I have been thinking about solitude a lot lately. It started earlier this year when I dipped a toe into the idea of traveling alone by staying in Belize an extra couple days after my friend flew home. Traveling alone is something that scares the bejesus out of me, but perhaps that is why I am so fascinated by the idea. From there, I began to think about solitude more generally — the difference between solitude and loneliness, the intersection of solitude and self-reliance, the connection between solitude and nature…
And then Andrea Dorfman’s “How to Be Alone” video went viral and folks began to analyze it as pro-feminist or anti-feminist. And then I started to notice things about solitude and gender, like the fact that most of the solitude-seekers in American literature and culture have been men. (Think Henry David Thoreau, J.D. Salinger and Chris McCandless.) The only cultural reference for a woman living alone in the woods is the fairy-tale witch. I started to realize the fact that we see something romantic or noble about the idea of a man’s solitude, but for women, solitude is considered sad or pitiful.
And then Eat, Pray, Love came out in theaters and people began to analyze that particular story of a woman traveling alone. I haven’t seen the film or read the book (yet), but it almost seems as though it is the “acceptable woman’s version” of the solitude-seeking narrative. What I mean is that she begins her journey of self-discovery because of a failed relationship. And she ends her journey by finding love. The way the story is framed, her journey is not so much about seeking solitude for solitude’s sake, but so that she may heal herself in order to love and be loved.
And then an interesting story about a woman came on the local news yesterday. I forget her name, but she has been kayaking alone for two months. She is a middle-aged mother of two. She was briefly interviewed and said that the hardest part was the physical exhaustion of paddling 20-30 miles in a day. When they switched back to the anchors in the studio, the male anchor joked, “I guess she really needed some ‘me time.'” And then both the male and female anchor chuckled. Even though she, herself, did not say anything about why she chose to undertake this journey in the interview, the newscasters were happy to place her into the caricature of the “frazzled mother” – the one you see in comic strips – who just needs some “me time” before she goes back to her kids. And perhaps they did it because that is our only cultural frame of reference for a woman, who happens to be a mother, seeking solitude. Her solitude is merely a temporary escape from, and solution to, the stress of her familial responsibilities.
In both this instance and Eat, Pray, Love, women’s solitude is driven by relationships with others, and ultimately serves to improve relationships with others. We just don’t see women as authentic solitude-seekers like Thoreau, who go into nature to seek peace and personal enlightenment for no one else but themselves. In the narrative for women, seeking solitude is ultimately about improving our connections with other people.
I wonder how much this subconscious narrative plays into the way men and women are socialized. I think there could be some truth to the idea that for girls, “happiness” is an idea centers around love and friendships, while for boys, “happiness” is an idea that centers around personal achievement or independent success. And perhaps that is why “How to Be Alone” is causing such a stir — because it suggests that a woman might not end up with a partner, or might not even end up surrounded by a tight circle of girlfriends like the women of Sex and the City, and that that is ok and can feel ok. Even though I don’t believe that video was designed specifically “for women,” it does speak to a certain element of the female experience and the idea that being alone represents a personal failure to connect and be loved.
I wonder how many women are intrigued by the idea of seeking solitude, but are too afraid of being alone, too afraid of what being alone says about them as a person, or afraid of what society might think of them for wanting to be alone. On the other hand, I wonder how many women are not afraid of solitude, and have sought authentic solitude for its own sake.
I wonder how many women have stepped outside the narrative and into the woods, and I wonder why we haven’t we heard their stories.