How far friends are! They forget you,
most days. They have to, I know; but still,
it’s lonely just being far and a friend.
I put my hand out—this chair, this table—
So near: touch, that’s how to live.
Call up a friend? All right, but the phone
itself is what loves you, warm on your ear,
on your hand. Or, you lift a pen
to write—it’s not that far person
but this familiar pen that comforts.
Near things: Friend, here’s my hand.
~ By William Stafford from The Way It Is. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission.
Yesterday evening, I started reading My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. I’m hooked. It’s so good. I’m roughly a third of the way through the book now, and I keep pausing to write down some of the beautiful sentences that strike me:
“This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. So much of life seems speculation.”
A recurring motif, I’ve noticed, throughout my week is the subject of loneliness.
It’s prevalent here in Strout’s writing, and in almost everything I’ve read this week.* Loneliness has been etched into some of the conversations with customers I’ve helped at work, and I’ve glimpsed it on the faces of friends and co-workers, in the brief moments between our tasks at hand.
Loneliness comes and goes, I know, and it’s different for every person. Certainly, some people show it more clearly than others, and who am I to hypothesize on other people’s lives?
Still, this afternoon, as I sat with my coffee at the kitchen table turning page after page, feeling an understanding, an empathy, but also a distancing from Lucy Barton (her life is so different from mine, and yet, she holds this loneliness that strikes a chord – I believe – in people everywhere), I couldn’t help but dwell on this feeling.
Is it the need for community? Or does it lie in noticing the absence of company? Does it go deeper than the feeling of being alone? (Because sometimes time alone is necessary and healing.) Perhaps it holds instead the incessant yearning to be understood by another individual? To talk, and really talk, about all the deepness that the heart can hold.
Maybe loneliness is, as Lucy Barton mentions, the feeling of a blackness so deep and overwhelming that she feels the need to step inside the nearest clothing store and talk about the size and color of sweaters with the saleswomen inside. Just to talk to someone or about something else.
Something that I love about literature is its ability to draw upon the human experience through recurring elements. My Name Is Lucy Barton does exactly that for me. As I’m reading it, sentences will stand out to me, remind me of something else I’d read, a song I’d heard, a conversation I’d had. One of my professors in college referred to this connecting of dots as a “constellation,” tracing a human emotion or experience across expansive bodies of literature and periods of time. In this way, literature becomes a collective narrative. It embodies a community. It helps one feel “less alone.”
I’ve found that loneliness is a topic typically avoided in daily conservation. I don’t like to admit my loneliness, and I think that others tend not to as well. There is a tacit barrier to admission, as if by acknowledging our loneliness, we forfeit our independence. However, admission to loneliness is not a sign of weakness – there is power to be found in vulnerability. The desire for companionship is a natural human inclination, and shying away from vulnerability only increases loneliness. After all, friendship is borne from a shared experience or feeling – perhaps this shared feeling defines loneliness at its core, although neither side might admit that.
Bhanu Kapil Rider, in her book The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, gives a voice to the loneliness derived from diaspora. The book is a series of prose poems based on interviews with Indian women living in India, England, and the United States. Each poem answers a series of twelve questions, such as “What is the shape of your body?” and “How will you live now?”
Similarly, I’m drawn to ask the characters in the stories I’ve read, the people I meet, my friends and family:
When do you feel most lonely?
Why do you feel alone?
When does it become too much to bear?
In light of the recent election, fraught with uncertainty and unease for so many, I believe that it’s ever more important to reach out to one another and empathize with this feeling of loneliness; it seems so much to be a profound and distinct part of people’s daily lives. Strout writes, “How do we find out what the daily fabric of a life was?” and I wonder the same thing. Perhaps by asking this last and most important question, I can make a difference in someone’s life:
How can I help?
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” ~ Tennessee Williams
I hope that I can be that person for someone else. Over the course of this week, and in the coming days, I hope that you might be that person for someone else too. Friends, here is my hand.
Song of the week: Treaty – Leonard Cohen