I lived alone in Paris for six months when I was 20. Technically, I had a roommate, an 80-year-old Frenchwoman who'd helped her father smuggle Jews out of the city during the Nazi occupation. She took in boarders to help pay the rent on her Latin Quarter apartment, and I was just one in a long string of American students.
Most evenings I spent alone in my bedroom. I felt lonely and awkward because I hadn't made any French friends, and I was too cash-strapped to take advantage of the city's nightlife. Yet I never felt bored. I spent the evenings reading French novels, listening to French pop music and writing in my journal. During the day, I'd go to classes and then wander around, seeing words on billboards and in storefronts that I'd read in a novel or had heard on the radio. My thinking seemed clear and uncluttered; new ideas came easily and unexpectedly.
Only lately have I come to believe that that the feeling I had in Paris -- that my mind was completely alive -- was caused by more than just the stimulation of living in a foreign city. I think that my sense of mental clarity was made possible by my solitude. What I mistook for loneliness was actually aloneness: a period of reflection, heightened observation and, I'd like to believe, greater insight.
I started thinking about the difference between aloneness and loneliness while visiting my friend V, who works as a caretaker on a ramshackle ranch in northwestern Wyoming, more than 10 miles from the nearest paved road. The ranch consists of a cluster of 10 or so log cabins, with no plumbing or electricity. With the exception of a satellite telephone and a small solar panel, it could be a time capsule from the 1940s. I arrived with the spring thaw, just as three feet of snow began to soften.
Each morning during my stay, V cooked a breakfast of bacon, eggs and sourdough pancakes made with the ranch's 50-year-old sourdough starter. We spent the days chopping firewood, skiing, pitching loose hay from wooden cribs to the ranch's four horses, and talking. In the evenings, she made dinner on a cook stove that burned wood.
Her two-room cabin, built of lodgepole pine with wood chinking, smelled of wood smoke, leather and propane. Next to her bed, three homemade banjos hung above vats of brewing dandelion wine. Shelves along the walls held photo albums, Western songbooks and guides to veterinary medicine and medicinal herbs. Next to the bench sat a foot-operated sewing machine and a half-finished Decker packsaddle.
We had lots to talk about: grizzly bears, men, how to preserve elk meat, the nature of happiness and her 12 years on the ranch, half of it spent living alone. She said all that solitude had brought her both bliss and sorrow, inspired songs and designs for jewelry, and given her time to play music and make horse tack.
I didn't stay long enough to slow down, or even to get much beyond my initial contradictory reactions. The silence made me uneasy, as did the lack of schedule, yet I delighted in the novelty of the place. V has learned to live in peace with the ranch's resident mouse population, but I was disgusted by the ubiquitous droppings. Finally, I was ashamed of my wastefulness compared to my friend's careful calculations of energy and garbage.
Most of all, my stay made me aware of how I spend my time. I noticed that I stayed occupied to avoid the terrifying prospect that I'd be alone with myself. I know that my fear of being alone is a human trait, that for centuries we've used ostracism and solitary confinement as punishment. At the same time, don't we turn to solitude to achieve deeper spirituality and wisdom?
It wasn't until I remembered my time in Paris, and how turning inward had helped me understand the outside world and feel more aware, that I began to understand what my friend meant when she talked about needing long stretches of solitude.
"Most people aren't brave enough to try being alone," she said "Once you learn who you are, you find you can't run away from yourself."
Lissa James is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes from Lilliwaup, Washington, where she works for the family's oyster farm.