Diversion Diary | Solace In Solitude

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Just like all of us, Hannah is looking to survive the social distancing and lockdown. The Diversion Diary is a tale of love under lockdown, and bikes. Only, there’s an added twist: Hannah’s partner, BK, lives in the USA, and they’re locked down on different continents. This week, she ponders the difference between solitude and loneliness.

I think I’m pretty good at being alone. I grew up with no neighbours for a mile radius, and I had no siblings until I was seven, so I learnt to play by myself. I was not a cool teenager, and since I lived five miles from the nearest town, no one was going to hang out with me out of convenience. The two things I love doing most: gardening and bike riding (yes, in that order, sorry), can be done alone quite comfortably. That’s not to say I’m antisocial – I like to meet up with friends and I talk to random strangers more than most because I think the world is usually more interesting if you do. But, I don’t mind being alone. Or, do I not mind solitude, but alone is different?

The right sort of alone

A couple of years back, I interviewed Ben Page, who had made a film ‘The Frozen Road’ about his solo trip through Alaska. He’d wanted to do the trip alone as an exercise in self reliance, and found that there’s a difference between solitude and alone. Solitude is perhaps that peace you find in being solo. The freedom to do what you want, when you want, without timetable or needs of others. It’s a selfish pleasure, where the only consideration is your needs. Alone is something more: it comes with responsibility, the absence of easy opt outs. If you’re alone, there’s not necessarily an easy cruise back to company when you’ve had enough of solitude. Alone, you must find your way back and trust in the choices you make along the way. If you make poor choices, you have to make more decisions as you correct your course. No one is there as a sounding board, to weigh up options – or to say ‘I told you so’.

If that is the definition of alone, then it’s solitude I don’t mind. I’m rubbish at being alone. Spending time in may own company is OK, but I like to talk through my decisions. I like to share my thoughts to organise them – you’re certainly witnessing that in action in these columns.

But flying a kite is easier with two.

So what of ‘social distance’? Where does that fit in the solo/alone/solitude equation? Talking to Markus Stitz, regular solo adventurer in some of the wildest places on earth, I’d agree with him that there’s a big difference between ‘social distance’ and ‘physical distance’. Both bring their own discomforts, or pleasures. I’d argue that solitude and social distance are close bed fellows – there can be peace in tuning out from the noise and finding a quiet space, both mental and physical. What we’re all doing now is really physical distance, not social.

Many of us are being just as social as before – maybe even more so. Finding solitude – peace, quiet, calm – is surprisingly hard. Virtual hangouts create easy opportunities for family meet-ups that don’t require the same coordination of diaries, travel, and sofa beds. Adults can chat over a beer without the need for baby sitters. If you have the internet, and a couple of devices, you may well be finding that all the virtual channels create quite a noise. What these interactions are missing is closeness. We can’t share meals, hug hello and goodbye, sit in compatible silence watching the world go by. We’re not quite alone, but the physical distance makes us lonely.

I read an article this week that said that the experience of finding and treating nits in lockdown was a relaxing one – a bonding session of physical closeness. Having spent much of the last week dragging a fine tooth comb through my hair which (in case you hadn’t guessed) I never usually brush at all, I call bullshit. But, there is much to be said for physical closeness. My kids have definitely been the beneficiaries of this. There has been TV in bed. I have been much easier to persuade that ‘I can’t get to sleep’ can be best solved by the wriggling and flailing child being allowed to sleep in my bed. Stories have been read on knees, tea has been eaten in nests of blankets on the sofa instead of at the table. I’m pretty sure they don’t mind – like it even. As I prepared to pack my kids off to their dad’s for the week, my youngest noted that it was 11am, so we would be leaving soon, and were we going to settle down for our usual pre departure ‘Mummy huddle’? Not only has he noticed I feel the need to hold them close before they leave, but he appreciates it enough to ask for it and give it a name. That’s a bit of soul food that’s going to keep me going for the next few days.

While they’re away, my world becomes much more physically distant. There is no touch, no shared warmth, no familiar smell of fellow beings. However, freed from time constraints and competing demands, I am able to shape my own solitude. I can structure my solo time as I want, and more easily arrange social interactions – handy when you’ve got a time zone round the world to align to. I am physically distant, but socially close. I’d definitely rather have that than be truly alone.


Out today, this video from Markus Stitz explores the meaning of social distance, as well as offering some lovely peaceful Scottish scenery.

The Frozen Road

If you’ve not seen The Frozen Road, here it is. It might make you glad of where you are right now.

Can Bicycles Be Lonely

You know when you pass a bike and it’s there week after week? How long does it take you before you start wondering if you could take it home? How often have you wondered whether you could tackle the lock on a forgotten bike without being asked if you were stealing it? So far I’ve resisted the urge. This guy articulates quite a few of the feelings I have about these forgotten bikes, and is funny too.

A Moment of Solitude

I’m not into dogs, and dogs on the trail really freak me out. But this dog looks happy. This dog looks like how I feel as I scamper through the bluebells in the woods on my sort-of-run. And this is the kind of non technical riding through lush scenery that I’m looking forward to returning to.

I’d Rather Be Lonely

I think there might be a Loudon Wainwright song that applies to every situation in life. Here’s a cover of one, that makes me wish I had just a teeny bit of musical talent. And it also makes me wish I could get a teeny bit drunk with Amanda. Though, I don’t think we’d manage to make music like this, drunk or sober.

After last week’s inadvertent (it was, honestly!) innuendo, hopefully we’ve got through this week without making you blush. And I hope you’re not lonely. Stay here, hang around a bit, and you’ll rarely be truly alone.

Catch up with the love under lockdown Diversion Diary:

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Comments (1)

    Being an only child, I find it easy to be by myself for a while (no sniggering), but being alone is a completely different kettle of fish, one that really does not suit. I need people around otherwise I spend too long rattling around in my own head – not good.

    Nicely written, Hannah, it really got me thinking (hence the burning smell). I wish I could organise my thoughts as well as you organise your words 😀

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