I want to know you’re there but I want to be alone

Stevie Mackenzie-Smith is a writer in London. She writes here and Tweets here.

I’m spending more time with myself again. And because it is Autumn, this personal transition is matched by the changes happening around me; the happy two week cusp when renewal is gorgeous and so there are more reasons to embrace it. Walking alone feels romantic when the light is low and bright and I’ve a woolen coat with a collar to fold up around my neck. My mood and physical temperature match in their interchangeability - cool and wanting one moment, assured and cocooned the next. Because of all of this, I’m taking walks in the evenings so that I can keep my head moving with my legs. So that I don’t get stuck inside myself. The walks bring consistency. On the streets strangers offer comfort without realising. There’s always something to see, or a conversation to overhear. Forever heartening to know how unguarded people are of their vulnerable, human conversations whilst on the phone. I listen to them. I listen to podcasts. I wrap up. Sometimes this routine doesn’t help much. Sometimes I come across a pigeon pecking at old fried chicken bones on the pavement. Sometimes I just lean into the sadness. But sometimes the walks really work. They makes me joyous, fizzing with energy. So very glad to be a human. Pink cheeked, loveable!

Around this time, when the nights are truly drawing in, marked by woodsmoke in my neighbourhood, an email drops into my inbox. It’s a reading list. Specifically, a reading list of the writing that shaped the ideas that are stitched into these jumpers. At this stage, I don’t yet know what the jumpers look like. But because jumpers - like quince and lipbalm - are a glad symbol of this autumnal cusp, and wrapping up becomes emotionally and sartorially important in this moment, I am happy to be asked to write something that will arrive to somebody, folded inside new wool.

Each bit of reading explores the gap between our public and private selves. What happens to our own quiet moments when we become known deeply by another person? When the urge to share is broad and urgent, how do you save a part for yourself? There’s a New Yorker article by Joshua Rothman about Mrs Dalloway and the gap left for privacy in Clarissa and Richard’s marriage. “Clarissa, famously, buys the flowers herself,” it says, “and that allows her to enjoy the coolness, the stillness, and the beauty of the flower shop. The same, Woolf suggests, happens in Clarissa’s inner life, where her heightened feelings are allowed to stay pure, untouched.” I haven’t read Mrs Dalloway, but I know that stillness of the flower shop with it’s smell of damp and rows of ribbons in dispensers. I know that carving out time to be alone with heightened feelings makes me feel more connected to something. Because we vessels belong only to ourselves, not working on this relationship in the long run seems like a risk. On a Sunday at the market, I buy blousy pink roses for myself, haggled down by two pounds, and think that if I really had to, I could probably survive without another.

One evening in the park I watch a man using his foot to gather up a pile of brown leaves. The pile is big, but he keeps dragging more and more crispy leaves to it’s edge, a can of beer in his hand. Beside him, his bike lies on the ground. What is he doing? Building the pile until it’s big enough to ride through? Or is it for his daughter who is calling him at a distance from her smaller, purpler bike? Suddenly building a giant pile of leaves with a beer looks like an answer. The answer to maintaining a childish lack of self-consciousness as an adult. I keep walking so I never find out the plan for the pile. I don’t think to tell anyone about it.

To become known and understood by another person on a deep level is to feel alive in a new way. It’s thrilling to share the deepest brain lint with another. It’s not like you set out to share it all, it just sort of unravels.

When I was sharing the regrets that make my stomach hurt when I think about them or the ‘right’ way to crush garlic - so the garlickyness seeps out without burning bitter - I felt seen. Witnessed wholly from the outside. The accumulation of putting all of these inner parts of myself on display felt like a weight off my shoulders. We spend so much of our lives pretending (only make eye contact at the end of the corridor, be indispensable at work) that not-pretending was a revelation.

Still, the need for alone time doesn’t disappear. Sometimes when there’s someone you share your space with, it gets greater. Being able to move through the streets in my own company will always be vital, to find things to feel deeply and quietly about, and to let myself not share them. To keep something for yourself! That quiet space feels like a small victory when so much of a bond with another is formed on what you share. Sometimes, whilst retelling the magic things I am forever spotting in the street, the light in them gets lost.

On the train back from therapy I share short back-and-forth eye contact with the man standing opposite. I feel a rush of heat rise through my body. I feel 15. Mostly I’m too scared to look, we two strangers holding time hostage with chemistry as is tradition on public transport. Then the train brakes, one of you climbs onto the platform and you both admit defeat.

The book I’m reading, The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick, is all about cities and the lifelong process of getting to know yourself, and it’s come at the right time. She is well aware of the way that a city’s streets expose us to humanity and allow us to feel part of something bigger than the task of answering the questions in our heads. I underline Isabel Bolton’s passage: “There were these sudden, these unaccountable moments - being overtaken by love - everywhere - on top of buses, in crowded concert halls - sometimes on winter evenings with the skyscapers floating, flickering above you … merging with the crowds, examining the faces. This sense of brotherhood. You buried your loneliness in it.”

We give off a different energy when we’re out in the world by ourselves. When it’s just me on my own, I say Morning to other people walking by themselves in the streets near my house. And they say Morning back.

The final article in the emailed reading list discusses the lyrics of Side of The Road by Lucinda Williams, in which she sings about parking up the car and walking into a field while her partner waits for her. “Let me go and stand a while,” she sings, “I wanna know you’re there but I wanna be alone.” After reading the article at my desk I listen to this song eight, maybe ten times in a row. It’s potent with solitude not loneliness. “If only for a minute or two, I wanna see what it feels like to be alone without you.”