And Another Thing

Choosing between solitude and companionship

By: Susan Rushton
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About the time I went off to college, I discovered J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey.” For my purposes here, I focus on a scene toward the end, where Zooey stands in his brothers’ old room and inspects the quotes they’d written on the back of the door. These quotes include “It loved to happen” — Marcus Aurelius; and “O snail! Climb Mount Fuji! But slowly, slowly!” — Kobayashi Issa.

Periodically I think of a Kafka quote also included on this door. The narrator sits in a public place after midnight and some people he knows come by. “Don’t you want to join us?” they ask. “No, I don’t,” he says.

That caught me then and it catches me now. Clearly he was happy being alone and he made his wish clear. He wasn’t being rude. They asked, he answered. No, he didn’t want company.

He was also older than I the first time I read it. I’m here to tell you that at 18 I couldn’t imagine saying this. I couldn’t imagine turning down an offer to be sat with and couldn’t imagine wanting to remain publicly alone if someone wanted to sit with me.

I also couldn’t imagine valuing my own wants over someone else’s wants. They want to sit with me, I’d think, and I should let them because they want to sit with me. And, I regret to recall, I can’t imagine being sure what my own wants were.

I knew I’d hear myself in my head: What do I want? How do I know I want it? What do I do if I know I should want it and don’t approach it?

See, I believed I didn’t know how to talk to people, didn’t think people would want to talk to me, was convinced that the moment they sat down they’d see what a dork I was because I wouldn’t know what to say.

Oh, life can be so complicated. And I’m so glad I’m older now.

Of course now things have changed. Now I know how to talk to people. Now, I’m charming and fascinating. At least, I have experience with being charming and fascinating. And I treasure my experiences of others charming and fascinating me.

But I can’t be alone in this: Sometimes I just don’t want to be charming and fascinating. Or to be charmed and fascinated. I just want to wander off and gaze at the ocean, try on clothes without getting anybody else’s input, eat at this restaurant and read my book, turn down this street without asking if they want to go down this street too.

Is that unfriendly? Maybe, but it sure is easy: I don’t have to talk to anybody, don’t have to voice any opinions, don’t have to listen carefully, and I’m alone with my thoughts about “Franny and Zooey.”

OK, context: I’m writing this in the Pacific Grove Library. Don and I are down here so he can play in a golf tournament with current golfing buddies and former coworkers. So I’m here, as a wife; and other women are here, as wives. Most of the women, adept at socializing, have made plans to sightsee, go to the major shopping centers, go hiking, all together.

I hear the plans of these socially-adept women during dinner or as we wait for the guys to wander in after the game. I imagine that sooner or later, they’ll invite me along … or expect me to ask to come with them. They automatically and reasonably — after all, we’re all adults, for Pete’s sake — assume that I am as socially adept as they are.

So then what?

I understand your impatience with me by this point. Geez, Rushton, decide, say yes, say no, be content with your decision, but stop all this “if this, then that, if that, then this, what do I want?”

Sure. Easy for you to say, sitting there happily reading.

Besides, I’m as impatient as you are with my frustration: I can’t figure out how to decide, and I wonder how to be content with whatever decision I eventually make.
On the other hand, my deadline for this column is approaching. Oh, joy! Rapture! I have an excuse to go off by myself! Yes, I’m an adult so I can do what I want, but a deadline certainly makes a terrific excuse for solitude.

Not that I need an excuse. I keep telling myself.

I also must keep reminding myself of the quote in “Franny and Zooey” right after the one where Kafka says no, I don’t want to join you. This one is also by Kafka: “The happiness of being with people.”

Well. See? I’m just like Kafka: caught between wanting solitude and recognizing the happiness of being with people. Like him, like us all, I recognize I have the option of choosing one or the other — and the obligation to be content with my choice.

Since I’m baring my soul here, please believe me when I say that if you see me alone in a public place, come say hi. Give us both a chance to be charming and fascinating.

Susan Rushton’s opinion column appears regularly in the Auburn Journal. Her email address is