Recent read: Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto by Anneli Rufus, a book that I would have found enlightening if it had only been around when I was 18 years old. But many things were as yet unwritten 45 years ago, and even if this book had been–I might not have discovered it. Rufus celebrates social loners, decrying the myth that people who prefer time by themselves to socializing are by nature dangerous and threatening. That knowledge would have been a great relief to me when I was young; but I eventually learned on my own that the “loner myth” is, indeed, a mistaken idea perpetrated by too many so-called experts in our society. Through my lifelong bookworm habit, I learned a great deal about people who chose to be alone, chose small circles of friends, or chose to keep friendships going by letter rather than through visits.
All of which options seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I like people and deeply need my friends and family, but I’ve always found a different form of comfort in–and need for–being by myself. I joined Girl Scouts mostly because my two best friends were Scouts, but I was the kid who dawdled on hikes, slowing down to look at the plants and mosses, and I pretended to be asleep when camping so that others would stop chatting to me. When I found my old Girl Scout sash some years back, it was festooned with badges earned for loner-type skills: literature, sewing, whittling, embroidery, and other crafts or pursuits I could accomplish on my own. Selling cookies? Nah. I managed to be the worst cookie salesperson in the troop for several years running.
In high school, I joined the marching band. It was required duty for every student in the concert band, where I played flute. My sister protested against that requirement and succeeded in getting out of marching band, but the self-advocacy did not seem worth it to me-at-15. Besides, band provided me with a few close friends and some sense of high-school camaraderie which, as a sensitive nerd who was never much for teams or competition, gave me a veneer of normalcy in a very team-oriented time and place. I was not a rebellious loner but a stealth loner.
Despite often feeling a bit like an outlier among my peers, I had no burning need to belong or be accepted, and that need (and lack of acceptance) in a person is what leads to “pseudo-loners” (Rufus’ term). Those are the people most likely to get angry, resentful, hostile, or suicidal, she claims: the ones who want to fit in but are ostracized or blocked. The rest of us just want to be left alone when it suits us. It’s not the same thing.
Loner, introvert, eccentric, moody, artistic, creative, sensitive, weird–at my age, I don’t need a manifesto. Experience demonstrates a person can be friendly and funny and easily-tired and sometimes withdrawn and able to speak in public and irritated by too much noise or novelty and can dance at parties and laugh too loudly and a thousand other things that are contradictory and not simple to pin down. (And capable of polysyndeton!) But if you know a child who is content being by themselves and who may feel pressured by well-intentioned adults, I recommend Leo Lionni‘s Caldecott-winning book Frederick. It is a story I loved as a child, and now I realize why. The quiet mouse who is off on his own while his busy community harvests food for winter proves valuable to his mouse-society by offering them poems and stories that ease their discomfort when they are cold and hungry.
In some ways, that has been my lifelong dream.