Archives for category: Loneliness

This event happened last weekend, apparently a pretty huge annual one here in the US. I was pretty unaware of it until that night, when the guy who helped me in a store told me how sad he was to be working and not watching the game.

As it happened, the weekend also marked nine months since my arrival in NYC, May 2018. Overall, I now feel pretty settled. Returning to the city following a Christmas/New Year break in London, I realized how much NYC, and my apartment, feel like home. Also, over the past few weeks I have noticed that most experiences in my adopted city no longer feel like I am encountering them for the first time (which is a little sad in a way – I do want to hang onto the excitement of the newness).

My non-engagement with the Super Bowl led me to wonder, however, the extent to which I have truly integrated. Have I merely exchanged one big multicultural city (London) for another? And also, what happens to one’s sense of identity when you move from nation to nation, neither of which is actually your homeland of origin? I was surprised to learn a few weeks ago that everyone I encounter here assumes that I am English. I guess that living for more than a couple of decades in London muted my Irish lilt, but still… Being here in the US, I feel more Irish than I ever have, and gratefully so.

Things I have (particularly) noticed over the past transplanted months:

Language and spelling – gray vs grey / arugula vs rocket / squash vs courgette / sleeper sofa vs sofa bed, the plethora of commas (something I have embraced enthusiastically, being a passionate advocate of same)… The list is exponential.

Directness – it is not just the language that can be different here, but also the way it is delivered. People generally say exactly what they mean, which was disarming initially but I have come to appreciate the directness. It makes you feel that whatever the agenda is, it is transparent to all.

Friendliness – I like that people randomly talk to you, on the street, on the subway. When you start off knowing almost no-one, the acknowledgement of your presence from strangers matters.

Excitement – someone said to me that living in NYC is like being permanently electrified. There is so much to discover, to interest, to energise, to excite. If you are up for it, and I generally am, the options are endless. Take, for example, last week, when I went to a loft apartment in Long Island City for a classical concert. The organisation Groupmuse hosts intimate concerts in people’s homes. The price is a small donation for the musicians, alongside BYOB, and for that you get to hear pretty amazing music and also to meet new people. The concert on this occasion was a cellist performance. Wondrous, and only around 14 of us present. I plan to host a concert in my apartment, too. I love the idea of people coming to my space and sharing such experiences.

I perceive life in technicolor here. I also believe that what I perceive is not how I want it to be, but for the first time, seeing life as it really is.

Living in NYC has also moved my passion for literature and reading to another level. New York Public Library is amazing. And free. I have an endless request list there. Plus, there are numerous, and often free, book events throughout the city. Of late I have seen Colm Toibin, Paul Muldoon, Brian Dillon, Jorie Graham, Tessa Hadley, Dani Shapiro, Elizabeth Gilbert, Maria Popova…

Being surrounded by so much has inspired me in other ways, too. I play the cello in an amateur ensemble. With a friend, we planning to host literary salons on all things pretentious! I am writing, a little, and aiming to do much more. Despite the busyness of life here, I feel as if my brain is almost paradoxically lighter, and open to more.

There are downsides, of course. The UK where my daughter is at school so often feels too far away. NYC is super expensive, though I am learning how to exist here more economically., and there is much culturally that is free.

Although this is gradually and surely improving, there have been moments of huge existential loneliness – stripped bare of that which had previously supported me, moving alone to New York exposed a vulnerable me that inevitably questioned the meaning of my life on more than one occasion. But those experiences have also helped me to understand myself better. Being so exposed, so stripped bare, has encouraged me to critically question my self – my thoughts, behavior, actions – in a (hopefully) constructive way.

I love this a quote from the Baal Shem Tov that I came across in the introduction to Dani Shapiro’s book, Hourglass:

“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I will become will catch me.”

Someone asked me this week where I am heading, what my life plan is. I had no definite or concrete answer. And I am glad of that. I have largely stopped trying to plan my life, and also, I have become mostly okay living with a “not-knowing.”

From Denise Levertov’s Variations On a Theme by Rilke:

“….The day’s blow

rang out, metallic or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.”

