Suzanne Tobias

Solitude a precious commodity no matter what your age

When my parents start sifting through random file cabinets at their home in South Carolina, I end up with random packages in the mail.

“Dad and I found all these college applications,” said a note tucked inside a folder full of official-looking, photocopied documents. “Surely you will enjoy reading them and remembering!!”


Because, at 45, I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend a few minutes than by delving into the psyche of my teenaged self. This was likely to be the best reading since that day I unearthed my childhood diary.

The first thing I notice is the handwriting: first, that a six-page application for a college scholarship would be completed by hand rather than typed and e-mailed, and second, that my handwriting used to be so exquisite. I barely recognized it as my own, because 20-odd years of daily journalism has left me with a scrawl that’s barely decipherable.

Then I skimmed through the questionnaire and stopped at a section labeled “Your Leisure Time.”

“Each person uses available leisure time in personal ways,” read the writing prompt. “For example, some enjoy music, art, drama, or dance. … Others enjoy activities within their home settings, and others may enjoy an outdoor hobby or activity of special interest. How do you use your leisure time?”

I quickly did the math in my head. I would have been about 16 or 17 – not much older than my daughter, Hannah – when I filled out these applications. Here’s what I wrote:

“My free time is extremely scarce, so whenever it is available, I try to make the most of it.

“I enjoy relaxing and listening to music by myself. Being around crowds of people all day, it is refreshing to spend a few minutes on my own. This personal time gives me a chance to gather my thoughts and to plan for the next day’s activities.

“It is important for me to have a quiet time, because I feel that everyone needs to spend time away from others.”

This from the girl who, two writing prompts before, had informed the college admissions board that her personal reading list from the past six months included three collections of essays by Andy Rooney.

In hindsight, it’s so clear: I was the world’s youngest curmudgeon.

And I realized, not for the first time, that my daughter isn’t so different from me. Hannah relishes her solitude, often retreating to her bedroom immediately after school to start on her homework or plug into music.

She has been this way since kindergarten, when too many questions lodged right after school – What did you learn today? What was for lunch? Who did you play with? – would send her into a tearful fit.

“Decompression Time,” my husband and I call it now. Thirty minutes of deep breathing or Ed Sheeran tunes in her bedroom, door closed, and our daughter is ready to re-enter society. Or to read her mother’s old scholarship applications, scattered casually on the kitchen table.

“A chance to gather your thoughts and to plan for the next day’s activities?” Hannah read aloud, shaking her head.

“What?” I said, trying not to sound defensive. “Like you don’t do the same thing?”

“I don’t ‘plan for the next day’s activities,’ ” she said with a snort.

“Yeah? Well, what do you do?”

“I just chill,” she said. “You know, relax?”

Yes, I thought, and remembered the hours in my childhood bedroom, doors closed, listening to Beatles albums on my record player until I knew every song by heart. Guess we all have our British-boy phase.

I’m pretty sure the “planning for tomorrow” thing was something I stuck into that college application to sound impressive, the way I wrote that “having a career allows financial security, and for women in today’s world, this is absolutely necessary,” and that “a college education, just as knowledge in general, is … a precious investment that will last forever.”

But solitude, that’s the real treasure.

“If you smile when you are alone,” a wise man once wrote, “then you really mean it.”

I’m pretty sure it was Andy Rooney.