Don’t you miss hugging your friends? What a weird artifact of this time — the way you might greet someone from a distance and wordlessly agree that you’d like to express affection physically but you shouldn’t, so you just kind of wave or grasp your own self or put a hand longingly on your chest. Strange to think we’ll have this muscle memory in the weeks and months and years to come, long past its necessity.
Lately I have started to think the difference between loneliness and solitude is desire.
Last year in Stockholm I read The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. It is an experimental memoir of sorts, written by someone who was exceedingly lonely in a big city and explored this sensation in the work of famous artists: Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, Valerie Solanas. It was recommended by an admired colleague who was in a bout of absorbing, at mass speed, non-traditional (especially biographical) non-fiction. I worried that reading a book about loneliness while alone in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, would gut me, leaving me with a visceral aching emptiness in my stomach as I wandered down the dark Scandinavian streets. This did not happen. I loved the book; it didn’t emotionally devastate me. Reading it made me feel curious and warm.
(I was nervous because a few years earlier I had spent a couple days alone on the West Coast and got really desperately lonely, in a way I didn’t expect or understand, and I worried about hastening or welcoming that feeling with the book.)
My brother is currently in quarantine. He calls me from behind a door in the living room and I put him on speakerphone so he can hear me and my sister commenting on cable news on the couch. I feel acutely aware that there are a lot of alternate timelines where none of this — him waiting behind the door; all of us being in our parents’ house; any of us watching cable news — is happening.
When I think of my loneliest seasons, I think of the winter after I graduated college. Every day I rode the 66 bus to work a meaningless job, and by winter it was dark when I left for work and dark when I got back. In the mornings I waited on the corner of Beacon Street in the cold — leggings under my pants, a sweater, a big coat, gloves, scarf, hat — and then overheated the whole way to Cambridge, where I’d get a coffee at the Starbucks around the corner from my office building, until the guy behind the counter started recognizing me and remembering my order, and then I stopped going in. I had two coworkers in my office, two women in their forties and sixties, and, though they were nice, we didn’t really talk.
One good thing about that job was that I didn’t have much to do and so I got to read a lot. I took out books from the library on campus. I learned a lot from music journalists on Twitter and researched graduate schools. I read the literary journal of the women’s studies department of the college I had just graduated from. I combed through lifestyle blogs and decided to cut my hair short.
During that winter I listened to one album more than any other: Get Lonely by the Mountain Goats. It is an album of aching, loosely a concept album about loss, about a breakup. I wasn’t going through a breakup during the time when I listened to that album on a loop, but something was breaking, was dissolving.
“Most of the songs seem to take place on cold mornings,” goes the Pitchfork review of this album, “and they all involve meticulous descriptions of ephemera: the cracking ground, the vacant lot across from the gas station, the amorphous shapes in his dreams.” Riding the bus home in December from a long day of doing nothing, that was what I often felt like: a crack in pavement, a vacant lot. I got lonely.
“What does it feel like to be lonely?” Olivia Laing asks in The Lonely City. “It feels like being hungry.” It did. “An astronaut could've seen the hunger in my eyes from space.”
“There is something worse out there than being sad,” says the protagonist in the season finale of this TV show that is, and it really does continue to surprise me, so much better than it needs to be, “and that’s being alone and being sad.”
I wasn’t alone during this time but I guess I had a hard time connecting. I got pulled inward a lot. Seemingly intractable problems emerged. I didn’t get a lot of sun. I didn’t eat right. I developed a skin allergy — sometimes life hits you right in the face, quite literally, with the metaphors! Things were, it would be fair to say, out of whack.
From the living room there’s a slight delay on the phone and so we can hear my brother laugh hard at a joke before it comes through on the phone, making it an even longer laugh, retroactively making it a better joke.
Eventually, I did get un-lonely. The sun started rising earlier and setting later. I visited some friends out West. I covered P.S. Eliot at open mics, and friends always came to watch. Those same friends came with me to poetry readings that felt like a window into something bigger, a world where the pieces fit together a little more. I made plans. (“I got ready,” as the song goes, “for the future to arrive.”) I wish I knew what magic did it, so I could replicate it in the future if need be. But I don’t.
“Loneliness is personal,” Laing writes, “and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city.” Of course. And of course that feels especially true right now, when forces much bigger than ourselves have rendered us lonely, and vulnerable to loneliness, and rendered some of our collective city especially vulnerable. Many of us have, I think, woken up to each other’s loneliness in new ways. Loneliness can be illuminating. I hope you’re able, in some small way, to keep good company this week.