The Sweet Solitude of Summer

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The Canal Saint-Martin, to which many Parisians flock on evenings and weekends.

When I was a kid, my mom would walk into my room to find me passed out amidst villages of Weebles, Barbie dolls, and race-car tracks. I often exhausted myself over traveling the endless avenues of invention. I also holed up in my room to sketch my immediate surroundings––my bed, Christmas postcards, the garden. I loved nothing more than the quiet privacy of my own space where I could construct worlds. Unsurprisingly, my favorite school assignments were writing portfolios because they allowed me to delve into memories and to create new, fictional ones that opened up transportation into other realms. Thinking back on this time of my life, my childhood creativity surprises me. Perhaps I was so creative because, within the confines of my room, I had a place of my own where my imagination could unwind, unsupervised (at least for a moment). 

Growing older got the best of me and I sought out this solitude a little less and became (a little too) invested in less-productive activities (and who could blame me with the recent emergence of MTV and AIM, two pastimes that easily consumed the free time of a pubescent girl). In the past half a decade, I’ve realized that I need––and have started to crave––more (productive, creative) alone time. Now that I no longer have a room of my own (I’m married) and am still waiting on that dreamy, closed-off, individual office space, I have to carve out time for seclusion––my preferred writing mode. This is what I was able to do for a short period this summer. And in Paris, nonetheless.

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Parisian rooftops from the Centre Pompidou.

At the end of June, my partner returned home from our European vacation to work on his own projects. I remained in the French capital to do some research––and some mental excavation. It was a work retreat that allowed for ample personal time, one of my favorite ways to travel. This kind of trip forces me to sit completely with the awkwardness and joy of dining alone, and also lets me dive—unbothered—into my personal projects, indulge in solo excursions to museums, and luxuriate in late-night drawing and writing sessions when reason loses its hold.

In those two weeks of solitude, I made a goal to draw my daily experiences. I didn’t meet the goal, but I didn’t feel bad about it. I loved rediscovering the feeling of putting pencil to paper to express something visual that didn’t need words. Of course, I didn’t leave words behind. I journaled every day––sometimes several times a day––as I brainstormed research ideas and processed the beauty and the grotesque (and the clichés) of Paris. I also journaled to cure the pangs of loneliness.

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The Institut national d’histoire de l’art, part of the Bibliothèque Richelieu, which dates back to the 18th century.

And naturally, in this short season of solitude, I went to libraries. Really beautiful, big libraries. One of my priorities while in Paris was to explore the archive of one of the authors on whom I work: Hélène Cixous. It was my first time to dig into her manuscripts, and it was thrilling. I pored over her own journal entries—which encouraged me to write all the more—that poetically narrated the banal and then watched those entries morph into what you might call “autobiographical fiction.” And I even stumbled across some doodles that merged human and mammal, not unexpected given her penchant for boundary-crossing. This solitary study gave me the opportunity to bolster some research projects, but just as importantly, it allowed me a more intimate feel for this author’s work and writing process. On a separate trip to another library, I read the preface of a book authored by Katherine Dunham (a major figure in the history of dance) that was translated into French: Dances of Haiti (Les danses d’Haïti). The preface, it turns out, was authored by a major French anthropologist, placing Dunham more firmly in a community of both dancers and scholars. Reading the works of these female intellectuals, especially because they were not always honored as such, has inspired me to continue pursuing their stories.

Traveling solo also reminded me of how much of a library nerd I am. I adore a beautiful library. The “Manuscript Room” of France’s national library (below) is housed in a recently renovated 18th-century building, which, I’ve been told, has been featured in a French novel (La belle Hortense — also the name of a whimsical literary bar in the Marais). 

 

The type of solitude experienced at the library is different from the type I spent in my bedroom as a child. In the library, I am surrounded by other people quietly scrutinizing authors’ script. I like to write in this atmosphere, and also in the noisier ambiance of cafés, or in the “city solitude” that Angela Flournoy describes here as the state of being alone but surrounded by others who aren’t asking anything of you. In these types of environments, I can tune in for moments of distraction and inspiration while continuing to flesh out my own ideas. There are moments, though, when I don’t want any audience at all. Like when I’m working on my novice drawing skills or really honing in on a thesis. In these times, my exploration and perfectionism need to cultivate without the fear of a glance over my shoulder.

I love the immersive nature of solitary living––that surprisingly brought me back to the creativity of my childhood––, but let’s be honest, I don’t love it all the time. I can also get lost in it. At the end of the two weeks, I was ready to come home, and I wasn’t. I relished venturing out on my own and coming back to an empty house where I could explore my reservoir of creativity. But I also missed living alongside someone––even when there is no talking involved. I can’t be guaranteed that I’ll always have a job where I can afford the time and space of summer solitude (certainly, a marker of my own privilege), but I am grateful to remember its restorative potential and move forward with the goal of seeking it out in small doses throughout the year when I can explore write, draw, and read and also research the women’s lives who inspire me.

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