Moments alone

by Kate Veitch

'I'M SORRY I didn't get to that movie you recommended,' said the woman I'd recently met, in an email. 'I was worried about being alone. But that's just me.'

No, I thought, as a memory clacked into place like a roulette wheel's little steel ball, it's not just you. Another conversation, a few years back, also with a woman I didn't know well. We were in the back seat of a car driving through the streets of San Francisco. Our partners – best friends, though men seldom use that term – were in front, chatting animatedly to each other. I asked Deborah about her work, which took her often to other cities, other countries. She talked, then paused, leaned closer and put a confiding hand on my arm. 'An amazing thing happened on my last trip,' she said. Her lowered voice, the sudden glow lighting her face: was she about to confess a flirtation? A fling? I cast a quick nervous glance at our partners in the front seat, but they were laughing at some shared joke, oblivious. 'One night I didn't have colleagues to dine with, and for the first time I didn't order in room service,' Deborah told me. 'I went and had dinner on my own.' She sat back, grinning with triumph.

'That's terrific,' I enthused, trying to conceal my astonishment. Deborah and I had important things – age, class, bookishness – in common, but I'd thought of her as more accomplished, more professional, than me. Why on earth would dining alone be such a big deal for a woman like this? Hesitantly, then, I asked why she'd not done it before, and her eyes widened. 'Being alone in a restaurant means that you've got no friends,' she said. 'People take one look and feel sorry for you.'

It had taken courage, plainly, for Deborah to face that empty seat opposite and the consequent pity of strangers. I was glad for her. But her explanation left me oddly shaken. Could it be so? Was it possible that all these years – decades, in fact, ever since I began earning my own living in my mid-teens – I'd been enjoying eating by myself (and movie-watching, gallery-hopping, clothes-shopping and plane-catching, by myself), the people around me had been glancing across and thinking, Poor thing? The fact that it hadn't occurred to me didn't mean it wasn't so; I have always tended to be cloddishly insensitive to the estimation of others.

I had assumed, I realised, that if others had noticed me flying solo at all (unlikely, most folks being too preoccupied with their own affairs) then they would have felt … um … well, a fleeting glint of admiration for my independence. And perhaps a ripple of vicarious pleasure for me in my solitude, since that is how I experienced it: as pleasure. I feel expansive when I'm alone, like I've got more room to breathe, for my thoughts to roam like some herd of ruminants wandering, munching, on the vast plain. But is that just me?

HOW DOES THE world, I wondered tardily, really view a woman alone? Just as importantly, how does a woman alone believe the world is viewing her? And how do these perceptions affect a woman's capacity to freely choose solitude? Not to live alone, necessarily – that has its own set of challenges – nor an aloneness that is imposed, unwanted, and unshiftable. Rather, I was thinking about a woman simply taking some time and space to enjoy her own company, using her moments alone for whatever purpose she fancies.

The email from my new friend, the woman who worried about going to the cinema alone, brought these inchoate thoughts bobbing to the surface of my mind. Had she imagined herself in the cinema, an empty seat on either side, and shuddered? Was hers the same fear as Deborah's, of people looking at you pityingly? Perhaps more than pity: condescension. Or worse, scorn.

And how is it for men? Different, that was one thing I felt sure of. A woman alone may seem, or feel herself to be, lacking; without friends, without family, without protection. But a man on his own is not seen as in need of another: he is simply going about his business. Or having an adventure. After all, he has the world's vast story-trove of men on quests behind him, from Gautama Buddha to Sir Galahad, Don Quixote to Frodo Baggins. Or how about Odysseus, and his suspiciously circuitous route home from Troy: a decade-long swashbuckle through sirens, Cyclops and Circe. Where was the missus, meanwhile? At home, waiting. Faithful Penelope: her biggest thrill was undoing her weaving each night to trick the suitors. Even those rare woman of myth who do embark on quests are in search, first and foremost, of another person: Demeter seeking her lost daughter Persephone, Psyche trying to catch up with her beloved Cupid. Their adventures are incidental to a woman's true calling: relationship.

