by Nancy McDaniel

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote of “the restorative idleness of solitude” in his excruciatingly beautiful novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. I was profoundly struck by the poignancy of those words. How beautifully, if incongruously, they flowed. However, it was more personally important to me, how apt they were in describing a certain phase of my life.

So much of our early lives is spent in search of forming, and then nurturing and fiercely protecting, linkages: mother/child, brother/sister, teacher/pupil, girlfriend/girlfriend, girlfriend/boyfriend, husband/wife, perhaps wife/lover. Being alone is generally viewed with derision or pity. Alone-ness is typically equated with loneliness. Strangely, when I was (unhappily) married, I was often lonelier than now that I am alone by choice.

Pairing Up
We scurry around, always in a hurry to fill the void, to be part of groups, to pair up. How many times have we been told, “You shouldn’t be alone”? Once any of these linkages, or couplings, ends for whatever reason, the pressure is substantial to be “with” Some-One or several Some-Ones. “You mean you went to a movie/play/gallery opening By Yourself?” This is asked as though it were against the rules to behave in this manner. As though it was odd, of not downright impossible, to enjoy these things By Oneself.

Listen to the names of the songs: “One is the Loneliest Number,” “Tea for Two”, “Cocktails for Two, and the dreaded “Table for One”. Or the terms: solitary confinement, two-by-two. And then the most dreaded question of all, “So, you’re not married/yet?” or “What’s a nice girl like you doing not married/yet?” In the 70s, the Feminist Retort would have been “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a woman is in her 20s or 30s or 40s or (yes) 50s, the issue is still the same. How can One Be Whole When One Is Alone (weren’t we Whole when we were born? Once when I was very much in love with a man who was quite different in many ways than I, I said that he “completed me.” Was I truly Incomplete without him or just was I A Better Me with him? I will always believe it to have been the latter.)

Play By Yourself
A long time ago after I got divorced, I realized what good company I was – to myself. I am fortunate enough to have many good male as well as female friends, some extremely close ones. I love to see them, to be with them, to talk to them, to “do stuff” with them. Sometimes, however, I love to just be alone. It’s not a Garbo-esque kind of thing. It’s not melodramatic. Sometimes it’s just….well, easier. I don’t have to have a meeting to decide when to go somewhere or where I want to go. I just go. I wonder if it’s because I am an only child. Perhaps I just had to learn many years ago how to happily Play By Myself.

Sometimes I can just sit alone and write or read or think. Or just sit and watch the world go by. It is solitude. It is restorative. Of course, it can be idleness. But it can also be productive and ultimately very fulfilling. How different solitude is than loneliness. Someone should teach that course or write that book. Perhaps they already have. If so, I’ll bet it was a woman. My experience suggests that women have more close friends than men do and talk better and more intimately with their friends than men do (now there’s a news flash… not!). However, it also seems to me that women are better at being alone than men are. They seem to be, in many ways, much more self-sufficient.

Uber Phone
Will solitude ever be truly possible again with the increasing ubiquity of the cell phone? Does no one ever sit alone quietly, gazing at the clouds or even just thinking what to have for dinner or what to wear to work the next day? Does no one ever walk down a busy street and people watch and, just for fun, make up stories about who those interesting strangers are or what their lives might be like? Does no one ever drive alone with the convertible’s top down, singing the wrong words to their favorite song at the top of their lungs? These things are all very difficult to do with a cell phone plugged into one’s ear. Perhaps, sadly, their days are numbered or already past. What a loss of a joyous waste of time.

Sometimes it still surprises me that I can get a giggle out of myself. I don’t have to explain to me why something is amusing. I don’t have to patiently explain the turn of a phrase that made me laugh. I just Get It. Sometimes it’s so much simpler.

Yet, of course, at the end of the day (literally, in this case), sometimes the Simplicity of Aloneness can be lonely after all. But, when it is, I just remind myself of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ beautifully turned phrases, “The restorative idleness of solitude” and being “satisfied with dreaming (your) own dreams” and I am ready to Be By Myself all over again.


  1. Being comfortable in your own skin is a fantastic place to reach.
    I agree that loneliness with someone is far worse than the alone type.

    1. Thank you. Although I wrote this piece 13 years ago and have been divorced for 3o years (yikes), I still feel exactry the same way!

  2. Great point. My only disagreement being with the assumption that women have this problem less than men. I have to assume it must be 50/50. Most things are. I have personally known a greater percent of women with this particular problem, but I would never assume that that’s true of women in general….

    I just have a small circle of acquaintances.

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