Solitude and bliss

This summer felt different from pretty much every summer I’ve had, mostly because I made the effort to spend time alone, and give myself space. Space to think, breathe and act. Not to paraphrase Virginia Woolf too much, but when you have that space for yourself, it turns out, the life epiphanies come thick and fast.

Summers are a tricky thing. At least for me, they’ve always been fraught with peaks and troughs of hope and disappointment – I’d start the summer willing this to be the year I return in September fitter, prettier, somehow cooler only to face the disappointment come late August that that’s not, in fact, how life works.

In comparison, summers as a child were almost violently joyful things. I lived in Spain until I was about 13, and the thing I most remember about my summers there are the colours. Blue, mainly, obviously. There’s something about that never-ending turquoise sky of mid-July when clouds seem an impossibility. But also the bleached white of long sleepy Augusts in Madrid, when everyone else who could had left the city. When we moved to a little village nestled in the Spanish sierra, my memories are coloured with the golden green and dark woods of the mountains. You’d wake up to the sound of a donkey braying, and there’d be nothing to do but swim and sunbathe.

That’s all fantastic when you’re 8 and anxiety hasn’t hit you like a ton of bricks yet, but once it does, I’ve always found too much solitude to be counterproductive. We still go back every summer since we moved to the UK, and I’ve spent a lot of my teenage summers simmering with stress over a vague sense of not doing things right. Not sure what things those were, but they were there and they were not being done right. Summers away from my Cambridge friends can be especially apprehensive, considering I’m surrounded by the loud presence of my 3 siblings, my parents, my maternal grandparents and whatever extended family wants to drop in that day.

So, I began to seek out quiet corners of my garden, or solitary walks under the shadow that the mountain range cast on the village once the sun began to set behind it. It sounds very basic, but for someone not used to consciously taking care of myself, those 20 minutes of yoga every morning began to be a little treasure. This also meant taking care of my body as a physical thing – sport! Exercise! A revelation! I stretched, I swam 20 laps a day, I downloaded a workout app. I’d always hated sports, but there’s an undeniable magic in scratching out time to Not Think. You feel the burn, the sweat, but your mind goes quiet. Maybe the #LiveLaughLove peddlers have a point.

Doing more activity meant I slept easier, and crucially, had more focus to sit down and read. I’d gone from reading voraciously, countless books every month, when I was 10, and then as academics hit hard during my teenage years, my reading had dwindled to a point where during my first year at Cambridge I read maybe one book all year. I read three just this summer, which was a big deal for me. These were a collection of Joan Didion essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the Stephen King-esque Summer of Night by Dan Simmons, and Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee. Didion’s lush, verbose descriptions of her native, nostalgia infused Southern California are exactly what you need when you’re feeling morose on a summer evening, in case you were wondering.

At the end of the summer, I took my first trip to the USA, where my father is from, to do dissertation research in Richmond, Virginia. I was still reeling from the end of year-long relationship the week before, and felt cast away, tense and afraid, knowing where my anxiety could take me in stressful situations alone. It felt like a revelation to realise that I could bring the healthy, solitary habits I’d developed over the summer with me anywhere. After one stressful day at the freezing air-conditioned archives, I took myself to see a free exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. I wandered around the 21st century art rooms – large rocks stuccoed to the wall, technicolour ribbons creeping from one wall the other, all meaning and form broken down- and planned the dinner I was going to have at a nearby Cuban restaurant. That was my first meal at a restaurant alone. It’s somehow taken me 21 years to realise there’s a real joy to be had in solitude, but I’m glad I got there.

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