They've helped shape our social character, these myths and folk tales, just as their descendants – movies, novels – continue to. One reason the solo quest so stirs us is that our history as a species tells us it's bloody dangerous to go out there alone. For most of human development, we lived as small bands of hunter-gatherers, and no one member of such a band could hunt or gather enough to survive, just as, through the fewer centuries of subsistence agriculture, no one farmer could grow enough to subsist. Throughout human existence, to be much separated from your group – to be alone – meant one thing: death.

And consider this: for most of those millennia of getting by in small bands, it was the duty of every upstanding young man to go on raiding parties. Rape and pillage weren't crimes, they were the right thing to do. In stealing across to the next valley and abducting young women, men expanded their own clan's labour force and deepened its gene pool. No girl wanted to spend her life as a raped slave or, at best, a very subsidiary wife, so she grew up heeding the constant warnings not to wander from her group, and fearful of ever finding herself suddenly alone. The marauding male is these days abhorred, not sanctioned, yet he exists. 'Here we are in 2012 and women still can't walk the streets freely,' said one of the ten thousand people marching through Brunswick after the abduction and murder of Jill Meagher last September. 'We have moments when we think we can and then something like this happens. It goes back to that innate fear that we have.' Indeed it does, and that fear constricts female autonomy. As I coincidentally prepared to travel to Melbourne that same sad week, a friend emailed me to caution, 'Don't walk home alone from anywhere.'

MEN TOO, OF course, can be targets of the marauding male; more men than women (though not by much) are victims of non-sexual assault, and far more likely to be attacked outside their homes, by strangers. In the town of Byron Bay, near where I live, boozed-up street bashings of young men by young men have become frighteningly commonplace. Nevertheless, Australia is a relatively safe country, although the media's obsession with crime, along with our high rates of reporting occurrences to the police, may not make it seem so. Australia's 'liveability' and especially its widespread (again, relatively) prosperity is nowhere more evident than in the ever-growing percentage of people choosing to live alone: a quarter of our households now are single person. This sort of dometic self-sufficiency is for all sorts of reasons – financial, practical, historical, existential – a choice available only to members of a society of such abundant resources, and possessing such a high level of technology, that a single person can survive, communicate, and thrive, alone. In less privileged parts of the world, this would be not only unachievable, but utterly undesirable.

I had my first experience of a less industrialised society's abhorrence of aloneness when travelling the hippie trail in the early '70s. Staying for a couple of months in Jogjakarta, Central Java, I found myself surrounded by people wherever I went: in the room I shared with my boyfriend, in the house full of dope-smoking fellow-travellers ever eager for an audience for their tales; once out the front door there were the curious eyes of our neighbours, and beyond our street, crowds. Crowds everywhere. Living in the middle of the most densely populated island on earth, the Javanese wisely do not crave solitude. But I did.

Observing that there was just one place nearby – the local cemetery – that was always quiet and empty, I took myself off there one morning. Half a dozen kids playing in the street watched me open the gate and go inside. I'd barely had time to settle myself on some handy seat (bench or tomb, I'm not sure) when I saw these kids approaching, clinging to each other in a tight fearful clutch. Spotting me, they raced over and planted themselves beside and behind me, one climbing even into my lap. I tried to explain in my woefully basic Bahasa Indonesia that I didn't need their company, that I wanted to be by myself – saya, sahaja – but my words fell on deaf or at least uncomprehending ears. Though trembling to be in this scary place of death and spirits, they chattered bravely, holding me and each other tight, patting my arms, my hair. Full of admiration for their courage, and touched beyond measure by their solicitude for me, a stranger in their midst, I soon gave up my foolish, futile, and dangerous quest for privacy and left the cemetery, escorted by my small valiant guardians.

South East Asia has changed in many ways in the forty years since then, but not in its rejection of solitude. I am writing this in Laos, where there is a saying: 'Eat alone and the food is not tasty.' Most Lao will go to great trouble to avoid being alone, as Robert Cooper points out in his book on Laos in the Culture Shock series (Marshall Cavendish,2008). 'If the husband has to sleep away, the wife will invite a relative to stay with her and sleep in the same room.' Togetherness is vital to the Lao psyche; it is muan – enjoyable – an essential ingredient of life, while being alone is bo muan, not enjoyable, and to be avoided. Even an individual's soul or khwan is composed of thirty-two component parts which must be maintained in harmonious unity, or there'll be trouble. If you see a Lao person with a multitude of white cotton strands tied around their wrists, you'll know that they've recently been the subject of a basi. This ceremony ­– one of community rather than religion – serves two purposes: it reintegrates any parts of the person's khwan which may have come adrift, and it ensures the cohesion and goodwill of the group. As Cooper notes, 'it's hard after all to hold a grudge toward someone while you are tying a bracelet around their wrist and wishing them well', especially when you're among a large celebratory party of folks all doing the same thing.