 

Which is what I have gradually come to experience over these past months – a self-belief, and the sense that I, too, can.

 

CQ

I have spent much of my life alone. Mostly by choice. This might suggest that I am a reclusive solitary. I don’t believe so. My world is very often a peopled one. I am, nonetheless, quite content to spend long periods on my own.

Of late, I have been questioning that blurry distinction between aloneness and loneliness. I will be relocating later this year to another city, another continent. London has suited my need to be alone, and I have rarely felt lonely here. But then, being alone, or not, was usually a choice rather than an imposition. My daughter, and only child, is about to leave home. I have lived with her for 19 years, and although our lives are lived increasingly in parallel, her vague presence has no doubt protected me from many potential moments of loneliness.

Heading off to another place and another way of living, aloneness, and perhaps loneliness, may be forced upon me unless I make heroic efforts to ensure otherwise. The evidence suggests, strongly, that the more socially active we are, particularly as we age, the less likely we are to become depressed, and the more likely we are to delay the onset of cognitive impairment, and even possibly dementia.

I have been reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. The tagline for the title is Adventures in the art of being alone, thus suggesting a conflation of both terms, ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’, and an implication that they might be synonymous. I wonder whether I have tried too hard to see them as separate and distinct entities – aloneness being ok, even noble, while loneliness suggests an element of the loser. My own adjudication.

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I am only a third of the way through Laing’s book, an intriguing read thus far that looks to art, both the works and its creators, in an exploration of loneliness, and how inextricably linked it is to the essence of humanity .

Laing reflects that ‘You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.’

True. I remember after my marriage ended, being acutely aware of my aloneness when witnessing the togetherness of couples and families so omnipresent in the urban setting.

As I read Laing’s thoughts on art, Alice Neel comes to mind. Her painting Loneliness has always resonated with me, signifying an emptiness that being alone can instil, and also now suggesting an intertwining of aloneness and loneliness that I hadn’t hitherto appreciated.

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I also think of poetry, particularly Carol Ann Duffy’s Practising Being Dead, which ends:

‘Nobody hears

your footsteps walking away along the gravel drive.’

I suspect that the arts – music, literature, cinema, theatre – have protected me from loneliness. When I find connection within the words of others, I am in a peopled place.

I have spent many hours over the past years in my little study, which is overcrowded with books. As I begin the process of packing up, I am gradually gifting them to friends and charities.

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It feels a little like losing friends somehow. These shelves have been weighed down by books that have kept me company for many years. The people, thoughts and adventures they contain have transported me to alternate realities, and alongside keeping me company, that have also allowed me to imagine, to dream, and to be hopeful.

Even hopeful enough to consider writing my own book.

 

CQ

 

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If, like me, you thought John William’s Stoner [https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/stoner/] was one of the best books you have ever read, check out Train Dreams. It is a very different read, at a mere 116 pages, but Stoner was much in my mind while experiencing Train Dreams. It may well be the fact that both follow the life of one man, an alone and ultimately tragic (or so it seems to me) figure. It is also not luck that brought Train Dreams to my attention. The same person who gifted me Stoner recommended Denis Johnson’s work. Such is the magic of the reading experience. It connects people and events and episodes in ways that might not otherwise be possible.

I am not sure how much I liked the central character in both books (Howard Jacobson would probably say that the need to like characters misses the whole point of writing and reading), yet this did not stop me connecting with each and both, and with their stories of living and suffering.

Train Dreams opens with the ending of a stranger’s life:

‘In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.’

It ends:

‘And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.’

The intervening 100 pages or so follow Grainier’s adult life, which is dominated by loss, hardship and solitude. Yet Grainier is not a victim. He lives his life as he does and must, without questioning his suffering. He does, however, ultimately release and express and share what he has been holding within, in a way that is both surprising and beautiful.

Both Stoner and Train Dreams inevitably raises questions about what constitutes a life. Certainly, a life can be told in 100 pages, or 300, or whatever length. But what Williams and Johnson, exceptionally and in very different ways have done, is to share the essence of a lived life, the somethings that touch on and reach out to a humanness in us all.

