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Ms. Petersen Went Up the Mountain Herself
It's work to make friends. It's just as much work to make friends with yourself.
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When I was young, I wouldn’t talk to an adult who wasn’t a parent, teacher, or close family friend unless my brother came with me. I was hide-behind-my-mom’s-legs shy before transforming into one of those bossy third graders who manages their fear of the unknown by meticulously organizing and planning. I had schedules for road trips and birthday parties and sleepovers. After these flurries of organized socialization, I’d be cranky and flustered. I learned to tell my mom: I need my alone time.
I didn’t gather the confidence to start doing what I wanted to do — regardless of whether or not someone else was willing to come along — until college. My schedule became utterly my own, which was at once magical and terrifying. I oscillated between that same childhood desire to be with others all the time (what else is dorm life, but that!) and a recurring desperation for solitude. I’d go to the library and sequester myself in a corner where no one could see me; I’d walk to the park with a quilt to read; I’d rent a movie from the library and hide in the TV room no one used.
By sophomore year, the bonds of college friendship were so strong that I had to physically leave campus to do pretty much anything alone. I came to enjoy slipping into a pew in the back of the quiet Presbyterian congregation across town. I didn’t know a soul. I wasn’t attracted to the content of the service so much as the quiet, solo rhythms of getting up while everyone was still asleep, pulling on the semblance of a church outfit, and sitting alone with the Doxology and the Lord’s Prayer muttered exactly the way I knew it. Everything about it was utterly out of sync with the rest of my week, indeed, the rest of my life.
I liked being a person who went to church alone. One week, driving home, I surprised myself by heading to the movie theater, where I saw a matinee of Enemy at the Gates, a largely forgotten World War II film starring Jude Law and Rachel Weisz. Why this movie? Why not this movie! From that point forward, I was also a person who went to the movies alone.
I continued to sneak away from the gravity of my friends for Sunday matinees all year. I was unknowingly preparing myself for my study abroad program in France, where I not only lived miles from the closest fellow student, but also had no internet access (save once a day, in the school computer room), no cell phone, and no challenging school work to speak of. I spent unprecedented swaths of time on my own, my heart rattling around trying to figure out what it felt. Loneliness, of course, but also clarity. Now, I was a person who went to the two-Euro moviehouse three times a week alone.
The day after I graduated from college, I drove from Walla Walla, Washington to Idaho Falls. I picked a Motel 6 at random on the side of I-84 and spent a night alone in a hotel for the first time. I still remember the view from the window, the scratch of those cheap sheets. It was nothing and everything. The following morning I drove the rest of the way to Dubois, Wyoming, where I’d spend the summer working on a dude ranch. We lived in ancient tie-hack cabins along the Wind River, but the guests that surrounded us in the rich faux Western cabins on the cliffs above were rich WASPS from the East. There was an aching solitude I couldn’t shape. I quit two weeks before the end of the season and retreated to Seattle, where my friends had rented a house, with a mix of shame and deep relief.
In the years after, I’ve gone to hundreds of movies alone. In grad school, I bought a single front row ticket to Lyle Lovett in Austin. I spent a week camping and writing by myself in the heart of the Swan Valley in Montana. I’ve lived alone for years at a time. I’ve gone on hikes and explored National Parks and gone to museums and speaking events, all alone. Since I started reporting, I’ve navigated countless experiences designed for people to do with others: stayed in fancy hotels, rented remote cabins, gone to bars and fancy restaurants and political rallies and religious gatherings and sightseeing tours. There’s a sort of mental armor that comes with knowing you’re on assignment; it doesn’t feel weird or awkward if it has a point, if it’s for your job.
At some point, I began putting that armor on for all other parts of my life. It didn’t matter if someone was paying me. I could make my own damn point. Which is why I’ve been surprised, these past few months, at my hesitation to go skiing alone. Back in 2019, I had returned to skiing after the combination of grad school, old gear, a general lack of funds, and distance had kept me away for twenty years. It has been revelatory, reacquainting myself with the mindless joy of going really fucking fast. Childhood delights: I heartily endorse revisiting them.
