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Lessons for life: How to be alone

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at 2:17 p.m.

For poet and musician Tanya Davis, being alone is a necessary part of life.

“I have this thing where I think if I spend time alone, I will spend better time with people later,” said Davis, 34, on a recent phone interview from her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. “I think I can be more comfortable with myself when I nurture solitude, and I’m not scared of the sad stuff that arises when I’m alone.”

Davis discussed the need to be alone often with her friend Andrea Dorfman, a filmmaker and artist, which sparked an idea for them to team up and create a video poem on the topic.

“There is so much video art these days, and we thought this could be a way to get more poetry out there,” she said.

Using Davis’ poem and music, combined with Dorfman’s filmmaking skills and animation, “How to Be Alone” was originally a short film that played in film festivals, but when they decided to put it on YouTube in 2010, it went viral.

“Within a week of it being on YouTube, it started snowballing out quite fast,” she said. “We went into our local radio station here in Halifax when it was at 100,000 views and it reached a million views rather quickly. It just caught on. Now it’s at nearly 6 million views. It’s really been amazing.”

The viral video led to a book deal filled with Davis’ words and Dorfman’s illustrations called “How to Be Alone” (Harper) as well as a dialogue with fans about the pressures to fit in and be accepted.

Here are some of Davis’ tips on how to be alone:

• Embrace the pain. “I’m a pretty sensitive person and I spend a lot of time alone thinking and there can be a lot of suffering in there once we’re observing what’s going on inside our heads or inside our hearts or in the world,” she said. “It can be sad and isolating. But there’s a lot of joy and beauty, too. It’s important to be with both – the joy and the pain.”

• Get outside. “Every city and town everywhere has a park and they are there for community to gather as well, but they’re also there for people to go and sit, alone,” Davis said. “It’s helpful for me to be outside to get out of my head. If I sit alone somewhere and sit at the ocean it’s a bit of a reality check for me that it’s a big world and I’m just one tiny spot in it. I find that comforting.”

• Go to a cafe, restaurant or library by yourself. People are fascinating and I like to watch them and I get a lot of stimulus in those kinds of places,” she said. “That’s one of my favorite ways to spend alone time in public. It’s nice to have private time in public. I think, ‘I am alone but also I am connected to all of this.’”

• Be open to a conversation if someone interrupts your solitude. “Not so long ago, I was in another city and I was in a public square alone and there were kids playing and this kid came up and sat down near me,” Davis said. “I didn’t acknowledge him because I didn’t feel like talking to him at first but then he said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I softened and we had this little chat about nothing in particular but it was so easy and so nice. So it was this little reminder of how we can look around at people and engage with them and smile because whenever someone engages me it softens me very quickly and I’m usually grateful.”

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