what counts as being alone

I was talking to a friend awhile back about the concept of being alone. I’ve lived with two different boyfriends over the past ten years, and I never felt like I could be alone if one of them was in the house with me.

“Wait, even if you’re not in the same room as them?” my friend said.

“Nope,” I said. “Not even then. I can be alone if they’re asleep in another room, but then when they wake up I’m not alone again.”

I like to be alone. In fact, I need to spend a decent amount of time alone in order to function. I’ve never really looked into why this is, and it doesn’t much matter, because I’ve always been this way.

I have fond memories of the weeks-long Christmas breaks we had in high school. With no place to be every morning, I’d start staying up later and waking up later, and eventually I’d be up until 4 or 5 in the morning. My parents and sister would go to bed between 10 and midnight, and after they were asleep the house was mine for the night. I loved it. I never did anything I’d get in trouble for like leave the house or take the car somewhere without asking. Mostly I stayed in my room listening to music and reading. It was the knowing that everyone else was asleep that was important.

But why would anyone want to be alone? Try it for a moment. Lock yourself in another room, one entirely without the presence of other people, other voices. Disconnect your internet, turn off your phone. Allow yourself, for just a few minutes, to let the poses fall away. The angles. Let your public persona, so exhausting to maintain, disappear.

Breathe. There is your throat. There is the fly, buzzing in the ceiling corner. There is, also, something else: the silence. A silent room has its own timbre, its own weight. Breathe again; keep breathing. Allow life, with its heaviness, its dust, to slip away, unimpeded.

I’ve had this discussion with a lot of my couple friends. “Can you be alone if your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband/partner is at home?” I ask them. They always say yes. Sometimes I think I’ll eventually meet the person I can be with and be alone at the same time, but other times I assume it’s impossible.

A few weeks ago I was at the MoMA in New York with two friends, and each of us were kind of going through the rooms at our own pace. My friends stopped to watch a video, and since I’d already seen it, I continued on into the next room. I sat down on a bench in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and realized that I felt like I was alone. I pulled out my notebook and wrote this:

what counts as being alone what counts as being alone

These are the alone rules, and they match up with this part of the quote above: “Let your public persona, so exhausting to maintain, disappear.”

When I first got Maude, I was living alone in Houston. During our first few days together, I felt like I couldn’t be alone with her there. A dog can’t go out for coffee so you can have some alone time, so I was afraid that owning a dog meant that I’d never be by myself again. But that feeling went away very quickly and was replaced with the feeling that I didn’t know what I’d done without Maude for so long.

This is my hope for my eventual future relationship with a male human.

But is my “public persona,” as the quote says, really that much of a front? I wouldn’t have thought so, since who I am in front of people feels the same to me as who I am when I’m alone. But it’s sort of how the rules stack up, isn’t it? That I find it exhausting to be the me that other people see? Which of the mes is real? If it’s the alone me, does that mean I’ve never been real with anyone, ever?

I work from home now, so outside of seeing friends or family, my human interactions are limited to my time at the aerial studio and my time on the internet. Generally this is enough for me, but lately I’ve felt desperate for someone to talk to. In the evenings I find myself visiting Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, etc. ad nauseam. Has someone replied to my tweet? Sent me an email? Liked one of my photos?

This doesn’t bode well for my sanity, but it’s what is happening now. Sometimes people do reply to my tweets or like my photos or send me emails, and it helps, but it isn’t really enough. I want someone to talk to me.

I have a text file saved on my desktop with ideas for blog posts. It’s a fairly long file, filled with thoughts I might get to sometime, or thoughts I never will. The line of text at the very top of the file, the oldest line, says this:

a word that means lonely for talking about important things

Underneath that is some slapdash research I did for the post, mostly in the form of links to articles about untranslatable words from other cultures that I dug up in the hope that I could find my sentiment in a foreign language. The nonexistent word I feel like I’d use the most is just that: a word that means lonely for talking about important things.

I don’t know any other way to describe it, nor could I define “important things” without making an epic list that could be taken the wrong way. And I don’t mean “important things” like talking about them would have to be serious all the time. I guess I just mean that the way I get close to people, friends or family or otherwise, is in having open, honest conversation about the way we really feel about things. Without that, I get lonely.

The two states that make me feel the most fulfilled are being alone and talking about important things.

I haven’t worked out a way to balance both, especially in the context of a relationship. During the San Francisco part of my road trip, I was feeling super lonely, and I told a friend that while I enjoyed spending as much time alone as I was, I wanted there to be someone I could call. If I hiked up to the top of a hill by myself, and stood there looking at the view, I’d want to be able to pull out my phone, call that person and say, “I’m on top of a hill and you won’t believe how beautiful it is here.”

“You can call me,” he said. And I did, but it turned into a dumb mess and now I haven’t talked to that guy in years.

Because who is that person you can call? It’s a fairly romantic call to make, which implies some sort of relationship, and people in a relationship don’t normally quit their jobs and spend two months driving around the country by themselves. I can have someone to call, or I can have looking at the beautiful view by myself, but having both is a long shot.

For this reason I am worried about the initial months of my move to St. Louis. With no local friends to talk to, without a Person To Call, what will I do?

What would compel a person to do this, to run into the desert and wander, unabashed, until either her soul was scrubbed clean or she died? To love, sometimes, is to peel back the skin, and watch the bone bleach white beneath the sun.

