In a season in which people need to stress connections and relationships – even to the point of counting friends and family off on fingers (I actually met a woman who did this weekend) – it’s worthwhile to remember that solitude is not a sin. In fact, solitude is often key to the feeling of heightened spirituality people seek this time of year.
My family lives at great geographic distances and it’s not feasible for us all to meet up together for the holidays, or hardly ever. We keep support one another through email and social networking and it works for us. My husband’s family doesn’t meet up for holidays either. Since his mother passed away, the driving force is just not there. So, over the years, we've met the need for socialization during the holidays by inviting friends over for dinner, participating in community parties, and artists’ holiday open studio events.
A higher percentage of artist couples seem to be childfree, so we meet people like us – all trying hard to be social and jolly - but still feeling a little sensitive to the American child-centered approach to the holiday season.
I remember, as a kid, how relieved I was to get away from my family after one of our thrice-yearly reunions. Tension and a sense of competition existed between some of my relatives and the holidays always seemed a tenuous dance on thin ice – nervously waiting for words to be uttered that would bring on an all-out argument.
I remember the relief I felt when I’d escape to take my dog out for a long walk in the snow by myself. Those moments are the ones in which I sharply felt the spirit of the holidays – looking at neighbor’s holiday lights reflected in the snow, or walking through the quiet woods listening to the snow falling from the branches. Those moments of delicious solitude are holiday memories as precious as times spent with my family, maybe more so, because I felt stronger and more alive.
A few years ago I was going through a period of anxiety, deciding whether to have a medical intervention - and possibly having to leave my husband - in order to have kids. I happened upon a book by Gloria Steinem, titled the Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, in the bookstore while on vacation. Even though not directly connected to my situation, the book jacket description was appealing.
Steinem reiterates the idea that solitude can lead to inner strength and that establishing relationships is not key to self-actualization and peace of mind, if the self has been ignored in the process. She suggests some meditation and visualization exercises – a process that made me feel a little squeamish and cynical – but I tried some of them anyway.
One exercise was to visualize being alone, happy and powerful in any situation of my choice. I pictured myself walking through the woods with my camera, taking photos with my dogs, and wearing a wacky felted coat people made fun of me for wearing. I don’t where that image came from, because I’d tossed the coat long before, but in the visualization I felt good in it and didn’t care what anyone thought.
That image comes back to me to this day when I get overwhelmed by work or family relationships. It reminds me that I am strong on my own, outside of any set of relationships, and helps when people question me about not having kids.
Through the process of appreciating solitude and sense of self, beginning with a book that turned my thoughts in that direction, I decided not to risk my health and marriage by having kids. I realized I wanted kids at that point in my life because of a (very common) fear of being alone, but I am fine on my own and in the relationships of my choosing. I appreciate the people who value me for who I am in my own right – not as a producer of a set of new beings. I have time to care for my family, friends and community – and take time to walk alone with my dogs and enjoy each day as long as I can - and that is just fine.
Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem by Gloria Steinem