Last year, I skied five days. This year, I wanted more. Through an antiquated online process akin to acquiring Taylor Swift tickets, my best friend and I finagled weekday-only passes for the mountain 90 minutes away. We are both lucky enough to have the ability to shift our work schedules to ski when the mountain’s at its best: effectively empty.
Sometimes Charlie, my partner, would come along; sometimes not. But there have been days when the snow dumped or my schedule cleared and no one could come with me. I’d come up with a plan to drive myself and then slowly talk myself out of it. On a detached psychological level, it was both interesting and annoying to observe: What was stopping me? Was it that I just really really love someone else driving me home while I lightly doze with the sound of Annie Lennox’s Diva in the background? (Yes, this is a formative ski memory). That couldn’t be it, because half the time I drive!! Was I scared of riding the chair with randos, the same way I was as a 4th grader? No, because these days I love conversations with randos!! The only explanation was that it was something I simply hadn’t done — and until I forced myself to do it, I would continue to avoid it.
And so, last week, I drove myself up the mountain. The roads were clear and, at this point, familiar. It was a bluebird day, windless and sun-warmed; the snow was good but not spectacular. I started out uneasy and wondered, on that second ride up the lift, if all of it had been a mistake. But I got my legs and started playing over in the trees, exploring corners of the mountain where I’d never been. I skied fast and playful. I made up little songs on the lift but mostly just noticed the world around me. When I got hungry, I went into the lodge and realized, for the first time, just how many others were there on their own as well. It’s wonderful to ski with others — to wait, to compare runs, to follow — but there’s a lusciousness, too, to navigating the mountain and the entire experience on your own.
Now I am a person who can ski — not just a run, but an entire day — alone. And that’s meaningful to me, because as I age, I want to continue to be a person who does the things she wants to do, even and especially if no one will do them with me.
Last week, we talked about all the things we (mostly love) to do alone. Many of you pinpointed just how great it feels to not be accountable for anyone’s experience other than your own. But a comment from one reader reminded me: there are very real differences between chosen and unchosen solitude. Chosen solitude expands before you like a luscious carpet; unchosen solitude can be so heavy, so enveloping, as to dissolve all boundaries between the self and the emptiness that fills the air.
The key, I find, is to spend enough time in one’s mind to recognize its actual cravings. It’s worth asking: Do I want to be alone, or do I just want to feel less lonely when I’m with other people? If the people who surround me subtract so much from my sense of self, does that mean I need to be cultivating a different community? Do I hate doing things alone, or do I just hate how often I have no choice in the matter?
Personally, I also need to keep discerning: When does rest mean doing very little, and when does it require pushing myself? If I find my mind drifting towards something I can’t or haven’t done — what’s stopping me from doing it? If it’s structural, how can I begin to address the financial and scheduling circumstances that make it feel impossible? If it’s psychological, what are the fears, and what conversations do I need to have with myself and others to assuage them?
For instance: when it came to skiing, I figured out that I’d feel most confident if I went on a day when the roads were totally clear. If you’re trying to figure out a vacation alone, maybe you want a few days of scheduled activity or tour that will group you with others and provide a break from being alone. And if the thing you need is more time with others so you can return to choosing and cherishing your time alone — we’re working on that, too.
What matters, I think, is this continual work of constructing a life that ultimately feels chosen. That doesn’t necessarily mean controlled; there is so much in life we can’t schedule, change, manage, or even anticipate, all manner of disappointments and disasters and swift left turns. But we can choose how we navigate those obstacles and valleys, how we move towards and through and away from others, how we cultivate precious corners for ourselves and also feasts of connection and intimacy.
I don’t mean to make the process seem easy: it’s not. It takes real work: honesty (with oneself, with others) plus tolerance for periodic discomfort and a whole lot of patience. It takes work to become friends with others, but it also takes just as much work to become friends with yourself. But I have also seen the alternative, and I know you have as well: a sour life, structured by resentment and regret.
So where do you go from here? Your own mountain, of course. You already know what it is — and, if you’re really truthful with yourself, how and why you need to get there. ●
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On this week’s WORK APPROPRIATE, we’re talking about how to deal with a workplace that keeps telling you “we’re like a family” instead of actually dealing with shit. Click the magic link to listen on your app of choice.