As many of you know, the first book I published, 100 days of solitude, is an account of how I gave up my life in London to spend a few months living alone on a Greek island called Sifnos. It was initially only meant as an exercise in writing full-time, but it ended up being so much more than that, and it opened my eyes to infinite, previously unimagined possibilities for a different, more fulfilling way of life. One that has solitude – the time and space to be with yourself – at its core.
Many people equate solitude with loneliness, and it frightens them. I went to my hairdresser here on Sifnos for a haircut the other day, and she asked me again, as she always does:
‘Don’t you get lonely?’ (I have a reputation on the island: that girl who lives alone and walks around a lot – isn’t she writing a book or something?)
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Sometimes.’ But don’t we all? Loneliness isn’t dependant on where you live or how many people there are around you; you can be just as lonely in a crowd as you can be on a quiet mountain trail; you can be just as lonely in London as in Sifnos. And the same, in reverse, goes for solitude: no matter what your circumstances, you can get it, the kind of solitude you need. An hour to yourself, to read, or think, or do nothing; a walk in the park or along an empty beach. You don’t have to seek it in extremes.
But there are other people who only respond to extremes, and my version of solitude offends them. They equate it with isolation and hardship, and I have far too good a social life to qualify as a proper recluse. And that’s fine; it’s a fair judgement: I am that girl who lives alone and walks around a lot, but I talk to everyone. These critics and I have a very different understanding of solitude and its purpose. To me, it’s about being more connected, not less. But to be able to forge meaningful connections with other people, you must first be connected with yourself. And that’s what we lose when we make our lives so overcrowded. That’s why I live alone. That’s why I walk. That’s why I write.
I came across an interesting article entitled The Benefits of Solitude last night. It’s an excerpt from a book called Solitude: In pursuit of a singular life in a crowded world by Michael Harris and it echoes, in a much more eloquent way, the thoughts expressed above. According to the book’s blurb: “The capacity to be alone–properly alone–is one of life’s subtlest skills. Real solitude is a contented and productive state that garners tangible rewards: it allows us to reflect and recharge, improving our relationships with ourselves and, paradoxically, with others.” Thank you, Michael.
You can read the article here.
It seems Michael Harris and I have very similar definitions of solitude, but the point is, not everyone does. We all have a different understanding of solitude and loneliness, happiness and fulfilment, and we are all free to seek the latter two in the way that makes sense to us. Not everyone will associate them with solitude but I, for one, will forever advocate the solitary walk as a means for being the person I want to be.
Before I go, I’d like to introduce you to the King of the Solitary Walk, and a man whom I’m tentatively beginning to consider a friend: writer and long-distance hiker Keith Foskett. As he describes in The Last Englishman, Keith has walked the entire length of the US, from the borders of Mexico to Canada (the Pacific Crest Trail), and though there was hardship and isolation and loneliness, he never really experienced them in a negative way. His is an extreme version of taking yourself away from everything to become more connected. His latest book, Travelled Far, is free on Kindle at the moment, and you can also get a free copy of his first book, The Journey in Between, by signing up to his mailing list. I don’t often recommend books, but I’ve read Keith’s work and I do so without any hesitation.
What does solitude mean to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below or email me.
(This went out as a newsletter to my mailing list this morning. Click here if you’d like to join.)