Painting above: Alphonse Osbert, Solitude du Christ, 1897
I only recently decided to make a recording of the French chanson Ma Solitude, a song I have known and loved for most of my adult life. But singing it live with my trio for a couple of months now, has deepened my perception of and connection to this song. It has also been emotionally very cathartic to sing and reflect upon its lyrics, carried by melancholic chords that seem to symbolize where I am currently standing as a person. I therefore decided to record it with an intimate ensemble, consisting of voice, guitar and double bass. Releasing the recording shortly before Christmas, on the 16th of December, has a very personal, symbolic meaning. This date marked one of the biggest losses I experienced that year.
2016 – A Year of Many Losses
Last year I spent Christmas grieving in utter loneliness. My husband had moved out in the spring, so I was still slowly adjusting to being on my own again. It was the first year of not creating a warm and festive family Christmas for us, his sons, their partners, and random orphan friends. In the late summer, returning from a weekend trip, I was at Trader Joe’s helping someone. Her partner in the meantime, stole everything I had in my bag that was right behind me in my shopping cart. The fact that it was during an act of helpfulness felt in addition really mean. I already felt very alone and betrayed. Then, in the autumn, I was then given notice on the house we had been living in for over eight years and in which I was financially just about managing to stay in – a house that had been our home and that, in midst of all of the change, at least was a familiar staple. Unsettling for me, as for many liberals and intellectuals, was that more people in America voted – more than most had ever imagined –, for a misogynistic, narcissistic, reality-TV creator, simply an autocrat.
It verified for me a complete decline of society, which ironically felt like an epitome of my life.
I was “hanging in” as they say, until completely out of the blue, on December 16, my beloved dog Ginji died. I surrendered to a paralyzed state of utter grief and shock. Ginji was a beautiful, mischievous Whippet-Basenji mix who I had named after one of my favourite jazz tunes Dindi. It’s lovely to see that it is one of my most popular tunes on Spotify but I haven’t been able to sing that song live since that day. I was left in complete shock with my other dog, also painfully and visibly grief stricken, with the task of packing up a decade’s worth of a married life, of hopes and dreams that never came to be, without a clue where I would move to or what I would do. My small family had diminished within a few months from four to three, and then suddenly to two members. And although “It Never Rains in Southern California”, those were the months with the most rainfall in years. During those Christmas days last year, I was forced to embark on journeys, not only geographically but internally, making many discoveries in the process…
Months of Restless and Relentless Moving…
It was quite an odyssey, the months between finally moving out of the house in early February, cramming everything into a storage container, having to find other places to stay multiple times, moving into an apartment that I had to move out of again and finally moving into a place in L.A. again in September. It now feels like years have gone by – around the world in 90 days. I was just so distraught in January by all of the losses, that I felt more than overwhelmed by the decisions I had to make: I wasn’t even sure whether I would stay in Los Angeles or move back to Germany to get away from the political climate, away from all the heartbreak, do a “geographical” as they say… I felt too heartbroken to think clearly. In addition, the housing market was, and still is, in many parts of the world in a total crisis. So to find a dog-friendly apartment anywhere, was more than daunting.
I did then spend five fairly unhappy and cold but also revealing weeks in Germany and returned to L.A. in April. At the end of May I thought I had finally found a new home but that turned into horrible bad luck: It was toxic – full of hidden mold! So after packing everything up and putting it into storage again in June, I fell incredibly ill for six weeks. To save money I just bunked with friends. Some of these “friends” I had never met before. But in times of crisis, you learn very quickly who steps up and who suddenly drops you.
On August 6, still in full-on crisis mode, sitting on a park bench, after eating store-bought salad out of a plastic container, I wrote in my journal, “I watch the homeless thinking, I kind of feel you – I’m one favour away…” But that’s a whole other story I will be writing about another time. But, I can now say in retrospect, despite it having been very painful at times it was both revealing and ultimately healing.
The point I would like to make is that this Christmas, despite still feeling all of these losses in my bones, I am spending alone time in solitude but not in loneliness. And this is exactly what the lyrics of Ma Solitude illustrate so perfectly and which is why I wanted to record the song before the year is over: “Non, je ne suis jamais seule / avec ma solitude” means, in a very existentialistic way, “No, I am never alone / with my solitude”. It is a beautifully crafted melancholic song but it is not sad. Please click here to open a new window and read the French lyrics and an English translation while you listen to the recording.
