Live Alone And Like It

Somehow I wound up leading the same summer life my mother led. With school over, the household was transplanted a hundred miles away, in a place defined by weather: silver sunlight, soaking rains, calamine lotion, citronella candles, fishing tackle, raveling towels. The children were the centerpiece of the enterprise--sticky, grubby, unappreciative of an idyll engineered by others, always faintly sunburned on shoulders or nose despite the best efforts of the adults who dogged them with sunscreen. The fathers arrived on Friday night bringing the mail, their city clothes incongruous in the thick and buggy air.

My mother, who died young, missed the next act in this summer-stock production. The children grow; they come, they go. Mostly go. They have their own cars, their own plans, their own sunscreen. Faint webs grow in the corners of the barbecue grill during the week. The Bactine is past its sell-by date. No one has needed stitches for the longest time. It's so quiet here.

And that's just fine. I like solitude. I can spend days happily alone, eating Raisin Bran for dinner on the porch instead of bothering with a starch, a stove and a napkin. Eldest of five, mother of three, veteran of noisy newsrooms: is it any wonder that I like the sound of silence? It has a good beat, and you can dance to it.

Why does that sound like the kind of admission you'd make at a 12-step meeting? If you like to be by yourself, there's the assumption that you're antisocial, antifamily, a month away from becoming that old woman down the street with the weedy yard and the decrepit house, or the Unabomber. Those who choose not to marry or have children are still viewed with some suspicion; those with spouses and kids are assumed to want to be with them 24/7. People covertly embrace faux solitude, the places in which they can be alone among others: the plane, the car, the pew.

Being alone is out of fashion, or maybe it was never acceptable at all. Take a spin through any decent dictionary of quotations, and lots of the people you'd normally credit are negative about being alone. "Solitude is dangerous to reason," says Dr. Johnson. "The safeguard of mediocrity," says Emerson. Erica Jong is onto something: "Solitude," she wrote, "is un-American." No kidding. This country seems to be the official home of the big dinner, the family reunion, the party hearty. The response to solitude is set to music, with a deep, sympathetic Perry Como croon: "Oh, no! You're all by yourself?"

Yep, and liking it. The evangelists may have it that Jesus went into the desert for 40 days to fast and pray, but it's worth remembering that they were part of the increasingly large crowd that had begun to follow the guy everywhere. Maybe he just wanted to be by himself. Lack of solitude is probably why most political figures are slightly deranged. Between the aides, the staff and the Secret Service, the president is never, ever alone, and senators ricochet from meeting to charity lunch to meeting to fund-raising dinner to yet another meeting. Every once in a while, I have a day like that, and at the end of it I have not had a single coherent thought. It's like mosquitoes buzzing around your ears while you're trying to sleep. You can't dream through the din.

Modern life means living with the din: of television, of small talk, of strangers selling on the phone, of co-workers using PowerPoint to explain what could easily be drawn on the back of a cocktail napkin. The span of our collective concentration has narrowed accordingly. Over the years America has been described as beset by a variety of human ailments and conditions: right now there's no question that it's attention-deficit disorder. It's so hard to focus.

When the beds of the former children are all nicely made and their rooms quiet and still except for the buzz of a stray fly strafing the screen, I miss those summers past. But there's no question that they were exhausting. A family of five produces so many dishes. And when it rained for days, when Mr. Mustard in the library with the lead pipe had outlived his usefulness, like my mother before me I was sometimes driven to desperation. A good soaking never hurt anyone. I personally invented a game called How Many Worms Can You Find in a Puddle?

A much older friend once talked of how she resented those who dropped in on her, convinced that the fact that she lived alone must mean she was always desperate for charity company. "People can't seem to figure out the difference between alone and lonely," she said tartly as she walked me to the door. It's a simple distinction and it has to do with choice. Be forced into solitude by circumstance, and you may well be disconsolate; choose it, and you are simply, perhaps happily, alone. Lean Cuisine and "Law & Order." I can be the life of the party when necessary, but sometimes I just need to hear myself think. After all, if we can't hear ourselves thinking, is any thinking truly going on?