Live Inspired: being alone vs. being lonely

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Ten minutes ago, I was at a cafe, having breakfast, when a couple of tourists collapsed down next to me on the bench-style seating. I immediately looked around. Was the place full? No? Why did they have to be so NEAR me then?

It didn’t help that one of the guys was tapping the table and intermittently humming  sections of the song playing that wasn’t even close to accurate. (Really? You don’t even speak Spanish. There’s no chance you know this 1970s Puerto Rican ballad.)

But really, it wasn’t about this guy and his humming habits. It was more about the fact that it was morning and I had my computer and I was near the lake and feeling peaceful, and these are generally among the list of situations in which I want as little human contact as possible.

I needed to get out of there, to go somewhere where no one was looking at me or sitting near me or threatening to blurt out: “So, where ya from?” like I’m just dying to answer that question AGAIN at 9 a.m. on a Monday.

OK, OK, before you call me cold or anti-social, let me explain.

I love people! I do! Really!

I just don’t want them around me all the time.

I decided to write about this because since I’ve been traveling, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about one particular element of my travels: the fact that I’m alone.

“How do you manage?” a lot of people have asked. “I would get so lonely.”

And let me tell you, I could exhaust a lot words writing about challenges of traveling alone.

For example, about the necessary security precautions I need to take. (“Sure, no problem that the inside lock to my room is broken, I’ll just pile all the furniture in front of the door and sleep holding my corkscrew.”)

Or about the spontaneous lies I need to tell. (“Alone? Nah, my body builder boyfriend and his posse of tattooed ex-felons are just down the street buying cigarettes and nunchucks. They’ll be right back.”)

Or about how annoying it is to either a) sit for 17 minutes, cross-legged and wincing while finishing my drink before going to the bathroom or b) taking every tea cup, coffee mug and cocktail glass on the field trip with me. The other day, I was faced with this dilemma, having acquired company while sitting at a table with a beer, a water bottle and a club soda. Wow, that was an awkward bathroom break, excusing myself while collecting and balancing those three receptacles in my arms and waddling toward the loo.

But one challenge I can’t really articulate? Dealing with loneliness. Because, well, it’s not really a feeling I experience very much.

First of all, I feel like I’m meeting people all the time. This isn’t something I actively try to do (except for specific interviews), so it’s hard to explain how it works. I think because I don’t feel this need to Find Other Humans For Companionship and Warmth that when I do meet people it’s usually out of pure, organic connection. Somehow a conversation begins, naturally (not with “So, where ya from?” as the first words), and if it’s interesting, it rolls. Boom: a new friend. Hey, I’m not an ogre, I like having friends, and of course, I really value meeting locals when I’m traveling in order to help me better understand the place I’m in (and continue to become more sophisticated with my conversational Spanish). But the perfect balance for me is meeting one or two friends in every locale and seeing them a few times with long swaths of alone time in between. I get anxious if I have too many plans that involve other people.

I think part of that is because of my work, and the fact that in order to do this well, I’m kind of working all the time. If I go get a happy hour beer solo, it’s easy for me to whip out my computer and bang out another thing off my list, or just, you know, write down some things I’m thinking and feeling and seeing for later. And I like that, because working is statistically proven to be more fun while drinking. 

My job is to be creative so I’m always *in my head* and I need lots of time to be alone and walk alone and sit alone and process all my thoughts into plans and goals and articles and career moves.

To write, I want to be TRULY alone. I do like to write in coffee shops sometimes but not if someone is sitting too close to me or saying anything to me or too many people are breathing the same air. (Please note: there is a special place in hell for anyone who sits near a writer at a cafe, looking over their shoulder and onto their computer. This is akin to hiding a secret camera in the place where I get dressed. How dare you try to look at me when I’m so EXPOSED???) Sometimes, of course, I am forced to write in places like on cramped shuttles and airplanes and at the overcrowded joint in town that has the only reliable WiFi; please just know I am miserable.

And when I’m trying to shoot video or remember details or truly take in an experience to write about it later — I do all that so much better and in fuller ways when I’m alone. People are distracting and occasionally judge you for wanting to take 79 four-second videos for b-roll or saying something like “Can you just be quiet for 15 minutes? I need to think about what I’m seeing.”

I think it would be difficult to do what I’m doing while traveling with another person. And even more difficult to meet other people, especially non-English speakers, naturally, organically, in moments that often are born out of pure, unfettered silence and not two Americans yaking at each other.

But perhaps the biggest factor of this self-governed policy, for me, is that I simply like being alone. A lot.

Although I have some extroverted qualities, I’m a true introvert at my core. I crave being alone. I love to be alone. I need to be alone. Actually part of my excitement in doing something like this was the realization that I would get to be alone more often. My old life was wonderfully full of wonderful people, but also filled to the absolute brim with events, happy hours, coffee meetings and catch-ups. It was getting to the point where I couldn’t run out to get a pint of ice cream without stumbling into someone I knew. (This is what happens when you live in the same place for a long time and your circle gets too big; I don’t know how people live in one town their entire life and get anything done, I really don’t.)

This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy company or that I don’t miss the important people in my life when I’m away — I do. I miss my inner circle, and that particular privilege of being known and understood, so much sometimes.

But I’ve also spent 33 years nurturing a relationship with the most important person: me. And I want to spent time alone with her, too — to experience her awe, her excitement, her sadness, her grit in moments when things go wrong. To help her process and think and plan and execute. To laugh with her and cry with her and to look, with her, over the peaceful expanse of a Guatemalan lake, quietly. To see her become stronger. To watch her grow.

If I have this time, I’m a better friend, I’m a more engaging stranger, I’m a friendlier coffeeshop patron (except to you, Mr. Fake Hummer). I’m more open to meeting other people and spontaneously giving up my precious alone time.

The other day, I was in the midst of tapping away on my computer when a stranger reached into the void. I turned and smiled, and suddenly the evening became a happy blur of beers and wine and lakeside dancing and conversations about music and politics and Guatemala. 

It was great. Truly, I treasure those spontaneous moments. But the next day, I was craving more time with just Amelia again. So I took a long walk, enjoyed breakfast, took a boat to an lakeside overlook and then wrote for a long while.

It’s hard to be lonely when life is so interesting and the company is good.

5 thoughts on “Live Inspired: being alone vs. being lonely

  1. This was fascinating, even though it once again had little to do with your destination. I love hearing about where you are, but not any more than I enjoy reading this kind of stuff. You have a real gift for understanding and articulating what you are feeling and what motivates you, and it is really interesting to read about. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  2. Ahhh…yes. I’ve been alone while traveling and have been scared to death plenty of times by creepy looking men, even at busy main street restaurants. (Such as the life of women.) But wanting to be left alone sometimes — yes, that’s me too. I just didn’t think about that occurring to you on this journey. What an interesting observation Amelia!! Happy Thanksgiving!!

  3. After my dad passed I would visit my mom and ask how she was doing. She would often say “Sometimes you need to be your own best friend.”

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