Saturday, 17 November 2018


Some twenty years ago an English-speaking friend tried to explain to me the difference between loneliness and solitude. This is a good example of how language affects perception: neither Swedish nor Russian has two separate words. I could not understand that the state of being alone could be anything than negative, and at that time I was still terrified by the very idea of loneliness.

Maybe the reason is my childhood fears of being abandoned. I am the only child, and in those carefree days children would be left unattended without further thoughts. I particularly remember two episodes. When I was five, my father and I were staying in an artists' village outside Moscow. He was composing his music, and I assume my mother was back in town working. After breakfast, my father would go skiing for a couple of hours, leaving me alone in the cottage. A couple of hours for a very young child is eternity. Perhaps it only happened once, but someone found me outside the cottage, in the snow, crying. (I don't recall my father soothing me afterwards). Several years later, in another artists' village in summer, I was sent to bed and woke in the middle of the night to realise I was alone in the cottage. My parents had gone out rowing with friends. Again, a neighbour heard my sobbing and came to comfort me.

In my teens and early twenties, I was scared of going to sleep because I thought I might never wake up. (It's the best way to die, but you don't think so when you are young). Of course eventually I would fall asleep, but it was my constant horror. In my brief first marriage, my husband, an archaeologist, was away for months. I felt profoundly lonely.

I also decided early in my life that I didn't enjoy doing things on my own. I had few friends, and particularly in summers my parents would take me with them (or send me) to places where there were no other children. Often they would take me out of school as well. I felt incredibly lonely and found consolation in intense correspondence (often with grownups), diary writing and fiction writing. When I was old enough to go to theatre, cinema or museums on my own, I discovered how much I lacked the after-show chat, the simple: “Wasn't it awesome?” or “Wasn't it awful?” It was out of the question for a young girl to travel alone, but a couple of times when I was granted the privilege to travel abroad, to Poland and Bulgaria, I felt miserable when I should have been happy and inquisitive.

After I moved to Sweden, I travelled a lot professionally, both within Sweden and all over the world. I preferred to stay with friends whenever possible. The loneliness of hotel nights was haunting. Otherwise with three children and hoards of visiting relatives, there wasn't much time to feel lonely. It came later, when I realised that if I wanted to do things I enjoyed doing I had to do them on my own, and eventually, with things that used to be shared, I had to choose between doing them on my own or not doing them at all.

That was my long and winding road to solitude – the enjoyment, even though forced, of being on my own, walking, gardening, star gazing (unfortunately, I haven't been able to do that for a long time now because of glaucoma). Miniature-making became an excellent pursuit, as did book-binding. I still prefer to do all this in company, but I am not terrified of being alone. I have converted the misery of loneliness into the peacefulness of solitude, thanks to the richness of the English language. Maybe it is simply the wisdom of age. 

If I needed more persuasion, I was totally in after reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

So what do I do in my Gatehouse solitude? Actually, pretty much the same I did before. It is tempting, when nobody waits for you at home, to just go on working in the office, but I am quite strict with myself on this matter. I don't work in the evenings and on weekends, unless there is really something urgent. I come home after work earlier than before, since it takes three minutes to walk from the office. I make myself a cup of tea. I drink a lot more tea than I used to, which is odd: you would imagine that tea-drinking is social. But it is a perfect way of crossing the border from work to rest. I read my non-work-related email and social media. I cook my meal. I wash up. Then I read, listen to music or watch a movie. I haven't got a television, but it works perfectly well to watch movies on my computer. I have recently succumbed to Netflix and watched all the big series such as Handmaid's Tale and Black Mirror. Here in Gatehouse, I have watched Alias Grace and Anne with “e” and some movies I have had on my watchlist for ages.

I have also very recently discovered Spotify. I had used it a couple of times before, but never got hooked because for me listening to music is definitely social, and once upon a time we played classical CDs a lot, but not for a very long time now. I have become increasingly sensitive to noise, and some time ago I got myself noise-cancelling headphones. Interestingly, I only used them for noise-cancelling purpose once, on a flight, which was bliss. But the side effect was that I tentatively tried to listen to meditation music in bed, after or instead of reading, and then I moved on to Bach and Chopin, and I was so irritated by advertising that I bought myself out of it, and now I am completely addicted. I think I have decided that I could hypothetically live without books, but I cannot live without music. Spotify has everything I need and more; it is, however, important to choose wisely, finding performances by best artists and of full works, not just popular snippets.

I have also found a way to continue with miniature-making, but this is a separate story. 

Something for solitary evenings  


1 comment:

Milena Mileva BLAZIC said...

Dear Masha,

I am reading your confessions.

Best regards,

Milena Mileva Blazic, Slovenia, Ljubljana