My first Christmas alone: lessons in solitude

My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. Christmas Day alone, I figured, would be a good test.

With the year that’s in it, I found myself alone for Christmas. It wasn’t my first Christmas away from home but given the annual mass exodus from Berlin, unstymied by Covid-19 travel restrictions, I found myself bereft of friends and plans for Christmas day.

I travelled to Berlin in full knowledge that by doing so I was sacrificing Christmas. Before leaving Ireland in late October to make the most of remote working, I warned my family I would not be coming home during Christmas break: self-isolation and testing either side morphed a five-day trip into a costly, fortnight expedition, and the Irish government had made their views on the issue as clear as day.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

It also helped that I am not overly sentimental about the holiday season. I wasn’t always this grouchy; as an imaginative child who read a lot of fantasy, I was thrilled to see the magic and mystery of storybooks playing out in real life. But once my younger brothers outgrew Santa, despite gallant efforts and fervent denial on my mother’s part, the Christmas traditions of my childhood were gradually dismantled.

Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, I was mourning an intangible loss far bigger than Santa, or even Christmas: the loss of my childhood innocence and its sincere belief that anything and everything is possible. Adulthood beckoned, and sensibility, realism and cynicism took its place.

Afterwards, particularly as a teenager, I struggled to find my footing at Christmas. By its very nature – the advent calendar countdown, the month-long hype – Christmas conditions us to have high expectations, but my inevitable disappointment made it feel like I kept falling for the same cruel trick year after year.

While I enjoyed the season’s conviviality Santa had big shoes to fill, and what remained in his absence was rather…lacklustre. The dinner was bland, the dessert inedible (anything riddled with raisins is not dessert in my book), and as a vegan, aspiring minimalist, renounced Christian, I was ethically opposed to most of the traditions that Christmas is built on. It was, I summed up, little more than a glorified Sunday roast which took a huge amount of labour to pull off. Was there some hidden meaning I was missing?

Berlin, Christmas 2020

Unsurprisingly given my feelings about the holiday, I made little effort to organize plans for Christmas Day. Once it became apparent everyone would be travelling home, I registered the news I would spend the day alone with relevant indifference. I was more concerned about how my family would receive the news, given they had been asking after my plans in every recent phone call.

The plus side of being alone at Christmas is that you are truly alone, a luxury rarely enjoyed unless you live by yourself and even more out of reach with everyone confined to their homes. I wasn’t so much counting down the days to Christmas as I was counting down the dates till my flatmates’ departure.

My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. I enjoy my own company and am not deterred by the prospect of embarking on solo adventures. Having said that, each move to a new city has been punctuated by bouts of loneliness. Christmas Day spent alone, I figured, would be a good test.

Empty streets in Berlin

 A Covid Christmas

My Christmas began with a lazy morning reading while eating one of four vegan donuts I had gifted myself. Around 10am I dragged myself out of bed and dressed to go running. I had planned to depart from my usual park route and go for a long run from Prenzlauer Berg to Mitte.

The streets were deserted save for families and the odd couple. Observing them as I ran past, I felt a momentary twinge.

Everyone appeared content, unrushed, taking simple pleasure in their morning stroll. It was the first time since Covid struck that the emptiness felt normal, the silence soothing rather than eerie. The only thing out of the ordinary was me, the interloper.   

And yet, I felt entirely at peace. My chest bloomed with the conviction that I was exactly where I should be.

In a year of ceaseless oddities, this aberration was the silver lining.  

My effervescent gratitude made me hungry to consume, to name the things for which I was grateful. Sprinting through the Museuminsel I marvelled at the elaborate, superfluous beauty of its architecture. I looked at the faces of the people I passed. I said hello to food delivery drivers and policemen, for whom it was just another day at the office.

As I pointed myself back in the direction of Prenzlauer Berg my phone rang. It was a video call from my mother, who had generously driven two hours to spend an allotted half hour visiting my grandaunt in a nursing home in the west of Ireland. Exercising her maternal clout, she successfully cajoled me into performing a breathless rendition of ‘I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus’ in the middle of the Berlin streets. Not waiting around for the reviews, I continued my run home.

