to eat with me, and why do my hands shake when I try to text them? But you’ll text them, and they’ll accept, and you’ll be surprised at how easily they will fit into your alone time, your all-the-time. When they kiss you, if they kiss you, your heart will flutter and your head will melt into their hands and you’ll actually feel your self opening up, making a space for them to pour their self inside. You’ll be surprised at how easily they slip in.
But what will surprise you most of all is how easy it is to learn how to be with them, and you’ll smile to yourself from a place of stillness, a place of knowing that you can care for this person with everything that you have because you have learned to care for your self.