But we Westerners value self-sufficiency more highly. A room of one's own, that's what we aspire to, or feel we ought. Extraordinary how this phrase, the title of Virginia Woolf's 1929 essay about women and writing, has resonated so powerfully down the decades. A room of one's own, and enough money to support yourself: those were the two things Woolf identified as essential for a woman who wants to write. But she talked, too (and it was originally a talk, delivered to a hall full of some of Britain's earliest female university students), about some of the more subtle obstacles that have stood in the way of the woman artist. Her historical role as mirror, for example.

'Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting a man at twice his natural size.' What a jolt of recognition that gave me, reading A Room of One's Own for the first time. I'd observed the phenomenon already, though I was barely in my teens, and as I grew up and went out into the world I would see it more and more: the widespread male assumption that I, and all females, could be relied upon to admire his work, listen to his opinions, laugh at his jokes, and be flattered by his attentions. His resentment if I did not; his rapid and outright hostility if instead I criticised, interrupted, or turned away. A mirror does not have the right to turn away; its fundamental reason for existence lies in its capacity to reflect. According to this comprehension a woman must, like a mirror, be always available, ready and waiting for the moment she is required.

THIS ISSUE OF being available to others, and how it hinders the woman as artist, is precisely what Woolf was getting at. A woman engaged with the creative process is not available. This is no small problem, given that a woman's identity has historically been bound up not just with her relationships, but with being, one way or another, helpful to those around her, especially to those she loves. Being of service to them. If you are preoccupied with your art (an occupation, let's face it, unlikely to produce even a subsistence income) then what – and who – are you neglecting? How can you be a good mother, wife, sister, colleague, or friend – a good woman – when you are always yearning for that solitary room and what you will create there? Who do you think you are?

On these merciless questions, often ringing loudest in her own mind, the artistic aspirations of many a woman have come to grief. But some girls seem to have a natural resistance to such sneers and self-doubts. Their internal compass seems fixed by nature on their vocation, and the tendency to solitude it demands. 'Surely it's a born intensity of witness, a mysterious urgent need to watch, that first marks out the possible artist – the quiet child on the edge of the playground, not necessarily rejected or sad but somehow committed to life as a spy, a benevolent underground operative.' These words, from the foreword to a book of photographs taken by the great Southern writer, Eudora Welty, could as well be a description of Virginia Woolf herself as a girl, or indeed of innumerable writers, painters, and other artists.

Until very recently it was a rare woman who had a room of her own in which to make her art, but even without one, even in the teeth of society's disapproval, a few women found their way. Jane Austen wrote or revised all her novels on a tiny twelve-sided walnut table placed near the seldom-used front door of the cottage on her brother's estate at Chawton, where she 'wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper'. A creaking swing door gave her warning when anyone was coming; she refused to have the creak fixed. (Such determined practicality, to obtain even that modicum of privacy.) It was only possible for her to write at all because she lived by then in a household of women – her mother and sisters, and a friend – who allowed her time away from household duties.

There was a perfectly good and little-used room, a parlour, in the home of Australian painter Clarice Beckett's parents, but her bank manager father forbade her from using it to draw or paint. 'The kitchen table,' she was told, 'is good enough'. Now recognised as one of our leading modernist painters, she studied in the 1920s with the founder of Australian Tonalism, Max Meldrum (who declared, by the way, that 'There would never be a great woman artist and there never had been,' because 'woman had not the capacity to be alone.'). At dusk and dawn, Beckett took time from caring for her ailing parents and their household to go out with her mobile easel on its trolley and paint – alone, please note – astonishingly beautiful landscapes, seascapes, and streetscapes in bayside Melbourne. But in 1935 the long soaked walk home after a winter storm brought on pneumonia, and she died a few days later, aged 48. Twelve hundred of her paintings were relegated to 'storage' in a country relative's open-sided barn, where time and rats and weather did their predictable work. Discovered almost forty years later, most, by then, had been destroyed.

