The first time you were alone
[Sam–smelly backpackers can still be stylin’–Chardin , Bremen, Germany 2001]
When you are a child, there are a lot of firsts that pass by without notice. They are so ordinary it is hard for adults to remember that this is the child’s first time putting on their own shoes, or their first time going to the fridge to find themselves a snack.
My eldest daughter remembers vividly the first time she was left alone. When we’re very young a person is never far away. A few well-placed shrieks and you quickly learn you can make the entire household come running to your side. So it was without fanfare that my partner decided to go to the lobby of our building to sign for a package. Our daughter was cozy on the couch watching a movie and he saw no reason to disturb her and did not think it unusual to leave her for the few minutes it took to go downstairs and fetch a box.
“Remember when I was three years old and you left me home alone? You can leave me home alone with the baby. I know what to do. I’ve done it before.”
[Albert Park, Auckland, New Zealand 2011]
She’s six now but those few minutes alone set a strong precedent. She looked around the empty apartment and realized she was alone for the first time in her life. Instead of panicking, she was thrilled, and has sought to relive that moment of independence ever since. We appease her need for autonomy by giving her loose change and watching from the corner as she walks to the bodega and buys some oft-needed household supply, such as milk.
I’ve always liked the descriptive phrase “self possessed” but I find it difficult to define. You know when a person has that internal assurance. You can sense when a person has that precise balance of social acumen and self reliance that seems to live inside the phrase “self possessed.” She’s not always socially aware but she is independent.
I don’t remember the first time I was alone, but I do have a strong sense memory from when I traveled on my own. I went many days barely speaking to other people, only ever in my own company, unable to share the fullness of the day’s adventures with another like-minded soul. The closest I had to conversation was writing in a travel journal.
You know how when you travel with someone for a while you go through phases of loving them deeply and then hating the very sight of them you’re so sick to death of their stupid face? I felt that way about my own self. I enjoy my own company but I sometimes got sick of having only my own thoughts and my own perspective to lean on. I’m a person who processes the world by talking about it with others. In a way that’s what the act of writing is about: a conversation we have with ourselves to help us process our own experiences and put them into a structure.
You want to know how bored I got talking to myself all the time? I did videos of random things. Like this time-lapse I did in Denmark of packing my gear before heading out to the Roskilde Music Festival.
One of my Danish stepbrothers set it up so I would work the sausage stand at the music festival and most of the day the only words I spoke were in Danish, “Do you want bread with that sausage?” Someone stole my sleeping bag and then some Swedes puked in my tent so I ended up crashing with other people, trying to keep warm between their sleeping bags. Their night noises were like friendly chatter to me after days without speaking.
After many weeks of this kind of solo travel, however, I learned to enjoy my own company. I stopped worrying about spending time alone and even sought new ways to be silent for many days, such as avoiding consumer transactions so I wouldn’t have to speak to shop keepers. I think it was a kind of long meditation. It helped me to attain a certain amount of self possession.
A certain amount. Not a lot.