Her call was the first of many and between fielding calls from friends and family, I just about managed to cook and eat Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. By 10pm I was all talked out of it, ready to wind down and watch a film.

I’ll admit that seeing my family together celebrating and saying they missed me melted my icy façade ever so slightly. It was, I realised, important to know I was invited, wanted, and missed by family, even if I couldn’t be there. It made my decision to be alone a choice, rather than a lack thereof. And just like that, the hidden meaning of Christmas revealed itself.

Solitude

My two weeks spent in solitude was a welcome retreat. Never in my life have I had so much free time coupled with space of my own. I had dinner with the occasional friend, but I was mostly alone, and happily so, a significant departure from my usual Christmas chock full of social obligations. If I felt my mood dip, I knew it was time to leave the house.

The experience made me think back to the times I had felt lonely in the past, both at home and abroad, under a roof shared with almost-strangers or the over-familiar.

Revisiting those periods, I realise that social isolation was only a half, and maybe even the lesser part, of my discontentment. While I used to think I felt sad because I craved the company of others, I am beginning to think its inverse was the case, that I craved solitude and the emotional space it affords.

Most societal maladies in one form or another stem from the negotiation of finite resources, with space being amongst the most coveted. This logic is implicit in the bargaining that makes up day-to-day living in shared accommodation, whose terms have becoming increasingly limited as Covid restrictions tightened.

Solitude, that is, being truly on one’s own, has been scarce for most, while those who live alone are drowning in it.

Many of our needs ordinarily met through the normal course of living in the Before Times – social interaction, time spent outdoors, emotional space – have become neglected during the pandemic. This leaves us with the difficult tasks of parsing through our muddled emotions to recognise, identify and tend to our unmet multifaceted human needs.  

Knowing the difference between these distinct yet overlapping needs is an important skill, particularly amongst younger generations who are uber-connected but also report the highest rates of loneliness.

As Berlin begins to fill up once again, my days of solitude are numbered. I’m excited to re-join society but having grown protective of my time alone, I intend to find creative ways to safeguard it.  

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My grandad taught me to appreciate a smaller world

Our world may have gotten smaller, but you should see it as an invitation to look more closely.

In the years before he died my grandad’s world shrunk. It wasn’t all that big to begin with; he wasn’t one for travelling, never understanding my incessant desire to leave Ireland each time I revealed to him the latest country that I would call home. A creature of habit, he found meaning in the known. Every morning before breakfast he would cycle to the 40 Foot diving point for a swim. He retired early at fifty-five, allowing him the luxury of a morning dip. Before long he was a regular, becoming close friends with his fellow swimmers in the seamless years that followed. During the summers he and my granny would sojourn in Wexford for weeks at a time. The sea was even closer to the chalet than their house in Dublin, and could easily be reached on foot. Even with a change in scenery, my grandad’s precious morning routine remained untouched.

My grandad lived a healthy lifestyle by most benchmarks. He was physically active, ate well, never smoked, and rarely drank. But old age takes no prisoners; eventually, his body began to let him down.

It is amazing how quickly change can arrive, stunning us momentarily and then, with a dawning realisation, alter our lives inexorably. A single visit to a cardiologist was swiftly followed by triple by-pass surgery. Although the operation was medically successful, my grandad never returned to his former health or even close to it.

His body had become a source of mystery. Like a house of horrors at a carnival, it aggravated him in unexpected and perplexing ways. Right up until his death he was plagued by an incessant and stubborn pain in his back that rendered even the slightest movement painful. As the pain progressed, he would find himself overcome by spells of shaking. Endless appointments with a host of specialist consultants yielded no clear medical cause, nor any particularly effective treatments. From painkillers, to patches and lasers, nothing made the slightest dent in the armour of his pain.  