Author Ruth Park, too, used the kitchen table, pushing aside the plates and toys and general detritus generated by five kids to pound out her newspaper articles, children's books, radio plays, one of the most insightful guide books of Sydney yet written, and one best-selling novel after another – including the Miles Franklin Award winner Swords and Crowns and Rings. There was a desk in their crowded house, but that was reserved for her husband D'arcy Niland, who never read a single book she wrote. I was shocked when Ruth Park told me that, when I had the great pleasure of interviewing her for a Radio National program in 1993. Seeing the look on my face she smiled gently and said, 'But that was just him, you see.'

No, that wasn't just him, I was thinking, for I was at the time married to a man who wouldn't read a word I wrote. When my lovingly constructed and painstakingly edited program on Ruth Park went to air, my husband got up, left the kitchen with its radio, and went out into the backyard to do something with power tools. But it wasn't until some years later, when I found myself in my late forties doing exactly what my own mother had done – keeping the accounts for her husband's business, while my own creative work slowed to a trickle, then to nothing – that I finally paid attention to the alarm bells and fled that burning building. I took myself off to Bali – alone, yes – for five months, during which time my first novel, to my intense surprise, poured out of me like water from a jug. I wasn't really alone, of course, in the house I'd rented in a village near Ubud: assorted friends came to stay with me from time to time. Moreover, I had staff, who cooked and cleaned and cared diligently for me – rather like having, I often thought, a wife. I am still convinced that staff are the key to successful novel writing, or at least to impressive daily word counts.

During that productive Bali sojourn there were other things I didn't have, apart from housework, that were just as significant. Television, for instance. Radio; newspapers. I'd been, I confess, something of a media junkie, and it was chastening to discover that it apparently made not a blind bit of difference to the course of world affairs whether I listened to PM daily or not. I had internet access – this was 2004 – but it was snail-slow, and expensive, so I dialled up once a day to read and send emails. The restraints imposed by such modest connectivity were, I see now, a boon, as was the fact that Facebook didn't yet exist, nor, really, the whole notion of social networking sites, of online friends and a virtual life.

FACEBOOK: A BILLION users, in just a handful of years. It beggars belief, really, doesn't it? I'm one of those billion, but an infrequent visitor, not because I don't find enough of interest there but for the opposite reason: too much. I go down that rabbit hole, start looking at photos and news and songs and videos, click a link, and another link, more and more links, and – next thing I know, hours have gone by. I emerge blearily, blinking, my fur in disarray and my mind turned to a kilo of premium mince.

I watch the increasing devotion of people to their screens – not yet in the very poor coutnries like Cambodia and Laos, but ever more so here in Australia – and wonder how they cope with the constant virtual chatter, and when they ever allow themselves some downtime. American Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and a prolific writer on the internet and its effects on society, delivered a TED talk in April 2012 titled Connected, but alone? in which she declared, 'Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we feel utterly alone.' But I think she's using the wrong word: what she really means is not that we feel alone, but lonely. Two very different things. What people may very well be trying to avoid by their hyper-connectedness is loneliness, but what they are missing out on is being alone.

Solitude is like a muscle: it needs to be exercised in order to grow stronger, for its employment to become effortless and fruitful. Some of us will struggle with the exercise, will ask, Why bother? Because, I would say, solitude freely chosen is a powerful thing, and therefore wise to be familiar with. Solitude can be not only your ally but your benefactor.

'Grace fills empty spaces,' Simone Weil wrote, 'but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.' Now, Simone Weil was a philosopher, and religious, and French, three things which make her difficult for me to understand, but I am drawn to this thought. I find that when I substitute 'the creative impulse' for 'grace', I feel like I'm getting close. But then I realise that Weil has it right: the empty space does not have to be dedicated to the creative urge. It doesn't have to be put to any use or purpose whatsoever, any more than a woman needs to be useful in order to be good, or worthy.

That chair opposite the woman dining alone in the restaurant, the seats either side of the woman in the cinema – they're not really empty. Grace – whatever grace is to you – sits there. That woman has all the company she needs.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.