take yourself out to dinner

Willa Gilbert-Goldstein
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I stand aimlessly in the tepid New York City heat outside of Mercer Kitchen, a bustling Soho restaurant packed with tired, trendily dressed shop goers and young executives sharing business strategies over spicy passion fruit margaritas. The song “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This” by Idris Muhammad bumps its pulsating melodies into my headphones. 

Hopefully I can get a table. Or maybe even a seat at the bar? I smile as the hostess leads me down a set of stairs into a sleek, rather dark, underground section of the restaurant. I make myself comfortable at a bar top table and whip out the novel I am reading from my tote bag. Emphasis on the fact that I am reading a book for pleasure and am unironically using a tote bag. 

Very cool, very intellectual, I know. 

My initial, yet familiar anxiety over being alone quickly subdues upon seeing the enticing menu items. I decide upon a tuna tartare and a coconut mushroom soup. For some reason, the two incongruous dishes seem like the perfect pairing for my evening. I spend the rest of the night half reading and half listening to an endless loop of my favorite music. I am calm, effortlessly content, and genuinely happy to have a moment to myself. 

It wasn’t always that I could walk into a restaurant and eat a meal completely alone, though. The skill of shamelessly doing so has actually taken me years to perfect. Credit where credit is due, however, I did learn from the best: my dad. 

When I was younger, he would always stroll to the french bistro, Bar TaBac, at the end of our Brooklyn block and spend hours by himself. On Sundays, he could be found reading the paper over a cup of coffee and an omelette, and on Fridays he would pick apart a historical novel on the Vietnam War accompanied by a glass of red wine and a bowl of mussels. 

Seeing him do this, or even hearing about it from my mom, I vividly remember reacting with a subtle level of, well, horror. What would people think? Would they assume he was having marital troubles? Would they think that he didn’t have a single friend he could invite to eat with him? The irony is particularly striking -- 10 years since my biting feelings of embarrassment towards my dad, I now mirror him, on some level, in his unabashed independence.  

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What I’m trying to say is that small moments of solitude can acutely impact the ways in which we appreciate our own company and relate to ourselves. I felt the power of these little acts of independence particularly last summer, when I first started to spend time with myself in a more intentional way. 

Following a rather depressing and anxiety filled second semester at Duke, which began with a positive COVID test and ended with a Lexapro prescription, I, needless to say, felt I deserved a break. But instead of truly giving myself some time off, I started an online class and worked tirelessly on a mayoral campaign throughout May and June. My frenetic, hardwired type A personality just couldn’t seem to grasp the idea of a mental health break, I guess.

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After finishing my class and internship, I felt worn out, adrift, palpably anxious, and stressed. The ups and downs of my freshman year and the busy start to my summer had clearly taken a toll. It got to the point where my parents looked at me and said: “Willa, we’ve been talking, and think that you should do absolutely nothing for the next month.” I didn’t exactly know how to respond to this mix of worry and advice, especially given the fact that it was so starkly different from anything I had been told before. What they really meant, though, is that a stress-inducing, resume boosting internship could wait until next summer, and that I should, for once, solely focus on taking care of myself mentally. I understand that this is an incredible privilege to forego a summer working to dedicate time prioritizing my mental health, but even still, it took a couple weeks for the rigid overachiever within me to break down and unapologetically take the space that I needed. Eventually, I accepted my parents’ advice and forced myself to sever some of my major commitments and instead fill my days with things that I loved. 

It was challenging, at first, don’t get me wrong. I remember staying up until 2 am meticulously editing my LinkedIn profile while I probably should have been catching up on extra sleep, and planning out my major requirements on a detailed spreadsheet while I could have been swimming in the ocean, but I slowly gave myself more and more permission to just live.

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Biking up and down the westside highway, the wind beating through my hair. Wandering through the halls of the Natural History Museum, eyeing whimsical taxidermied animals in glass cases. Sitting under the glowing electric light of a planetarium show. Taking long meanderings walks along the beach. Traversing central park, taking photos on my film camera. Going on a pedicab ride in the rain. And most importantly, having some of the best damn meals of my life. 

I think back on this summer with myself, and am filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and love for the experiences that I had. Free time is a privilege and space is a privilege, and while I was afforded the ability to take time off, you don’t need a month of nothing to find happiness within moments of solitude.  

Some of the best advice I can give is to become obsessed with spending time with yourself. To take yourself on little dates. To have fun for the sake of having fun. And to be more gentle with yourself. It makes you ready to take on the world around you and be that much more loving towards the people in your life. So, going forward, do some fun sh#t alone. Take yourself out to dinner. I promise it’s worth it.  

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