Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” series is big at our house right now. Sometimes we all pile in the bed and read the stories together while sometimes just Lunchbox and I cuddle up. This was the case last night when we chose “Alone” from Days with Frog and Toad.
In short, Toad shows up at Frog’s house all ready to hang out. Instead he finds a note from Frog saying “Dear Toad, I am not at home. I went out. I want to be alone.”
Fair enough. Frog is the introvert in this relationship.
His note got me thinking about the difference between solitude and being lonely. My last post touched on this a bit but I am still struggling how to define exactly what it is that makes these ideas so similar yet distinct.
Merriam Webster defines solitude as “a state or situation in which you are alone usually because you want to be” while loneliness is a feeling of sadness from being apart from other people. In other words, solitude implies choice – one chooses to be on one’s own rather than having it imposed upon oneself.
What I experienced during the last few months was definitely loneliness. Technically I was by myself and (most of the time, anyway) enjoying the work I was doing, but there were definitely moments when I would have preferred to be with my family or when I was annoyed at having to decline dates with friends. Thus the loneliness was imposed, not chosen. Can you see the light bulb over my head?
Kathy helped me distill this down even further: when I chose to enroll in a demanding program I expected my down time would be adversely affected. This was a sacrifice I was willing to make. I did not choose, however, the accompanying sense of isolation that occurred as a result of the added work.
Solitude, as Frog wisely notes, allows time to reflect on the good as well as the bad.
“Our lunch is spoiled,” said Toad. “I made it for you, Frog, so that you would be happy.”
“But Toad,” said Frog. “I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you for friend. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think about how fine everything is.”
Solitude was non-existent from January to June. There was simply no time to reflect or to process the good or the bad; it was a six month struggle to stay afloat. By mid May I was sufficiently waterlogged to adopt an attitude of “I need 80% to pass.” So while I didn’t say “I won’t do the work,” I did say “This assignment gets an hour and that’s it.” Did I get more solitude? Nope. But reclaiming that time time did help battle back some of the loneliness.
Thus I find myself back where I started: with the concept of choice and of knowing when, as an introvert, to say enough. It is mildly alarming to observe that I am still learning where the “E” line is on my Introvert Energy Tank and how to pay attention to it more.
I’m also thinking about how we, as introverts, learn to recognize the difference between solitude and loneliness. And how do we nurture the practice of solitude in our children? More importantly, how do we as moms foster our own practice of solitude given demands of family and work life?
Maybe I should talk to Frog.
Probably the he loneliest stretch of time in my adult life was after I quit my job as a librarian to focus on writing. I didn’t like most parts of my job – the research and writing portions were fun, and so were (some!) of my co-workers, but overall there was too much interaction with the public, too much time spent being “on.” Or on alert for possibly being “on,” which was maybe even worse. The reference desk can be an uncomfortable place for an introvert.
So I jumped ship, and while I was happy to have time (so much time!) to focus on the novel I had started, suddenly I was alone all day. Doodlebug didn’t exist yet. iDad was at work, and so was everyone else I knew. Even though I saw friends and family on weekends or evenings, it wasn’t quite enough. I guess I don’t even need to say that this was 6 years BFB (Before Facebook).
Luckily, I discovered a place that offered amazing writing workshops (The Writer’s Center) and joined a group for people who write for children (SCBWI). I met two kindred spirits in a workshop and we started a critique group that has been meeting for ten years now. (They are the people who introduced me to Susan Cain’s book, so clearly it was fate.)
It was not a fast process — I took at least three workshops with nice people I didn’t click with and went to an uncomfortable conference or two before I found my zone. But since then I’ve extended my group of writing friends to just the right level – people I see occasionally but keep up with online, and who have helped my writing improve immeasurably.
Now that I’m typing all of this out, I can see it was pretty much the same thing that happened when I became a mom – also an isolating event, one that shook up the status quo and plunged me into another new world I had no idea how to navigate. Most of my friends hadn’t had kids yet, and it took longer for me to assemble another network of kindred spirits. (It was still 2 years BFB!) New lonely spells, more trial and error.
So I would certainly not say I’ve found the perfect formula for never getting lonely. But both of these experiences helped me figure out what I need, mainly by showing me how bad I feel when I don’t have it. I am happy with five or six hours to myself each day, preferably in big chunks, interspersed with family, friends, and “co-workers” (my writing friends). Working alone, in the quiet of my office at home, is key to that balance. It took me a while and it wasn’t pretty at times, but in the end, the loneliness was worth it.