Monday, September 24, 2012

Solitude and Friendship

On my first day of being alone, I didn't spend more than five minutes by myself. I spent almost all of the day with Lauren, or as she's known in our house, "Auntie Lauren," Sean's most lovely girlfriend, who came to visit me. We hung out all day, sometimes in comfortable silence, but mostly in fun, light, and sometimes therapeutically-more-serious conversation.

Before Lauren's visit, my Mom and I caught up over the phone about some issues about my chemo options. And after Lauren left, I answered a call from my Aunt Helen who was not so inconspicuously calling to check up on me. After the kids got home, we all enjoyed a fabulous dinner with Brianne, Seamus, and ... Baby Mehigan (who apparently likes a bit of lasagna).  Yep, I'm going to be an auntie!!! I've known since the week I was diagnosed, and the little lime-sized blessing in my best friend's stomach has been a constant source of beaming light through these difficult weeks. I can't wait to hold that baby and tell him how much he meant to me from the moment I knew he existed. (I think it's a boy -- then again, my gender instincts were wrong on both of my own kids, so it's probably a girl. Either way, I already love that little one with all my might.)

Now the house has grown quiet as Brian starts to correct papers and Teddy reluctantly surrenders to sleep (very reluctantly -- after 30 minutes of quiet, he just yelled down to me, "Mommy, how do you spell your name?" I wish I were joking. "T-A-R-A," by the way.).

After reading last night's blog, a good friend sent me an article about solitude. Actually, it's a script of a speech made to the plebe (i.e., first year) class at West Point back in 2009 by literary critic and author William Deresiewicz, and it's about way more than solitude. It's about leadership, character, and to me, self-improvement. On this first day of my effort to learn to be better when I'm by myself, I read it while Lauren sat on the sofa a few feet from me and my healing chair.

Relative to my blogs, the speech (linked HERE) is long, and many of you may not want to take the time to read it. I never meant this blog to feel like a homework message board. But in my humble opinion, the time spent reading it, and more importantly, reflecting upon it, would be well worth it, even if you don't agree with all it has to say.

I could take any paragraph of this speech and write a post about it. For me, it's that rich. But I'll be selective, at least for now, and choose just two passages on which to reflect tonight. Here's the first:

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I'm a multitasker, and before I read this article, I considered it a strength. However, now that I actually think about it, I often do things in bursts of 20 seconds, and I am constantly fiddling with something -- my iPhone, iPad, laptop, Facebook, email, TV. Just as I typed this, I heard three consecutive pings of a new email as it hit three separate devices. And now I sit here fighting the urge to check who it's from. Heck, I give up. (Back now, it was just the President writing again, and inviting me to dinner, again.) Darn, I suck.

Where was I? Right, I'm a multitasker. And today I started to question whether in fact, this could be a weakness that needs some immediate attention. I admit, it's definitely a weakness in the kitchen -- Brian and I have had many laughs over the fact that I honestly can't stay focused long enough to twirl lettuce in the salad spinner. Really, I can't. I'll find that the cabinet with the spinner needs to be cleaned or the countertop is sticky and the sponge stash under the sink need to be restocked. Then I'm out in the garage at the BJ's stash of sponges thinking about how to best fill the space where that old file cabinet once sat. When I get back, without the sponge, Brian's already spun and finished the salad. 

At work, I'm much better (thank goodness since I bill by the hour!). There, I can take a task and focus on it for a good chunk of time. I love the feeling of getting lost in thought and surfacing an hour later. I think Mr. Deresiewicz would be proud of me in those hours. 

But the kitchen and my office are two ends of the spectrum. It's everything in between that I feel I need to work on -- from the time I spend with my kids to this very blog entry. Am I outlasting my impulse to check my email when Annabel and I are building a Lego tower or coloring a picture? Not always. But I should. Even the President should wait for that precious time. And so this passage has made me stop to think, to reassess, to try to be better. That's why I think it's such a good message -- because I'm pretty sure that's just what it intended that I do. 

The other passage I wanted to call out may at first appear to be a way of justifying my day of constant company. But it's not that. 

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.” 

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities. 

Last night I felt like I was wimping out when I jumped at Lauren's offer to come visit me, especially after I just hit "Publish" on my blog about being alone. And I admit that today I was excited to answer the phone when I saw my Mom's and my aunt's number on caller ID. Finally, before dinner, I was thrilled to see Brianne and Seamus walk through the door. But ultimately I don't think I was wimping out by enjoying the company of these wonderful people. Rather, I think I was just blessed with a day of true friendship. 


  1. I would love to come see you soon! No lonliness! We can talk... and talk...and talk. (And eat... :) xoxoxo Jen

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