Available for streaming and downloading here:
Georges Moustaki – A Poet & Multi-lingual Singer
The writer of this poetic piece is Georges Moustaki, an Egyptian-born French singer-songwriter who became famed for his repertoire of simple romantic ballads. In his obituary in 2013, The Irish Times called him a “troubadour of love, tenderness and anti-racism [who] gave France some of its best-loved music.” The French president, François Hollande, called Moustaki a “hugely talented artist whose popular and committed songs have marked generations of French people” (The New York Times. 25 May 2013).
Moustaki wrote in the region of 300 songs, many of them performed by a galaxy of much-loved Gallic stars, including Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Juliette Greco, Pia Colombo, and Tino Rossi. Ma Solitude was first recorded in 1967 by the Italian-born French singer and actor Serge Reggiani. Two years later, in 1969, Moustaki released it himself, which has been so far the most popular version.
He was an absolutely charming man, a gentleman, a fine man. This was an elegant man with infinite softness, and of course, talent. He was like all poets, there was something different about him.
Obviously, Moustaki was by heart and mind a poet. He was also a multi-lingual singer – he sang in French, Italian, English, Greek, Portuguese, Arabic and Spanish. I feel very much that we are kindred spirits. He demonstrates in his writing that songs can be constructed like poems, thus, be moving and meaningful and at the same time catchy without having been diluted down to simplified structures. The chorus is of course, also a beautiful and clever oxymoron: being in solitude implies being on your own but Moustaki cleverly personifies this “quality time” in the verses as if it were time spent with a lover. The third verse always brings a smile to my face:
Quand elle est au creux de mon lit
Elle prend toute la place
Et nous passons de longues nuits
Tous les deux face à face
The intimate scene of two people sleeping in a bed together makes me think of my little rescue dog Leonora. She felt the loss of Ginji, who was like a mother to her, as much as I did. Leonora now seeks solace by hopping onto my bed at night and curling up into a little fur ball – in that dip in the middle of bed, that “creux de mon lit” and indeed, “elle prend toute la place”!
Solitude versus Loneliness
And this is what I would like to bring to anyone reading this and who may be alone during a time most people would so love to spend with others – solitude can offer a special value to those who cherish their own inner worlds. Obviously, solitude can only be productive if we don’t feel excluded, hurt or punished. But in tranquil times it offers an intimate connection, a realm of solace, like with a lover. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared on a similar note: “My solitude doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of people; on the contrary, I hate he who steals my solitude without, in exchange, offering me true company.” The French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre even wrote, “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”
Ma Solitude has always so poignantly illustrated the beauty one can find in alone time. It’s a deep connection with oneself but a connection that can obviously get severed in times of deep grief and trauma when our brains are stuck in a state of terror and pure survival. Sadly, not everyone is capable of this inner connection or willing to let go to this sometimes almost meditative state. I was quite astonished to recently read about a study at the University of Virginia in which several participants – a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men – chose to subject themselves to electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts.
On the other hand, it seems as if in our hyper-connected, social-media driven and extremely competitive society, alone time or solitude is more devalued than it has been in a long time. The author Ray Williams writes in an essay published in Psychology Now, “all current meanings of ‘alone’ imply a lack of something. Invariably, a desire for solitude is viewed by others as a sign there is something wrong. Even worse, people associate going it alone with antisocial pursuits and unnecessary risk taking, like jumping off cliffs. And when we see photos of people sitting alone by a lake on a mountain top, many of us might wonder if that person is lonely or even depressed.”
For me solitude is about consciousness. It’s about asking the – sometimes uncomfortable – questions, how deeply am I feeling myself when I’m feeling lonely? Am I feeling disconnected and if so, where is it stemming from? Are we comparing other people’s outsides with our complicated insides? Especially social media can have that effect. On Facebook we only see glossy versions of our “friends’”, their feats but seldom their failures illustrated by carefully curated glamour-selfies. During this outer and inner journey I was forced to embark upon, my inner world has shifted from grief and loneliness to solitude. In the process I discovered who my real friends were – one of them being myself.
Keep an eye out for my next blog post on inspiring art depicting the topics loneliness and/or solitude .
 Brent Crane, “The Virtues of Isolation”, in The Atlantic, posted March 30, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/03/the-virtues-of-isolation/521100/
 ibid. [see also Matthew Hutson, „People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts”, in The Atlantic, posted July 3, 2014 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/people-prefer-electric-shocks-to-being-alone-with-their-thoughts/373936/.
 Ray Williams, “Why Solitude Is Good and Loneliness Is Bad. Loneliness is becoming an epidemic but the value of solitude is unappreciated”, in: Psychology Today, posted Oct 31, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201710/why-solitude-is-good-and-loneliness-is-bad.