What better topic to write about today than loneliness? One of my favorite issues of Missouri Review is themed ‘Love and Loneliness.’ My interview with David Sedaris is tucked among its pages, as are some lovely stories, poems and essays.
At a dinner with a visiting poet the other night, someone brought up the question of loneliness, and are we lonelier now that we have social media to keep us connected, or are we truly more connected. The conversation wandered from yes we’re more lonely to no, maybe we’re not, and on to the younger generation, how difficult it is for them to hold a conversation, to maintain eye contact and participate in the give and take of face-to-face communication when there is no hand-held device involved in the exchange. One dinner guest talked about parenting, how she hasn’t felt lonely in four years, since her child arrived. Another guest said, oh, you can feel alone with children, with family, even with a room full of people. And then we talked about how being in a crowd, alone, can actually be the loneliest time of all.
I traveled all over the UK last semester on my own and to a few cities in Europe. At first, I did feel lonely in crowds. I’d watch people laughing, hugging, walking arm-in-arm, and I’d be so aware that I had no one to share a drink with or tell a story to. I read Rick Steve’s tips on how to make new friends while traveling, and after the first bumpy attempts, it became easy to initiate conversation. By the time I left the UK and headed home, I realized I could make a new friend in just about any situation.
Now that I’m back, I’m beginning to feel lonely again. Reverse culture shock, perhaps. Last night at a party, I found myself watching the Americans from my safe perch on the sofa, not sure if I could or even wanted to join in on their conversations. The women leaned in close, laughing. The men guffawed, sharing funny stories across the room. A Scottish friend sat next to me and asked if I was okay. She’s a long way from home, and she recognizes the symptoms of re-entry, I think. She encouraged me to join in with new groups of friends, introduce myself with a new name, even, if it helps me retain the new “me” I found while overseas.
In a recent interview at the Lions in Winter Literary Festival with writer Stephen Graham Jones, one of my students asked why literary festivals matter. You’ll have to wait for the print copy of Bluestem 2015 to read what SGJ said in reply. But here’s what I think: literary festivals stave off loneliness. Writers spend a lot of time in their own heads. I’m with my characters when I write, and I’m trying hang out with my audience, too. But in the end, it’s really just me inside my head. When I meet a friend at the pub or a student in my office, I’m quite aware that the give-and-take of this real-time conversation is not the same as the ‘conversations’ I was having with my characters and my audience. Real conversations are not in your control–the other guy gets to say anything he wants. Real conversations only happen once. When it’s over, it’s gone.
I teach a fundamentals college course for students who aren’t quite yet ready for college. They’re often first generation students. They come to class with electronic devices in their hands, earphone cords snaked in their hair, caps pulled low, heavy coats buttoned up tight. Like they’d rather be anywhere than inside those four walls sitting at a desk. I came to class one day dressed like them. I let myself get distracted with my phone. I kept my ear buds in, listening to music. I hunkered down in my coat and made like I was ready to go at any moment. My TA was in on the gag–he kept trying to get me to pay attention, but nothin’ doin’. Until I dropped the role and got real with my students. I told them this seventy-five minutes we get together is it. It’s here, and then it’s gone. I don’t want to miss anything. And I don’t want them to miss anything either, but really, I want them to figure out that they don’t want to miss anything. Slunking down behind a handheld device keeps us apart even when we’re physically together. It keeps us from respecting the I:Thou of this fleeting moment. It brings loneliness to our togetherness.
Here’s a cover of a song done by my favorite ukelele player, my daughter Alice. She says this is her form of procrastinating. Maybe it’s also her way of saying hey, world, I’m here.