No one, I don’t think, would ever mistake me for a recluse, a loner, a solitary wayfarer along the road of life. I am, generally speaking, among the Hail fellow, well-met! sorts of people, one who enjoys lively conversations and adventures with friends and family.
But I must admit, there do come those times when I like to get off the well-trod path and retreat into a little world of my own. It may be that you, too, enjoy doing the same thing, so mine may not be a completely unique peccadillo.
However, the things I prefer to do when I’m by myself may be different from what others choose. For me, the top three include riding my bicycle, playing my harmonicas, and writing all manner of things—poetry and prose, articles, blogs, and books.
I got my first bike, brand-new, when I was ten years old—for forty dollars, of which my parents paid half. Within a month, it was stolen! I remember being outraged and heartbroken, both. But the worst insult was learning that, if I wanted to replace it, I’d have to save up half the cost again. Life seemed particularly unfair at that point.
I did it, though, and purchased an identical bike—maroon, coaster-brakes, a new lock. During the next half-dozen years, until driving the family car became an option, riding my bike opened up new worlds for me. I could ride forever, it seemed, miles further than I could ever have walked, in and out of places no larger vehicle could navigate.
That bike served as my horse when we were playing cowboys in the park; a motorcycle when we were playing drag-racers in the schoolyard (complete with stiff cardboard cut-outs clipped to the rear fork to make a loud, chattering noise as the spokes battered them); and a tow-truck to pull my cartload of newspapers on pre-dawn deliveries. I loved my bicycle.
Different bikes over the years served me just as well, especially as a young father when one or the other of my wee daughters would ride in the seat attached behind me. Up hills and down, my wife and I spent many hours cycling with our girls on their own bikes, well into their teenage years.
Today, long into retirement, I still love to ride, mostly by myself now, able to go as slow or as fast as I like—or whatever my body dictates. Lost in thought, I ride the roads, the trails, even cow-paths sometimes, marvelling at the changing surroundings, enjoying the peace and solitude. It’s one of my favourite things to do by myself.
It’s the same when I play my harmonicas—my mouth organs, my harps. I started playing when I was about the same age as when I got my first bike. I remember asking Santa for a Hohner Marine Band, the small one, and was overjoyed to find it beside my stocking one Christmas morning.
I still have it, the very same one. Some of the reeds are damaged, of course—that Christmas was about sixty-five years ago—but I’ll never let it go. I still play recognizable songs on it (recognizable to me, at least), even if some of the notes are audible only to me. Do you know O, Susanna?
Other harmonicas followed as time went on, all Hohners—a couple of which I still have. They’re dented here and there, discoloured in spots, but the sound is almost as good as ever. I spent many a frustrating hour trying to learn how to play a chromatic harmonica well, eventually resigning myself to an acceptance of mediocrity. And I listened whenever I could to such giants of the instrument as Toots Thielemans, Little Walter, and Big Mama Thornton.
Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica. I’ve done the very same thing many, many times—but not with Abe, and without the hemp.
I do it still today, usually when no one is home. The music sounds as sweet to me while I’m playing as ever it did, but I’ve learned that, to the ears of others, it may not be quite as pleasurable. And so, to spare them, playing the harmonica by myself is one of my favourite things to do.
The third, of course, is writing—an example of which you’re reading right now. Writing is, almost by definition, a solitary endeavour, even selfish, thanks to its exclusion of others and the distractions they bring. Ideas spring into my head at any time, anywhere, even in the dead of night. On more occasions than I care to remember, I’ve staggered to the keyboard in a pre-dawn darkness, so as not to lose the next brilliant idea.
Writing fiction is like playing God. After something has been recorded in an early chapter, let us say, but then overtaken by a contrary (and better) idea in a later chapter, it is nothing to go back and erase the original draft, to revise the very history I’ve created. I can change people’s names, their appearance, the things that happen to them, all at a whim. It’s a form of omnipotence—albeit, very limited.
I usually write with music playing softly in my earbuds, almost always from the classical repertoire. It serves to mask ambient noise from elsewhere in the house, focus my thoughts on the subject at hand, and free my imagination for long stretches at a time. I wonder sometimes if Mozart might ever have envisioned this solitary writer listening to his symphonies and sonatas, creating a literary piece that has never existed before, just as he did with his music.
I know. Probably not.
But that doesn’t matter. It’s the freedom and peace I enjoy, whether riding, making music, or writing. I don’t believe I’d like being lonely; but I do appreciate having the opportunity to be alone now and then, able to engage in my favourite things.