“Outside, an Internal Exploration of Solitude” was written in a tree house and explores my experiences with solitude. Beginning in childhood’s quiet moments, growing roots in my teens as I read the stories of lonely artists and a solitary family, and solidifying as I confront a world altered by COVID-19.
Pandemics Need Introverts
In her book Quiet, author Susan Cain wrote “the United States is among the most extroverted of nations” yet according to studies, “one third to one half of Americans are introverts”. In this changing time, Susan Cain’s analysis of introversion may have a surprising key to withstanding the COVID-19 pandemic: “solitude can be a catalyst to innovation.”
As an introvert growing up in the U.S. I learned how to act extroverted. By acting extroverted, I learned how deeply I craved and loved solitude. Solitude within nature and books, those quiet moments turning the world into patient possibility. But in this pandemic solitude felt different, felt lonely and isolated, until I realized I was far from alone.
Experiencing Solitude Together
Just as I share my solitude with singing birds in the forest and with authors’ voices emerging from book pages, humanity shares the COVID-19 pandemic’s solitude. Paradoxically, an entire country —an entire planet— experiences solitude “together” as we social distance, self isolate, and quarantine.
Within this solitude we, quite literally, care for each other and positively affect the climate. Within this solitude we secure time for healthcare workers and our future. As science writer Ed Yong explained, when COVID-19 cases in the US were still below 500,000,
“[t]here are now only two groups of Americans. Group A includes everyone involved in the medical response, whether that’s treating patients, running tests, or manufacturing supplies. Group B includes everyone else, and their job is to buy Group A more time.”
Solitude Isn’t Loneliness
As the days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into months, every single human is faced with the new and daunting reality. The pandemic’s sheer enormity — the emptied streets, connection relinquished to computer screens and phone calls, the collective sadness and loss, the constant fear of catching the virus— thrusts loneliness upon introverts and extroverts alike.
But loneliness and solitude are not the same, as author Olivia Laing explored in The Lonely City, “By no means all people who live their lives in the absence of company are lonely”. The COVID-19 pandemic creates a solitude that has the potential to connect us and pull us through these times, a solitude asking us to listen to our inner introvert, a solitude introducing us to “true solitude”. As author Michael Harris described,
“True solitude—as opposed to the failed solitude that we call loneliness—is a fertile state, yet one we have a hard time accessing. Once we do make room for it, though, we discover there are needful things hidden in that empty space, still waiting between the flash and action of our social lives.”
Stamps Interweaving Solitude
COVID-19 has taken the ability to travel away from us, so I invite you travel to the past for a moment. Imagine you are artist Ruth Asawa. Imagine you are 16 as the U.S. government separates your family and forces you —along with tens of thousands of fellow Japanese Americans — into internment camps during World War II. Imagine your internment beginning in a dank, pungent stall in a former horse racetrack, imagine waiting six years to reunite with your family. And in this time of isolation and uncertainty, imagine turning to art.
Now, become your self again and return to the present: seven years after Asawa’s death, as millions of people experience the COVID-19 pandemic’s forced isolation, a set of Forever Stamps honors Ruth Asawa’s art. Stamps with the quiet ability to interweave one person’s solitude to another’s, just as a line interweaves Asawa’s work, “I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.”
Together, Miles Apart
In the solitary days following the summer solstice and my 16th birthday, I discovered how a stamp and a bit of curiosity can bond solitudes to each other when I sent a letter to a woman named Lynn — my mother’s 8th grade English teacher who impacted the Detroit school system and hundreds of students for decades. I wrote looking for an English advisor but what I found within the words waiting in my mailbox a week later, was a friend.
That first letter arrived to Lynn at a time when she craved direction and purpose just as I did: a woman in her late 80’s and a 16-year-old girl experiencing similar circumstances side by side, miles apart. Each subsequent letter creating space to communicate our truths: through stories, shared love of nature, and, most of all, poetry.
Existing Within Solitude
Four years and dozens of letters later, in her latest missive (as she often described our letters), Lynn quoted stanzas of poetry to chronicle the feeling of loosing sight in her right eye. Concluding the letter with her own words, the day after winter solstice, “tomorrow is today, today will be longer than yesterday, and spring is on its way.”
Today is that spring but it brings the unexpected, a pandemic and profound solitude. But in this isolation, I can feel Lynn’s presence in the letters strewn across my table, each typewritten letter signed with her name and a drawing of a bird: a single line bent into two curves. And I imagine the little bird flying through the space between us, our connection made possible by, and existing within, our solitudes.
