Thursday, September 15, 2011

What Does it Mean to Be Alone

The other night I had the pleasure of going to a reading by the poet Jane Hirshfield. She read a short poem  (see below) that got me thinking about how many different kinds of aloneness there are.

The most obvious way to think about being alone is related to being single, as in not in a romantic relationship.

Then there's the aloneness of being in a romantic relationship that is not working, one where communication has broken down and in which you do not feel seen or valued or understood.

Or, the relief of the rare experience of having some time alone in your own house when it's usually full of people and noise.

Single or partnered, there is the aloneness of being by yourself in the awesomeness of a redwood forest or under a sky bright with stars....or, sadly of being in the process of dying. You can think of this kind of aloneness as an existential experience.

So many people say they are afraid of being alone. And I do think there is a strong tendency to put a value judgment on the word and the experience i.e. alone=bad. In my mind that kind of black and white thinking restricts our experience. Instead of thinking in better vs. worse terms,  consider that aloneness has its gifts and its challenges, just like any other state of being.

Here is the short poem that got me thinking:

Vinegar and Oil

Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
right solitude oils it.

How fragile we are, between the two good moments.

Coming and going unfinished,
puzzled by fate,

like the half-carved relief
of a fallen donkey, above a church door in Finland.

                                                        Jane Hirshfield


Laura Stanfill said...

Lovely poem, and what great insights about the act of being alone. My mom friends and I always joke about how exciting it is to take a shower without kiddos interrupting five times, so I totally relate to the joy of being alone in a quiet house these days. It's one kind of solitude I cherish.

Liz said...

oh, Laura---how well i remember the delicious feeling of utter quiet that you're describing....thanks for reminding me.

ashley said...

great stuff. i'm feeling more oily lately. really appreciating this single time in my life.....enjoying my own company...... i do have vinegar moments though!

Liz said...

thanks, ashley...i know what you mean about feeling oily with vinegar moments...sounds like life to me.

The Perennial Student said...

Just getting around to responding to this entry and the poem. I came to honor the good kind of alone many years ago, after years of running around always needing to be in a relationship. Exhausting, that. The delicious solitudes, the enveloping peace and inner calm, eventually became a rich part of my life. Yet I am still just a very fragile being,and sometimes am surprised that I must taste that vinegar of alone.

Liz said...

thank you for this thoughtful comment, student. you capture the complexities so well.