With each new affliction my grandad’s mobility decreased. The world in which he moved became smaller and smaller until all that remained were the four walls of his home and his garden. All his energies became concentrated on his lawn, his vegetable patch and his greenhouse, besides his children and grand-children who were his pride and joy, and his ever loving wife. The rest of the outside world concerned him less and less; it might as well have not existed.

My grandad always tended to his garden with great care, but this duty took on a vocational quality as the outside world became increasingly off limits. He was extremely protective over his small plot of land and guarded it fiercely against intruders, waging battle against slugs, snails, and the next-door neighbour cats. Although outnumbered by the army of garden variety Mollusca who feasted on his leafy greens, they were no match for his dedication. But he would never kill them. Like a loving yet stern father he made daily rounds of his vegetable patch, picking them up with forceps, dropping them in a plastic tray and dispensing them on the green down the road. I like to think the same slugs and snails came back each time, slipping and sliding doggedly down the path under the cloak of night to return to the same patch from which he plucked them, the toing and froing all part of an elaborate, unspoken game between its players.  

Me aged four, posing next to my grandad’s sunflowers

Although only a foursome, the next-door neighbour cats with their wily cunning and nimbleness proved formidable enemies. Undeterred by his seething anger in their presence they would leap over the partitioning wall and defecate on his immaculate lawn. My grandad’s acts of reprisal were contained and peaceful, to begin with. His first defensive strategy was to lay out bottles of water, whose shimmering in the sunlight, according to an old wives’ tale, is said to perturb cats. If caught mid-act the cats would be hosed off the lawn, doubling down on the humiliation of public defecation. Although for all I know, they may not have been embarrassed at all. Perhaps their acts of defecation were intended as the anthropomorphic equivalent of the ‘flaming bag of poop’ prank, and their only regret was getting caught. After all, there was nothing unspoken about this battle; it was all-out war between its adversaries.

When water proved an ineffective deterrent my grandad turned to a more resistant material – steel – and attached a tall wire fencing around the perimeter of his garden, giving the impression from within of being contained inside a fortress. It’s likely my grandad’s efforts only emboldened the furtive felines, for they always returned. Eventually he resorted to installing a device which emitted sound at a frequency only perceptible to cats. Of all his offences it was most successful, but by this stage my grandad was spending increasingly more time indoors due to ill health.

Recalling these memories I find myself marvelling at my grandad’s unparalleled tenacity and focus. Never in my life have I dedicated my energies so fiercely to a single corner of this world, instead preferring to flatten myself like a pancake across the earth’s globe, spreading myself wide and thin as far my resources would allow.

Recently, however, everyone’s world has gotten smaller. Like my grandad, we found ourselves unwillingly confined to our homes and gardens, if we are lucky enough to have them, confronted, perhaps for the first time in a real and substantial way, with the vulnerability of our corporeal selves.

Once I let go of the frustration that mired the opening days of lockdown, my attention shifted to the details of my newly magnified surroundings. On one of my countless, looping walks around my estate I noticed for the first time a solitary bench on a nearby green. Had it always been there? I delighted in the colourful and verdant foliage of my neighbours’ gardens, warmed by my appreciation for their green fingers. I became interested in the people that came in and out of nearby houses. Who were they? How were they?

Like my grandad, I now endeavour to spend as much time in my garden as my pinky, Irish complexion and the temperamental Irish weather will allow, setting up a makeshift office in the back garden on sunny days. A wooden chair serves as my desk and like a mystic I squat on a mound of cushions while tapping away at my laptop. During my outdoor yoga sessions I share my mat with crawling ants, taking care to avoid them as I shift from one pose to another with the grace of an elephant. To close a session I lie down and stare at them intently. I observe them carrying the dead bodies of members of their colony, a sanitary measure to stop the spread of infection and disease. It reminds me of the horrific scenes I had seen on the news, depicting countries overwhealmed by dead bodies in the wake of Coronavirus.

A single ant bears the weight of a deceased brethren. One for one. I watch it struggle, pause, and continue on for the good of the colony.