published Sunday, April 8th, 2012

My Life: Frog and Toad and the joys of solitude


by Mary Fortune

I have always loved the Frog and Toad children’s books, and my favorite story in that series is one called “Alone.” In it, Frog takes off for an island to spend a little time by himself, and Toad has a full-blown hissy fit. He panics, thinking his best friend doesn’t want to hang out with him anymore, and he packs a picnic and tries to take it to Frog on the island.

When the friends are eventually reunited, Frog is affectionately perplexed by Toad’s anxiety. He just wanted to spend some time quietly thinking about how happy he is, how lucky he feels to have such a good life, he gently explains to Toad. Because sometimes, no matter how much you like to be with the people you love, it’s just nice to be by yourself.

I am thinking about this as I drive across town with my kids in the back seat of my car. They are bickering about the volume on some gadget and wrangling over whose turn it is to do something or another with said gadget.

I would tell them to be quiet, but I would have to yell to be heard. I don’t feel like yelling. And they won’t listen anyway. So on it goes.

I recently took a business trip to Maine. I stayed in a quiet, clean hotel full of grown-ups. I drove a rental car that smelled miraculously like nothing at all and had clearly never had juice boxes leak onto the upholstery.

I whirled through busy workdays and lively dinners with colleagues and returned to my room each night to a quiet so profound it had a nearly physical presence. I made tea. I wrote. I read. I fell asleep and stayed that way until it was time to get up and go back to work.

I was thoroughly, deliciously alone.

Is it wrong to enjoy solitude as much as I do? I’m not sure. I’m solitary by nature. I need quiet and space to mentally recharge. Writing is an inherently solo activity, and I spend a lot of time doing it.

But I’m married to a wonderful man, and I have kids I adore. I’m needed — my attention and my energy and my affection are needed all the time. So I don’t know whether I’m actually allowed to feel this way.

A friend who knows me really well sometimes calls me “the girl in the corner.” She has seen me soldier my way through social situations with big groups only to retreat at intervals to a dim corner where I can sip my drink and watch everyone and emanate my please-no-one-talk-to-me-right-now-I-can’t-do-it-just-give-me-a-minute vibes.

I’m not exactly shy or even especially awkward. I generally enjoy people. But I need to get very far away from them regularly to function at my best.

I also need them. As much as I need solitude, I need company.

Sometimes I get homesick at work. The mental rhythm of meetings and deadlines and writing and research is jarred by an overwhelming desire to go home and be with my people and my things. My husband, our boys. My dog, my cat. The screened porch and the dogwood and the bird feeder outside the kitchen window.

The feeling is visceral, and always comes from no place at moments I cannot predict. Which, come to think of it, is how my desire to be alone tends to hit as well.

At the end of the Frog and Toad story, the two friends sit on the island and eat wet sandwiches that Toad accidentally dropped into the lake on his journey. They are happily alone together.

At the end of my business trip, I came home to find that my boys had cleaned the house to welcome me back, and my husband had reassembled and stacked the newspapers — in chronological order, no less — so I could catch up on the week’s news in the old-school style he knows I prefer.

And I realized: Despite the frustrating contradictions of my temperament, I have absolutely everything I need. How did that happen? How did I get so lucky?

“Mom, will you read to me?” my younger son asks as he prepares for bed.

“Of course I will,” I say, wrapping my arms around his small, warm body. “How about some Frog and Toad?”

Email Mary Fortune at mkfortune@comcast.net.

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