 

CQ

 

Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart was such a wonderful read I needed little enticement to read the Irish author’s earlier written but later published The Thing About December.

It is even more wondrous.

The Thing About December is a tragic book, which goes to the very depths of human sadness and despair in a way that clings to you. It is deeply moving and affecting, yet strangely does not overwhelm. It is a challenging undertaking for authors to truly engender empathy in their readers. Ryan manages it magnificently.

The central character Johnsey is the quintessential tragic hero. Ryan speaks through Johnsey, to the extent that we see the world only as Johnsey sees it, and so authentically creates this perspective that we come to believe this as the only true vision.

“People are better inside your head. When you’re longing for them, they’re perfect.”

Johnsey’s seeing of the world may seem naïve and child-like. Yet it is extraordinarily pure and real. He does not have an explicit diagnosis, but we get the impression that he is ill-equipped for life, struggling to interact with others and to build relationships away from his parents. An only child, he is bereft when both his father and mother die.

“Loneliness covers the earth like a blanket…It runs down the walls inside of the house like tears and grows on the walls outside like a poisonous choking weed.”

His father dies first, cancer – “riddled by all accounts’. Ryan is a magician with words that he strings together to create emotions that almost tear you apart with their pathos. Speaking of the sofa that was central to the life he shared with his parents, Johnsey comments following his father’s death:

“That long, battered couch was covered in boxes and bits and bobs that had no business on a couch. It wouldn’t have been balanced right, anyway, without Daddy. There’d have been too much empty space on it, and that empty space would draw out your sadness like the vacuum cleaner draws out dust from behind the television: you’d forgotten it was there until you went rooting around for it.”

Johnsey’s mother retreats from the world following her husband’s death – “it was hard enough thinking of things to say to a woman who had hardly any words left for the world, only lonesome thoughts and muttered prayers.”

Johnsey’s perhaps naive at times view of the world is particularly touching:

“…three kinds of cancer to do for Daddy: he got it in his stomach, lungs and brain. Three kinds, imagine!

And he nearly bested them too.”

Johnsey cleared adored his father – “How could a man’s life just be made up of sadness over his dead father”. His mother’s life as a widow was consumed by loss and sadness, “a little hunched-over thing, like a question mark, wrapped in sorrow and silence.” Although often struggling with how to interact with people, he has an astute sense of the behaviour of others. He is aware how tiresome his mother’s protracted grief appears to others, who believed that she ‘should be getting over it’, two years later after her husband’s death. She never did.

“Sympathy doesn’t last forever. Like a pebble thrown in a river, it’s a splash and a ripple and gone.”

With his peculiar and perhaps paradoxical mix of naivety and grownupness (“The world doesn’t change, nor anything in it, when someone dies.” “The sky was the same blue the day after Daddy died as it was the day before”), Johnsey increasingly occupies a world of isolation and alienation, defined by a loneliness that’s “nothing and everything at the same time.”

“It seemed as though having a break from being lonesome made it ten times worse when you were once lonesome again.”

In Johnsey’s world, we glimpse, and experience such is the empathy Ryan creates, the real complexities, confusions and sadness that define humanness, and the living of it.

“…everything was lovely and normal and comfortable and destroyed forever at the same time.”

CQ

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When I consider the word ‘loneliness’, Alice Neel’s painting of the same name immediately comes to mind. It is one of my favourite works of art. There is something almost sublime about the sheer emptiness of the image – an emptiness not just of people, but also of objects. The chair stands alone, in a space devoid of all else, even sound, or so it seems. I heard someone say this week that poetry is the closest thing we have to silence. Loneliness reflects a poetic silence, a soundlessness evocative of the emotional experience that it considers.

The chair sits by a window. Through it we see other windows, behind which we suspect are similarly empty and silent rooms.

Loneliness was created in 1970. Neel commented at the time that the painting was as close as she had come to a self-portrait.

Neel’s painting successfully encapsulates that intangible yet almost palpable sense of emptiness, of hollowness, and of visceral soundlessness, thus visually conveying loneliness, an experience that can be challenging to share, and a word that has no adequate verbal synonym.

