I had just arrived home after brunching with an out-of-town friend, and was looking forward to a whole afternoon and evening of working on my MA poetry thesis, when a gust of irritation blew into me. I climbed the stairs, looking for it like a small animal lurking behind bookshelves. I was tired of my cold room, for when the light fell to the other side of the house, it was shadowy and blue. The library would close too soon to make the trek outwards worthwhile, and I couldn’t quite bear the thought of the dreary graduate study rooms or the florescent lights of Robarts. I did laundry, made soup, watched the hockey game, and did no writing; writing would not come as long as this indescribable mood held me.
It wasn’t until I was in bed, exhausted but not sleepy, my thoughts crawling up the cold walls, that the source of irritation occurred to me: I am never alone, unless falling asleep. This has been the case since I began living in cities, I am surrounded by people all of the time. I cannot so much as peel vegetables without pairs of moist eyes sliding over me, or go to study and write in my department without interrupting other students sharing tea and confidences. In cafés, I politely ignore people at other tables talking on their phones and nervously jerking their bodies, in libraries, patrons’ glances jerk up as I walk by, newspapers rustle, someone coughs. In subways we are packed in like pieces of fruit in a basket, in public washrooms another young woman reaches around me for soap, in restaurants with high rents, diners’ tables are squeezed so closely together that they can hear each other’s tax woes and marriage problems and travel plans.
The people I am surrounded by are creative, intelligent, whimsical, attractive and charming, and they delight me constantly. They make living in the city exhilarating. There are days when moving from committee meeting to graduate seminar to the local bar makes me feel like a participant in the great theatre of urban life. But there are other days, my “cabin in the woods” days, when, as an introvert, I resent the emotional energy it takes to ask someone how they are just to avoid awkward silence. When my favourite mode on my constantly twinkling Blackberry is the “bedside” mode. When I sleep odd hours just so I can have the kitchen to myself.
It’s a part of my eccentricity that I hate being the subject of curiosity, while others welcome it. I believe, too, that for creative work to be done, room must be made for it, in terms of enough silence to let that kind of work flourish. It is difficult to listen to those inner voices when they’re drowned out by the elevator dinging, footsteps on the stairs, doors closing and text messages chiming. Yet this is a cultural moment that privileges the social being, that lauds cooperation and collaboration. In politics we hear the need for consensus and bridge building, in education we learn to do groupwork and to be socialized, in the workplace team-building and relationships are emphasized. Like many people, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with social media, networking and connecting with strangers, and I love the moments of illumination that come from these activities. Even my thoughts about aloneness, ironically, now appear in my blog and will likely get tweeted, emailed to friends and family, posted to Facebook.
I wonder if I romanticize the qualities of being a maverick or a lone wolf, of going against the stream because I am always surrounded by gazes, or because I fear homogeneity. “There is no private life left”, my roommate tells me, when I protest for the thousandth time when he tags me in a Facebook photo. This is what I fear– the loss of a private life, as much as I value transparency and clarity. I’m reminded of the character of Countess Olenska, in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, an exquisite novel about the New York of her girlhood in the 1880’s. In that time, New York City was a tribal community, with its old families and traditions. Ellen Olenska has returned after many years abroad, and at the questioning of Newland Archer, she says exasperatedly,
“I will tell you—but where, where, where? One can’t be alone for a minute in that great seminary of a house, with all the doors wide open, and always a servant bringing tea, or a log for the fire, or the newspaper! Is there nowhere in an American house where one may be by one’s self? You’re so shy, and yet you’re so public. I always feel as if I were in the convent again—or on the stage, before a dreadfully polite audience that never applauds.”
More than a hundred years later, it would seem that the desire to “be by one’s self” is discouraged more and more, even pitied. I hope that I am wrong. I hope to be contradicted. Yet when I think of where I can be alone, the options seem fewer and fewer. It begins to resemble a foreign country a long distance away whose language I once knew.