I love living alone. I love my spiky spindly plant in the window, my too-late-in-the-year pumpkins on the sill, the horn always out on its stand gently nudging me to think about practicing. I love that if a spiky spindly leaf falls off my spiky spindly plant, I am the only one to blame. If I cook a delicious pot of soup, I can let it spill into the bowl without regard to sharing. If dripping hot wax on my bathtub in a delightful mid-afternoon bath makes my bathroom look like a cartoon crime scene, well, that’s my problem. And I take full responsibility for changing the light bulbs in my ceiling fixture, even if it means to a night passerby the strange silhouette of a not-so-tall girl standing on a table pulled to the middle of the room, wrench in hand and wobbling. I know it’s on me to wait out the bumps in the night – to face the creaking floorboard, and the possibility of a monster under my bed. It’s okay! I know I’m a match for it, and a tiny monster heart can be quickly overpowered by the fierce pride I harbor in mine for making a new life and a new home.
As artists, whether we live by ourselves or not, it is imperative that we make room somehow in our daily routine to be truly alone, and to have the space to hear and feel the waves of creative thoughts and emotions that regularly flood our existence. For many of us, life has a way of feeling like a constant storm, with our sensitivity to what’s happening around us bringing turbulence and stirring calls to action. We aren’t just sympathetic – we are empathetic – for some reason even situations that are worlds apart from our own experience can cause us to resonate the same pain or the same joy. We are told we are too sensitive but we cannot turn it off; every day ideas and images and intrusions crash upon us and we can be beaten down if we are not careful. We cannot create if we are clinging to a board in the midst of the ocean, but we can turn turmoil into provocative commentary and transform the frothy spittle of the high seas into beauty safe to behold – if we can just find our way into the eye of the hurricane.
That glimpse of calm in the center – that sunlight and clear sky before the storm rolls in again – it’s our job to get there, and if Buddhist thought and numerous other spiritual teachings can point the way, it would seem that the eye of the hurricane is to be found simply by stopping and sitting still. We stop, and we sit still, and we find we are utterly alone. This is not easy, for it is not long before our thoughts can resume eating up all of our energy, but we strive to practice it, so that even as the storm swirls around us, we are still there, still sitting, still breathing in and out, and simply observing quietly as it goes by.
Whether we do the hardest work of facing ourselves directly through sitting or engage in taking time for oneself in other ways such as sneaking off to read, commandeering a swing at the playground, or disappearing from our usual routine, the biggest obstacle it seems we face is guilt. In a society hyper-focused on the production of tangible size extremes – larger house, larger car, smaller waist, smaller dog – taking time away that doesn’t appear to produce is a capital offense. Pick up many self-help tomes, and the focus is on soothing our feelings when someone doesn’t want to spend time with us. We treat alone time as the most personal insult to our attractiveness and desirability, but it is as essential to our well being as sleeping and eating. We have to get over the guilt and steal away from the commotion.
All of what I’ve attempted to process in this post I think is important to everyone, not just artists. However, most people in our society attempt to live in a smaller emotional realm. Whether by simple avoidance, over-reliance on medications, caffeine or other stimulants and intoxicants, the emotional spectrum of joy and pain for what would be considered a “normal” person in our society on an average day could possibly be described as sandwiched between Disneyland and going to the dentist. Creative types certainly are known to medicate themselves in many, often illicit ways, throughout the ages, to try to experience a more “normal” existence. But the reality for most of us is that while our neighbor over there is mentally at Disneyland, we might be climbing the clouds on top of Everest, and while he/she is screaming “root canal!”, we are in the coldest regions of the Arctic, without a coat or even socks, and definitely with none of them cute penguins.
So how to quell the guilt within the confines of our society? Well, it seems like we just need to acknowledge all the traveling that we do, and travel is something that our society seems to respect as a means to produce. Need to turn down an invitation to a holiday cookie-swap? How about, “I’m sorry, but I’m doing a teleconference with a team of Sherpas for my Himalayan climb later this month.” Looking to bow out of weekly coffee with friends? “I’d love to, but this week I’m practicing retaining body heat at subzero temperatures and studying the effects of Hollywood documentaries on penguin self-esteem in preparation for my trip to the Arctic”. You’ll sound impressive, and of course so super-productive, no one will dare to question you. Go ahead and pack your suitcase, and be sure to bring your galoshes and a gale-proof umbrella. Just don’t leave your apartment.