Learning To Be Alone

Words by Ellie Connor-Phillips

Photograph by Daniela Bologna

Photograph by Daniela Bologna

My friend recently lent me the novel ‘Cien ãnos de soledad,’ or ‘100 Years of Solitude,’ by Gabriel García Márquez. I have spent many hours during the summer dwelling within its paper world, and the city between its pages. It follows the life and death of a town, before phones and computers, internet and Instagram; and the lives of its founders. Each have a life, an experience of the world around them that exists undocumented by picture or video, who without this book (were they real people, that is) would never have had their stories told. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice the vibrant colours of their day-to-day lives; the way moments shape their whole being, the dedication they have to craft, work or learning without the pressure of online presence to motivate them, or the rose-tinted glasses of social media changing the way they behave into something shaped for the public eye.

It awoke in me a sense of longing for this free world, where actions alone spoke as loud as those witnessed by others. A place where tasting, smelling, feeling was as valuable as capturing an experience on camera, or staging photos to present a false life to strangers on instagram. I wonder at what point I lost this freedom? As a child, moments were mine and I collected them like conkers falling from the trees, keeping them as they hardened and wrinkled. I used to listen to birdsong and try to separate the individual songs from each other. I would sit, knees bent, reading on the kitchen counter upstairs, reading and watching the wildlife outside. Spending time with others was about what you said, and what you did, not what photographs you posed for or what ones were posted on whose story.

I noticed it most on the first night alone in my new home, a shared house in which I inhabit along with friends. I watched myself in the mirror, getting into bed after taking care of my skin, and realised I was now the only person who witnessed these small moments. What I ate, how I cooked it, how much work I did, how well I slept – all moments I no longer shared with anyone else, or was seen to have done by anyone else. Wrapped in warm water, rubbing olive oil soap into my hair, I marveled at the fact that this enjoyment and comfort of a bath was only mine. An urge pulled me from the pit of my stomach to tell people, to share this with people in some way; why couldn’t I be content with just my own company and observation? Why did I only feel content when others knew that I was feeling content?

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone picks up on probably the most interesting part of this inability to be happy by one’s self: “these days, I don’t think the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.” It is suggested that this sort of loneliness, this incompatibility to being unwatched, is firstly not fixed by other people, and secondly, not caused by us, but potentially the society and systems to which we have grown accustomed. Perhaps, as Laing says, we have fallen out with ourselves, lost touch with the self we maybe knew as a child. A life spent working, fitting into social circles, trying to “be” something – it’s easy to imagine how a slither of clarity over your own being could be lost along the way.

I tried, with this in mind, to hold off on my urge to share my solitude, and instead focused on trying to fill my alone time with positivity. I fed myself, took baths, slept well, worked – and tried as much as possible to allow myself to enjoy these moments undocumented. I just want to feel content with my own mundane moments, the normality that is living from day to day. It isn’t always easy, but I have discovered the wealth of benefits there are to living in the real world and not a virtual one. My kitchen boasts living herbs, my garden flowers; succulents grow in my bedroom, which remains tidier and as if someone lives there, rather than just someone visiting. My bookshelf is growing yet not remaining unread; and my long-lost desire to make art and write has returned with a vengeance. On my birthday, I checked my phone only once, living every moment, even the ones spent alone, or in transit from one memorable moment to the next. The hours passed like months, the day like a year, and I swear the air tasted sweeter and the wind felt softer on my skin. It’s not about giving up technology altogether, or becoming a recluse; it’s learning to live in the moment, enjoying it with your senses, and not always through posts you share to others on a phone screen.