CQ

I had my first experience of a Death Cafe event last night. Conceived approximately three years ago, the cafes are spaces where people come to ‘drink tea, eat cake and discuss death’ (http://deathcafe.com/). The aim of the movement is to facilitate an openness and awareness of death, thereby enhancing the quality of our lived and finite lives.

Although it was more supper and wine on the menu last night than tea and cake, the event lived up to and exceeded any expectations I might have had. It may seem odd to those who rarely dwell on the inescapable and shared fact of our immortality, but being in an environment where people openly shared their thoughts and fears, and non-fears, on the ultimate taboo subject was enlightening and refreshing. And not in the least bit depressing…

Over the past few days, I have read some interesting and diverse pieces on death and dying.

Firstly, a systematic review by Lehto and Stein on death anxiety (http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/66464/?sequence=1). Death anxiety in this context is ‘a term used to conceptualize the apprehension generated by death awareness.’ An all-pervasive anxiety, I suspect, which seems to have been heightened by the technologically advanced and led world we currently live in, where anything is or should be possible, including immortality, or at the very least an indefinite postponement of death.

The aim of the study was to identify factors that contribute to or are significantly associated with death anxiety. Lack of robust data on the topic limited the power of the review to draw definitive conclusions, but, unsurprisingly, important antecendents of death anxiety appear to include ‘stressful environments and the experience of unpredictable circumstances’, as well as personal experience of a life-threatening illness/event, and with death and dying. At my table last night, we pretty much all reported such life experiences to some extent, although the apparent levels of anxiety appeared to vary within the group. A complex issue.

I also came across the writer Jenny Diski’s recent musings on death and dying (http://www.berfrois.com/2013/12/jenny-diski-on-night-and-more/). In an amusing piece titled ‘Dirty Dying’, Diski considers her personal relationship with thinking about death:

‘I’ve never understood about boredom…But how can anyone be bored when there’s always death to think about? Every day. Every hour. Don’t you? All the rest is just evading or glossing the real subject of our lives.’

While currently re-reading Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated By My Illness, I encountered this thought-provoking reflection from a 30 year old man dying from leukemia:

‘I don’t think people are afraid of death. What they are afraid of is the incompleteness of their lives.’

Which brings me to what I most enjoyed, and which both reassured and liberated me, during and subsequent to  last night’s Death Cafe event: there was no evasion, no avoidance, but instead, for those moments there existed the real possibility of talking about death in a welcoming and open environment, where people chatted, shared and laughed about lives that include death as a (mostly) welcome and also essential component of how we live. That is not to say that everyone present was accepting and comfortable about the prospect of their own death and dying and that of their loved ones. At times, there was an almost palpable sadness and grief. But that was ok, and it was also ok to talk about such feelings. Accepting death does not preclude grief and the profound sense of loss that one experiences for those who are no longer physically present in one’s life.

I end with Pablo Neruda and his succinct conclusion on the topic in the poem A Dog Has Died:

‘There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,

and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.

So now he’s gone and I buried him.

and that’s all there is to it.’

CQ

I have seen such great theatre in London of late, tonight absolutely included.

I rarely go to large venues these days, instead loving the intimacy that smaller theatres offer and so often deliver.

This is probably my third or fourth time at The Print Room, and as a space to visit I love it more each time. Within the building I have been entertained in different ‘rooms’ on different occasions. Tonight, we were treated to a glass of wine in a little candlelit ante room (with piano), before moving up (narrow) stairs to the performance.

The play was performed within a relatively narrow rectangular space. There are three performers, Catherine, Joshua and Simon, all of whom are present for the 90 minute or so duration of the piece. The actors were uniformly really impressive.

Simon is a psychiatrist – of the ‘old’ school, a ‘pedantic piece of shit’ as named by Joshua – who is simultaneously seeing/treating both Catherine and Joshua.

