Many years ago, the British writer V.S. Pritchett shared an anecdote about a test pilot he knew who had built a room where he could occasionally be alone with his thoughts. The pilot, Pritchett recalled, “had a lighting system which indicated to people outside whether he was accessible to the world or not.” Pritchett offered no other details of this curious arrangement, but when I picture the pilot’s gadget, I imagine two light bulbs above an exterior door post; one light is green, the other, red. By illuminating either bulb, like the signals of a traffic light, our pilot tells his friends whether he’s up for company or would rather be alone.
This image appeals to me because of its promise that the world can be held at bay with the single flip of a switch. Reading Pritchett’s story, I started wondering how many switches in my own life I’d have to flip to secure an afternoon or morning of solitude.
In addition to my work as a newspaperman, I’ve been studying at one university and teaching at another one, along with doing some writing outside the office. Each activity involves a separate professional circle, which is how I recently realized that, quite improbably, I’d ended up with four email addresses. Add in a Twitter account and two phone numbers, and it’s easy to see that small retreats from the daily grind involve more than merely shifting a pair of light bulbs from green to red.
All of this came to mind earlier this month when I took the day off for my birthday. I’d cleared the decks for a day of doing nothing, more or less, although there was one piece of unfinished business from the day before that would need a quick email to resolve. I fired up my laptop to send a short note, but in opening my email, I spotted a dozen other messages begging for a speedy reply.
Each one drew me more deeply into a thicket of obligations, until I glanced up from my screen and noticed that the wall clock was striking noon. My planned morning alone had drifted into the usual fog of urgencies that can make us wonder, at the end of a day, how another cycle of hours has eluded our grasp.
A man seeking solitude is bound to find that his biggest difficulty is striking a quorum among all the selves invited to show up — the professional self, the parenting self, the married self, the sibling self, the civic self. Each mission we embrace enriches us with its connections, yet creates balancing acts that no tightrope artist would envy.
“Our life is like a German Confederacy,” said Henry David Thoreau, “made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment.”
Thoreau’s comment is a useful reminder that making bargains between quiet and connectedness, between retreat and responsibility, is nothing new. Happily, my birthday weekend included a quieter afternoon in which the only news from the outside world was the sound of rain on a living room window. Here’s hoping for a year with more moments like that.