All By Myself: A Story of Solitude
Words and images by Terra Mahmoudi
I’ve been spending a lot of time by myself lately. A lot of time alone. I think about my friends frequently, about reaching out to schedule a get together. But then I think about my schedule— the trips I have planned, the weddings I am going to, the commitments I’ve already made—and I retreat furtively, hiding from the world.
This isn’t necessarily a new habit. When I worked full time, I was equally protective of my personal time. But back then, it felt like I was getting away with something when I hid from the world. Back then, it felt like a game. I would retreat, hide away in a fort of solitude whenever I got the chance.
It’s not that I needed the time to rest or recharge (though I probably did need that, too). Rather, I was giving so much of my time to a job that was increasingly distancing me from myself that I became stingy about giving away any more. Guarded as I was, I definitely was not anti-social. If someone asked to get together, I almost always agreed. But if the invitation wasn’t definitive, if the inviter didn’t set a date and a time, I’d hold my breath, waiting to see whether our plans for “sometime next week” would pan out—and feeling liberated when they didn’t. Whether it was the spontaneity or the skirting of obligations, it was thrilling. But I also knew that come Monday, I would have to be “found.”
Things are different now. On the one hand, I still find it exciting; I still feel like I am getting away with something. How long before Dan realizes we were supposed to get lunch this week? How long before Amy remembers she wanted to meet to discuss the next issue of her magazine? But as a freelancer, disengaged from office life and a traditional work schedule, I am realizing that when I hide now, it’s possible I won’t be found.
Dan said he wanted to get lunch next week, but when next week became this week, he never reached out. Amy asked to get together, and we even set a date; but when I followed up that morning to set a time for our meeting, she had to reschedule. Some people might be offended or feel blown if their friend drops the ball, but I know that it’s equally on me; I could have followed up with Dan myself; I could’ve reached out to Amy the night before to set the time. But I didn’t. I knew the chances that our plans would fall through without my action were fairly high, and even though I genuinely like spending time with both of Dan and Amy, I withdrew and let things play out. And sure enough, when plans fell through, I got that same rush. I have part of my day back—I can do anything!
The thing is that I don’t know why I am hiding these days. As a freelancer, I have complete control of my time. Maybe deep down I feel like I should have more to show for someone with all that control. Maybe it’s the result of giving my whole self to my job for three years. Or maybe it’s positive—a sign that I am completely and totally okay with myself, that I don’t need anyone else to make me happy. It’s likely a combination of all of those things and more. But the jury is still out on whether it’s good for me.
When I was a little kid, I could spend hours playing in my backyard. Set on a hill, it had two levels of lawn connected by a downward-sloping pathway and a sea of juniper. A forested sliver of fir trees and rhododendrons separated our lower lawn from our neighbor’s property. I’m not sure whether this narrow piece of land belonged to our neighbors or whether the growth was too dense for my parents to see into, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t allowed to play there. Still, at times I would retreat into the trees and find my way to a stump-sized rock, where I’d sit surrounded by bushes. I don’t think I even liked being in there—it was usually pretty cold in the shade and there were bugs everywhere. But I liked that it was private and that it was “mine.”
When I was upset, I would take refuge on that rock and let the tears stream down my face. When I was feeling mischievous, I would sit quietly and as still as possible until my smirk grew into a giggle. Every time I took cover in my secret spot, I wondered how long it would take my parents to notice I was gone—maybe they’d even think I ran away, I mused. It was usually mere minutes before I heard them call my name from the deck. But occasionally, they didn’t notice. Eventually, I would lose patience and retire, feeling defeated and insignificant.
I’m not that kid sitting on a rock anymore. It might feel like I’m playing the same old game when I hide from the world, taking cover in a canopy of time, but I’m not sure it can be if no one is looking for me. And thrilling as it may be, it might not be worth it if, over time, I just fade away.
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Terra Mahmoudi is a Portland-based writer and editor. When she’s not wordsmithing, she can be found wandering the PNW with her partner and their incredibly gifted dog-child.