Being alone doesn't have to be scary. Paired with meaningful art, solitude can untangle our brains

"Here, in the spaces I carved out for myself, I could breathe deeply — inhaling fully and exhaling into a book, film, my journal, a record I'd worn out from too many listens."

'Here, in the spaces I carved out for myself, I could breathe deeply'

Bluets by Maggie Nelson. (Sarah MacDonald)

I carried Bluets in my bag for five months after I read it. That first wintry day in 2015 when I slowly thumbed its pages, I was heartsick, so I believed this book would help. Maggie Nelson's slim work of prose and poetry arrived when I needed it. "Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color," Nelson begins. Suppose I were to fall in love with these sentences and not him, I cooed to myself, curled underneath my thick duvet covered in, not coincidentally, blue mermaids. I sank deeper into the pillows propped up behind me, stopping to copy lines into my journal for later or repeat aloud to no one but me. To say I devoured the book would feel disrespectful. I swam in it, gliding in and out of Nelson's cerulean, lapis, and sapphire visions of love, lust, and loss.

The last line of the book reads: "All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing, but of light." Emerging from her literary whirlpool, I felt different — sure and safe. I felt light.

I lived alone in a basement apartment when I read Bluets that first time. I'd lived alone for a long time; mostly in bachelor apartments all to myself, but none more so than in the bedroom I grew up in as a child. Solitude, not an adversary to me, was always welcome, more than any person in my space. When I was much smaller, I cried at sleepovers and often went home to a book instead. As I grew, discerning my emotions and thoughts slightly better, I waited for my moments alone. Here, in the spaces I carved out for myself, I could breathe deeply — inhaling fully and exhaling into a book, film, my journal, a record I'd worn out from too many listens.

A golden friend told me that I have been fertilizing the soil of solitude for years now, so perhaps it's time to harvest.

Being alone is not the same as feeling lonely, though the similarity is so close so often that it's easy to slip. I find seclusion nourishing. To help wade through (current) existential or difficult moments, I propose turning the experience of being alone on its head as a benefit and form of self-care. Solitude is a time to reflect, take stock, and check in with yourself — to be with and enjoy yourself. But being alone and happy, I believe, is dependent on the artistic resources around you.

The synonyms for solitude don't surprise me: wilderness, remoteness, emptiness. How ominous, on the surface, faced with the reality of being alone with yourself. Yet I've been alone in my home, on public transit, walking the hallways of schools, weaving through the side streets and alleys of my neighbourhoods, in an office, at home with my partner of five years. It's not scary to turn inward.

Ensuring I can be alone in the world staves off whatever loneliness creeps up. A record fills the void. Usually, I'd listen to Laura Marling, but sometimes it's Mitski if I feel a little loud. When I remove my earbuds, look up from my book, and tune into the world, I feel lonely again. A film, with visuals sparkling and dancing across my screen, emboldens my imagination. I return to Say Anything because romance is an everlasting craving.

As unifying as art is with other people, being alone with it is just as encouraging. Solitude helps connect you with artistic work in a meaningful and deeper way that may alter you.- Sarah MacDonald

One summer, I walked for hours every day after work. Working from home then, as I do now, my limbs needed movement. I scrolled through a city-specific playlist I had made; I wanted to know Toronto better then. As the sun lowered, turning the creamsicle orange shine of the sky to a magnificent dusty pink, my feet carried me east with Broken Social Scene in my ear. I chose Drake next while walking down Gladstone Ave., the CN Tower perfectly framed in the sky, if you time your pacing right, to "Too Much." I stopped in front of the Cadbury Factory, its sweet melted butter smell hanging in the air, closed my eyes, and listened to Alvvays' "Ones Who Love You." Clarity always arrived for me by the time I reached the top of Trinity Bellwoods Park. It was time to turn back, feeling fused into the fabric of my city.

As unifying as art is with other people, being alone with it is just as encouraging. Solitude helps connect you with artistic work in a meaningful and deeper way that may alter you. I believe certain albums and musicians or books and authors or films appear in our lives for a reason. To be open to that, to see or hear a work and feel it through yourself and your life, is compatible with being alone. It's a practice of tenderness. I have sculpted myself into my many forms that without solitude, without the care to be alone, would not have come to be.

For the five months after I read it, I tucked Bluets into my tote bag, carrying it as naturally as a near-to-its-end lip balm, my wallet, or old proof-of-payment transit slips. It beat against my chest walking to and from the bar I once regularly went to with a friend. It served as a reminder of my little breakthroughs: personal growth that's intentional without being measurable; self-sympathy felt reflexively and intuitively.

Solitude helps untangle my brain. Solitude, with art, is mollifying. I don't feel removed from the world — simply adjacent to it in a space where the discovery or familiarity with music or art or books, pleasures and privileges, are necessary tools for understanding myself and whatever is happening around me. A gentler synonym for solitude is peace and quiet. In trying times, big or small, a little hush becomes something much more powerful: existential sustenance.

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About the Author

Sarah MacDonald is a music and culture writer whose work has appeared in The Walrus, Flare, NOW, and many more. Previously, she was an associate editor at Noisey Canada. She's happy to be here.

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