How to Be Alone

Welcome. “Sinead O’Connor is alone, which is how she prefers to be.” So begins Amanda Hess’s profile of the musician most famous for her 1990 version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and for tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live” two years after that song’s release. O’Connor spoke to Hess from a remote cottage in Ireland, which she deliberately furnished with uncomfortable chairs so her guests would keep their visits short. “I’m lucky,” O’Connor said, “because I enjoy my own company.”

For those of us inclined to in-person gathering, there’s more and more opportunity for it lately. For my own part, it’s made me more sensitive to an acute tension between solitude and socializing. The return of giant hugs and screen-free heart-to-hearts is marvelous. But even though the rush to reunite feels urgent and exciting, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition: We can love seeing others, and love it when they leave, too.

In an effort to create a balance, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of “The Lonely City,” the British writer Olivia Laing’s 2016 meditation on loneliness. That led me to reread Laing’s “How to Be Lonely,” a guest essay in The Times from March 2020. Of the experience of quarantine, she wrote:

There are so many things available to sustain us now, and though it sounds counterintuitive to say it, loneliness is one of them. The weird gift of loneliness is that it grounds us in our common humanity. Other people have been afraid, waited, listened for news. Other people have survived. The whole world is in the same boat. However frightened we may feel, we have never been less alone.

Reading this today, Laing’s description of time at home seems quite accurate. Quarantine has indeed been a communal experience, connecting us even in our varying degrees of isolation.

Jancee Dunn writes in The Times this week on a related topic, “Why You Should Give Your Partner the Gift of Time Apart.” The Carleton University psychology professor Robert Coplan tells her that “people who have been sheltering in place with others might not realize their irritability and stress could be tied to lack of alone time.” Coplan calls that desire for solitude “aloneliness” — “the mirror image of loneliness.”

And Kristen Radtke takes on loneliness in the Book Review: “One of the best descriptions of loneliness I’ve ever read is from Maggie Nelson’s ‘Bluets,’ in which she writes, ‘Loneliness is solitude with a problem.’”

A reader recommends.

Melissa Sussman is geeking out in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

This year I embraced my nerdiness and fell in love with the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. Starting at the beginning of quarantine with “The Hobbit” and having just completed “The Lord of the Rings,” I look forward to moving on to some of Tolkien’s lesser known works, like “Unfinished Tales” and “The Silmarillion.” Reading even a few passages at a time has become a ritual I look forward to in the evening after putting my kids to bed. This new appreciation has made me feel like part of a broader community of Tolkien fans, and has been a great way to stay grounded and focused.


Wendell Berry is wonderful on loneliness. From his essay collection “What Are People For?”: “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.”

Equally transporting: Al Green performing “Tired of Being Alone” in 1972.

And here’s “Michael and Zoe,” a “love story” by the British-Ghanaian writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson, in which Al Green’s music plays a critical role.

Tell us.

Have you found ways to balance being more social while guarding your solitude? Write to us: [email protected] Include your name and location, please. We’re At Home. We’ll read every letter sent. As always, more ideas for leading a full and cultured life at home and near it appear below. I’ll see you on Friday.

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