One evening I realized I had gone the whole day without speaking more than a dozen words—a mix of English, Spanish, and Derija. Think of twelve words, a twelve word sentence. Think of a going a day using only twelve words, or a week, or a month.
I was not entirely prepared for all the loneliness I feel here.
If you think you can handle being alone, go traveling by yourself.
I didn’t think it was weird to spend more time than usual in the mirror until I realized I was trying to fill a certain degree of loneliness, unconsciously using my reflection as my own company. Disgusted, for two days I couldn’t look in the mirror.
I felt the same as I did last month when I realized I had obsessively worried a bald spot onto my scalp. Living in the mind does this.
In my daily life back home, I spend a good deal of time by myself during the day. I wake up, make coffee, look out the window, and start to write. This routine suits me and my work. It helps me focus and settle comfortably into the contents of my head. I like being by myself and solving the minor problems I create. I have a harmless practice of diving as deep as I can into certain pools of emotion then resurfacing for air, writing it down, and going in again. As long as I don’t have to spend every waking minute deep in the parts of my brain I access to write, I am a functioning human. Creative people know there are places in the mind that need to be tapped into in order to produce meaningful or interesting work, and it takes practice to be comfortable with these places in ourselves, because we are conditioned to believe they are socially unacceptable. You learn how mixing creative waters with social waters can upset a civic balance. Get in, get work done, and get out. Without an exit from these ‘pools’, the mind can take an unexpected turn.
The residents I was hanging out with before have been gone for a week, taking my social life with them. Tétouan is a male dominated town. Women aren’t allowed to socialize in the ways men are. It is not socially acceptable for a woman to sit at a café by herself, or even be alone on the street. She is accompanied by a man, her children, or other women. I hardly see them alone. When I walk around I feel a little unsafe, especially as the light fades. I’ve been followed, grabbed, harassed, and watched suspiciously as I unlocked the door to my apartment by a man or group of men lingering by the entrance. It’s sad how women learn to acclimate to this, to experience isolation on a social and personal level and then be expected to adapt, move on, and burden no one.
To relieve myself at home, I take evenings off to bike around, hang out with one person or a few people, relax my mind with company and exercise. Even going to a job in the evening helps my mind take a break from the creative problems of the day. I think, up until now, I underestimated how important those breaks have been for me. I often declare boldly and confidently “I love to be alone.” I’m realizing now, yes, I still love to be alone, but I need a balance to keep me productive. Here in Morocco, I don’t know anyone, I don’t speak more than three words of the language (yes, no, thank you) and finding a healthy release from being enmeshed in my brain all day is more difficult than I anticipated. My day here looks different from my days back home. I get up, walk to studio, lock myself in my room, emerge for a light lunch, and at the end of the day walk back to my apartment to sleep. Between these movements, I write, read, and try to come to terms with myself, and then there is nothing to distract me from my own intensity.
What I’ve come to realize about myself and my creativity is that without social anchors to my routine, I start to unravel a little. The brain changes when we’re alone, and it changes more drastically when we are lonely. I chose to roll the dice this year and do things I know I’m not entirely comfortable with. I’m in a strange country by myself. I tentatively left my job with no back up plan. I lifted some blocks and created others. I am consciously choosing uncertainty over familiarity. A lot of this is coming down at once here in Morocco. I am trying to connect what I know on an intellectual level to what I feel on an emotional level and apply it to my work. I have had one downright howling emotional breakdown that accumulated from a series of minor punctures I tried to ignore. My work is changing. My immunity to solitude is being strengthened. Maybe with a little more distance, these things will seem minor. But here in the depths of the experience, even the smallest changes feel titanic, as if I am operating on a cellular level. A new condition of being embryonic.
Emotional distance is crucial to writing effective prose, otherwise it sounds precious and self-absorbed. One day all these intense highs and lows will find a way into my writing, and by that time, I will try not to forget what it took to get there.
Uncensored honesty is a growing importance in my life. The dark places in the mind reveal more slowly for a reason. We keep secrets from ourselves until we’re ready to face the truths, and that makes for a greater depth in creative work. I read Blake Morrison last night. He divides people into emotional and psychological terms: those who have lost a parent and those who have not. I think creativity can be divided into those who have accepted who they are and those who have not. Unlike death, a linear condition, self-awareness is a circle and involves a series of smaller deaths. We’re never finished discovering who we really are, because we accumulate experience, love, people, degrees of sadness. It takes a certain amount of loneliness to unveil new dimensions—not just in our personalities—but in our capacity to feel and understand. You don’t really know who you are until you have: a. lost part of yourself and b. gotten time to know yourself. I have found two things to be the biggest contributors to this kind of death: isolation and heartbreak. (In 2011, I experienced both at once, and it changed me on an elemental level.) Parts of us don’t really disappear. They evolve.
My final thoughts are to try it. Destroy your notion of comfort and your grip on yourself. Sink into your mind and your work. Be the deep sea diver of your own emotions. If you wait for life to decide loneliness for you, you will be completely unprepared.