Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Solitude

I seem to be intimidated by silence. Even sitting here in my bedroom I always have my stereo on, providing that background structure of noise necessary for my habitation of the space while I work. I switch it off, and the quiet blooms around me, and the corners appear messier, busier than they did before, the ceiling and walls a little farther away, as if everything were stepping back in breathless expectation of something. Maybe that’s it—silence waits to be filled, an acoustic hole in the air, and perhaps it is this sensation of perpetual almost-slipping-into that has me so nervous of it. In any case, it is perhaps the chief reason why I can’t stand to be alone.

I drive with the radio on, or a CD playing or my iPod jacked into the auxiliary, and when I’m not listening to music at home I have an episode of some TV show or other streaming through my laptop (sometimes I’m watching it, more often not): these are stand-ins for other people, they provide what feels like another presence, linear and indifferent, and as the song or episode ends there’s that awful falling-off that comes with the fade out, the roll of credits. I feel it coming, and my gut goes through a brief jitter as the sound cuts out, as I am left again alone, and I fairly scramble to hit play on something else before I have to spend too much time like that.

But these in proxy to the real thing, to real people peopling my span of atmosphere. There are very few nights I can’t be found at my preferred pub downtown, which serves as my second office. I might be up at the bar prattling with others, perhaps themselves like me, these lost souls suffering the crushing weightlessness of their own respective silences, or sitting back in my booth with a bourbon in one hand and a book in the other. It doesn’t matter so much that I interact, simply that there are bodies nearby. In daylight this compulsion subsides somewhat, and music or TV works to fill whatever hole I feel myself being drawn towards. But at night, when dark settles (and it’s doing it much earlier these days), I’m struck by an almost debilitating loneliness, which isn’t loneliness in the usual sense but simply a craving for some break in the solitude.

I’ve never understood it when people tell me they like being alone. That they have their personal, solitary rituals and relaxations—it let’s them gather their thoughts, they say, or, it helps them unwind. Reading the morning paper, walking the dog, biking to work, that sort of stuff. I don’t quite know what this sensation is, this enjoyment of solitude, what it really feels like; it’s never what they do alone, that doesn’t seem to matter, but the simple manner of doing something alone transforms it to some sacred process. Perhaps others wreak a fantastic magic out of these little activities, there are flashes of light and angelic singing, perhaps these alchemists of solitude work in it a gilded quality that can’t be achieved in the presence of others. I don’t know.

My mind and body work better, smoother, have more fun with themselves in company. Things people say or do, or don’t, their existence within my space and others’, their almost gravity-guided movements between them: I watch it, think about it, enjoy it for its novelty, or familiarity, I take it all in and I feel like I truly am of the world. In silence I feel oddly divorced from reality, and at night, looking out my dark window at the construction site now emptied of workers and barely visible in the gloom, the feeling swells into a great expanse of not-there, as if something has happened to the world before it’s filtered through my senses to make it thinner and farther away.

And so I retreat to my cozy den, meeting place for my kind, the silence-fearers, hole-fillers, reluctant roamers of the world’s weird wall (to borrow a phrase)—where do we get that from, I wonder? What silent trauma have our line experienced, what damage done in the depths of history to birth this species drifting along with the other, silence-embracing breeds of human? What happened to make me need company, down the steps into the well- but diffusely-lit room strung with beer signs and TVs in the corners of the ceiling, and another person, if only the barkeep, occupying airspace opposite me. Silence is banished beneath waves of sound, from conversation and jukebox tunes to the tiny thud of glasses being set on the bar. Reality snaps into place for a moment, being so occupied with itself, and I find I’m able to move through it instead of anxiously edging past it.

People seek out their dens in other places, I suppose. The library is a similar space, a sort of solitary togetherness where we trace the aisles, fingers on book spines. Or coffee shops, or the gym. For my grandmother, back in her day, socializing happened in the grocery store, chatting with neighboring housewives in the produce section. But I wonder if this drive for being among others is so driven by fear of solitude (my reason), or more for other, further nuanced reasons unique to the person? I might then be the only one of My Kind, in that sense, and only the symptoms of loneliness bring us together at our various watering holes, and not some categorizable mass neurosis. I imagine much could be inferred by the ways in which a person chooses to come into contact with another. Perhaps it is a sign of loneliness, true loneliness now, that I even consider that others who have my ways—you know, barflies—suffer them for my reasons. It makes me wonder, at the end, how lonely people are, and what loneliness even is.

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