Catherine has amnesia. Simon, who has become ‘bored by suffering’, is nonetheless interested in Catherine and her psychiatric state. His goal is to ‘remove the plaster’, thereby liberating her memory. The amygdala of the play’s title is the part of the brain that has come to be viewed as the centre of emotional memory.

The story that predated Catherine’s amnesia gradually unfolds. Catherine is a middle class lawyer who lives in Hampstead with her French lawyer husband, who seems to spend more time in Paris than in London, and their two young children. Joshua’s life rests at the other end of the spectrum, as a musician (saxophone) who takes the bus rather than black cabs, and who lives a life devoid of books. Yet, a series of (seemingly) chance encounters brings Catherine and Joshua together.

As Simon works on removing Catherine’s ‘plaster’, the traumatic and tragic story behind her memory loss is revealed. Many themes and threads pervade this short work of art, all of which weave together to create a story of humanness with all its inherent and inevitable flaws, frailties and vulnerabilities.

All three characters, most especially Simon and Catherine, are alone, lonely and vulnerable. Inside, but most especially outside the courtroom, truth is questioned and sought. Amygdala is a story of need and of desire, and of the reality and consequences of love, and the living of it, that is both beautiful and tragic.

CQ

An article in today’s Guardian got me thinking about loneliness (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/21/loneliness-result-britain-economic-model). The journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, rightly criticises the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s assertion that loneliness only afflicts the elderly.
Chakrabortty supports his point by referring to the 2011 film Dreams of a Life, which is a drama documentary of a 38 year woman who died alone in London, and whose death was undiscovered for three years. No one reported her missing, and no one looked for her during those three years.
I live in the same city, and deliberately opted for its anonymity many years ago, having left a homeland where everyone appeared to know everything about everyone else…

I saw Dreams of a Life twice when it was first released. I was overwhelmed by the pathos of the story, and I suspect I went to see it a second time to reassure myself that I had missed some sort of explanation first time round. Of course I hadn’t. This story cannot be explained away.

Dreams of a Life tells the story of Joyce Vincent, who died in her flat in Wood Green towards the end of 2003. We assume that she died around Christmas as she was found, almost three years later, surrounded by wrapped presents.
Her body, which had ‘melted into the carpet’, was discovered in January 2006, and was too badly decomposed to determine the cause of death. She was discovered because bailiffs broke down the front door as she was over £2000 in arrears with her rent. The TV was still on.
No one appears to have missed her. No one reported the smell coming from her flat or the TV blaring non-stop since her death. Joyce Vincent had somehow slipped through our lives.

A shockingly disturbing, almost unbelievable, but true, story.

A captivating and compassionate docudrama by the director Carol Morley, who did not apparently set out to answer the question of how someone ‘disappears’. Yet Morley does attempt to piece together Joyce’s life to some extent, although clearly there are blind alleys and no-go zones, depicted by post-it notes that crop up throughout on an investigator type screen. There is a strong feeling of trying to make sense of Joyce’s death by piecing together her life.
The film is seductively crafted, vignettes of re-enactments of Joyce as a child and as an adult (mostly silent) against a backdrop of interviews with friends and colleagues and journalists who reported the story initially. Morley interviews friends and colleagues of Joyce, some of whom she tracked down through personal ads and social network sites, people who were close to her at different points in her life. They all need to explain her death, or rather the apparent insignificance of her departure from their lives. The triumph of the film is that it makes Joyce’s death a story. It retraces a path from her death, backwards, to explain a life.

In the end, there is no clear explanation as to why Joyce was forgotten by so many people. She was beautiful and popular. Yes, there were times spent in women refuge centres, suggestions of violent boyfriends, and of abuse. But nothing that explains away the fact that she disappeared and that no one missed her presence in their lives.

In his article, Chakrabortty states that Britain has witnessed a rise in people living alone, from 17% in 1971 to 31% today. This increase is occurring not in the elderly, but in those of working age. A doubling of the divorce rate since the 1960s probably contributes to the observed increase.

And loneliness is bad for your health: ‘excessive loneliness pushes up your odds of an early death by 45%.’

Much to consider…

For now, from Maya Angelou’s Alone:

‘Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.’

CQ