The Interdependence of Solitude
Within Lynn’s letters, and now experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, I have learned that solitude can prompt deep and lasting connection. A connection that begins with a small act of curiosity, a phone call, an email, a text, a letter, a stamp. A connection that may fuel you for the long term, as art fueled Ruth Asawa. A connection that may remind you —whether you are home alone or with others, whether you are working endlessly in hospitals and factories and grocery stores— that you are not alone in your aloneness. A connection that may gift you just enough encouragement to encounter solitude’s “interdependence” as philosopher Hannah Arendt expressed, “I am not simply together only with myself in the solitude […] I remain in this world of universal interdependence”.
Alone in Paris
“Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time,” author James Baldwin recounted in an interview, “yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold”. And when escaping into books failed, Baldwin physically escaped New York in 1948, landing in a lonely Paris: “when I arrived in Paris […] I didn’t know anyone […] I went through this period where I was very much alone, and wanted to be.”
As a child and into my young adulthood, I wanted — I craved— to be alone. Because aloneness contains opportunities for ever-firing synapses to focus, contains space to chase creativity and stay with questions, contains time to read the hundreds of books I’ve absorbed in my short life. Solitude is not a world devoid of life, but a world containing space to experience and reflect on life.
Escaping into Reality
Writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, in her essay “The Weight”, describes Baldwin as “this freedom-seeking gay man,” who sought solitude “where he could write as an outsider from the noise, alone in silence, with fearlessness.” And in my COVID-19 aloneness I wonder, if Baldwin’s flight from “the authorities and the cold” offered him the ability to sculpt “the noise” into words and humans and places. So he could tell the story of American-justice-system-crossed lovers in If Beale Street Could Talk and give them life within the pages. Lives creating an escape into reality: Baldwin’s words and characters becoming the cogs and wheels, ones and zeros, atoms and bacteria keeping our planet spinning.
Right now most of us cannot physically escape our homes and circumstances. And so, like Baldwin in his “rainbow kitchen”, we must be alone, for moments or months at a time, to articulate our experiences and stories and perspectives. Because, as Baldwin wrote in 1984, “I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.”
Solitude: Learning a Language
On April 16, 2020 —one month into Michigan’s stay at home orders— writer Maria Popova published an article featuring Mary Wolsencraft Shelley’s book The Last Man. Written in 1826, The Last Man’s protagonist Lionel Verney survives a pandemic in the future year 2092. In the prescient and terrifying story, Verney returns home, “as the storm-driven bird does the nest in which it may fold its wings in tranquility”, and reflects on life’s beauty: “Let us live for each other and for happiness; let us seek peace in our dear home, near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies.”
In Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus Shelley’s haunting correlations to the present continue. Frankenstein’s Monster conceals himself in a hovel and observes a family though a chink in a boarded-up window—voyeurism eerily familiar to scrolling through social media. But the Monster scrutinizes the family for “several revolutions of the moon”, acquiring the “godlike science” of language and completing anonymous kindnesses for the family, becoming their “good spirit”—kindnesses similar to groceries left on at-risk community member’s doorsteps.
While people experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic are not the last man on earth or pieced together by a mad scientist, we share our solitude with book characters and authors from the past. And Shelley’s protagonists, created over 200 years before the COVID-19 pandemic, possess insight about our present, enticing us to nestle into our solitude to observe and reflect, enticing us to learn the language of our immediate world.
Experiencing a New Reality
“For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite for being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world”.
— Mary Oliver, Upstream
Solitude invites me to be “susceptible and responsive to the world” creating a rich inner landscape, unique to my experience. A moment of solitude transforms into a moment shared with Susan Cain, Ed Yong, and Michael Harris as I listen to my introverted self and delineate between loneliness and aloneness; shared with Ruth Asawa, Lynn, and Hannah Arendt as I unearth connection within quiet; shared with James Baldwin, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Maria Popova, and Mary Shelley as I explore solitary authors and book characters; shared with Mary Oliver and Olivia Laing as I search for a path forward.
And as I face unnerving uncertainty, alongside billions of others, preparing for the unknown ahead of me requires moving through solitude’s initial shock and deafening quiet so I may give thought and creativity “the whole sky to fly in and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.”
With each moment the unknown becomes my reality, becomes an entire planet’s reality, and I know that in the COVID-19 pandemic’s aftermath, nothing will be the same. As the world reconciles with our new reality, solitude becomes a necessary and creative aspect of our lives. Because—as author Olivia Laing wrote— solitude, loneliness, and aloneness “might be taking you towards an otherwise unreachable experience of reality.”