Navigating the Doldrums

British yachtsman, Alex Thomson, is currently competing in the Vendée-Globe; a round-the-world, single-handed sailing race. It should take him around ten to eleven weeks to complete it. I heard him interviewed on the radio one morning this week, just nine days in. I shivered with horror as I lay in bed calculating how many days he has ahead of him: about another seventy. Alone at sea. Truly alone. He will have gulls and wind and waves, maybe the occasional dolphin or turtle, a flying fish or a whale to shout at, sing to, whisper sweet nothings to catch in the wind, but otherwise, until the start of February 2021 (all being well), he is someone who will live in extreme solitude. He will take the seclusion of the 2020 lockdown to its extreme. Despite this, he sounded upbeat as he was interviewed from the high seas over his radio. He said he was sleep-deprived but feeling positive; that he grabs naps when he can, sometimes only managing two hours in a twenty-four-hour period. And when the interviewer asked him about being alone, he said that he didn’t feel lonely, he suggested the word ‘isolated’ was one that better described his condition, and that he consciously separated loneliness from isolation.

I found the distinction useful in thinking about how we can be alone yet not at all lonely – especially given the year we have had and the months we have yet to navigate in relative seclusion. Thomson said he wasn’t alone as he had a family at home waiting for him, and the idea of sailing back to them diluted all loneliness. I’d imagine being occupied (navigating, following the weather, maintaining the boat, keeping his log, making repairs) also keeps loneliness ay bay. Then it made me think about those who are truly isolated, those who have no end in sight, the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffes of this world, incarcerated with no end date, no idea when her boat will sail into the harbour. I cannot begin to imagine how that feels. It appals me to think about it. In her case, how can she possibly separate isolation from loneliness? Whilst we each have varying needs for solitude, according to our level of extroversion and introversion, no one should have to bear such a denial of liberty.

I have grown to like being alone. It calms me, I find it restful, I feel secure and grounded when I spend time on my own. When I go to stay with friends, I need to carve out some time for myself each day. I can’t run with the pack for twenty-four hours; I get jangled being in company all the time. However, when it is enforced solitude, as it was for all of us earlier this year (and even then, it was nothing compared to what Nazanin has to bear), the detention at home, the removal of personal choice to spend time with others, was incredibly testing and difficult. Again, Alex Thomson, in his interview, said some things that resonated with me; he reminded me as to how the first lockdown felt, emotionally. He talked about how he would soon sail into the doldrums (one of the few people I have heard not to speak about the doldrums figuratively), and he knew it to be a difficult place. He described the doldrums as having “lots of thunder clouds, big gusts of wind followed by large areas of calm.” And that’s how it was in March of this year (and perhaps in the weeks around now), when we all went inwards, spending time alone. These lockdowns come with tumultuous bursts of feelings, frustration and worry and discomfort at not knowing, followed by (hopefully) periods of tranquillity, accepting the uniqueness of the situation, the gift of one’s life being quiet for a few weeks, and an appreciation of the world being still. This year has been an exercise in being alone but at least we know that in a few weeks (or months) we will sail back into the harbour.

I couldn’t do the Vendée Globe, I have neither the stomach nor the sea-legs for it, but I would like to think I could somehow get through being alone for a set period of time, if I knew there was an end point. To those without an end point, my heart goes out.

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