(I don’t often want advice on the things I write about here, and I don’t want you to tell me you think I should join clubs in St. Louis or whatever, because I plan to. But I would like to hear about your experiences balancing relationships with loner-dom if you feel like you might have some insight. Thanks.)


1540438_10151980970316512_7186835111739154299_oMaude is dead. I’m 36 today.

I’m 36 today, my best friend is dead, I am underemployed, broke, living paycheck to paycheck, borrowing money from family to make ends meet.

Sunday at a wedding I was sitting with two other friends of mine. One friend was describing her recent good fortune. “Good things seem to keep happening to me. I just wonder when it’s all going to stop.”

The other friend said, “Oh, come on. You’re a good person, and you deserve to be happy! You’ve got good karma. Good for you.”

I sat in silence, thinking, so I’m a bad person who doesn’t deserve to be happy? That’s why bad things keep happening to me?

Most of my friends are doing pretty well financially. They own houses and cars and have children and go on vacations both here and abroad. They buy things. I’m happy for them; they are, to borrow a phrase, good people who deserve to be happy. But sometimes I feel like if I hear another one of them say that something “only” costs $500, “only” costs $100, “only” costs $20, I will scream and throw something.

They do things together that cost too much money for me to be able to do. I am torn: do I want them to invite me so I can feel included and have the opportunity to say no? Or do I want them to not mention it at all so I don’t feel bad? Sometimes I still hear about it later.

I have my own jewelry business, but until I can make ends meet I can’t afford to market it properly, so there it sits, semi-dormant for now. I am mostly okay with this. I have other things to worry about, like paying as much of the electricity bill as it takes to keep the lights on.

I apply for jobs. I hear from interviewers, I dress in my job interview pants and blouse and go get interviewed. I send my usual “thank you for the interview” email, to which I never get a response.

To apply for jobs is to live a thousand different lives in one’s head. I interview for a job at a financial company in Northwest Austin, and I picture myself driving there, parking, working at one of the desks in their cubicle farm. I interview for a job downtown and imagine myself taking the bus so I don’t have to park. I interview for a job at the University of Texas, and picture myself working in one of the red-roofed stucco buildings near the tower. But those lives never happen.

I am broke; I have no savings or assets or prospects, but I am not poor. Poverty is not what this is. Poverty means not having family support. It means not having a college education or marketable job skills. It means not having friends who would intervene if I were unable to get food, or if I were to become homeless. It means not being able to apply for jobs or dress in job interview pants or go to interviews or send thank-you emails. It means having my depression go untreated, which luckily it doesn’t. And I know I am lucky to have the skills and support and tools I need to get by, however marginal my “getting by” is.

But if this isn’t poverty, what is it? I think I’m a victim of the eroding middle class, of income inequality, of job scarcity, of the trimming away of workers’ rights, of living in a growing tech city with low unemployment, high competition for jobs, and skyrocketing costs. I could move, but that would be much more complicated than it sounds.

So I am your anecdote. When you are with your friends or family and the economy comes up, you can say, “I have a friend who can’t find a job…” You can explain my situation and make your point that the economy still has a long way to go. You can make your point that sometimes even a college education and 15 years of work experience isn’t enough. Or you can joke about how an English degree isn’t good for anything. It’s up to you.

Maude died on April 15, nearly ten years to the day since I brought her home for the first time. It was recent enough that when it’s time to give Moki a treat, I still grab two treats from the canister without thinking. I can still remember what the fur felt like under Maude’s chin. I can still feel her wiggle her little head back and forth as she buried her face in my hair to sleep at night. I can still hear the little barks she made in her sleep sometimes. I can still picture the way she bounced around the room whenever I came home, so happy to see me.

I wrote those last four sentences in the present tense, and I had to go back and correct them.

So I’m 36 today, but you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I don’t feel like celebrating.


(Maude update: She’s doing a little better these days, actually. She’s less lethargic, more playful and active. Not puppy playful and active, mind you, but an improvement over the last few weeks. I definitely don’t think it’s time yet. Here’s a video of her playing with Moki awhile back. You can see she’s not super active, but she still gets involved! Looks like Brendan was watching Portlandia.)

So, I don’t have a smartphone. I know, I know, I’m the last person on earth without one. Even my sister, who lags behind on most new technology, has a smartphone. Brendan has a smartphone, his parents have smartphones, everyone I know has a smartphone. Except me!

(Well, and my parents. I mentioned once that maybe just one of them should have a smartphone in case they get lost on one of their road trips, but my mom said, “We have a GPS!” and I let it go. I don’t feel bad about not having a smartphone, but if my parents get one before me, I might.)

Well, I do have Brendan’s old iPhone, but it’s not set up as a phone. It’s just an internet device I can use whenever there’s wi-fi. My friend Suneet calls it my iPhone Touch, which amuses me. My actual phone is a Nokia candy bar. I bought it a few years ago when my third flip phone crapped out on me. I walked into T-Mobile, handed them the broken phone, and said, “I want the dumbest non-flip phone you have. If it has texting, talking, and an alarm clock, that’s what I want.” And that’s what they gave me. It’s worked perfectly for at least three or four years now. *knocks on wood*

Why don’t I activate my iPhone Touch already? There are a couple of reasons. One, it’s an AT&T phone and I have T-Mobile. Do I want to switch carriers? Get the phone unlocked and keep my current carrier? I can’t decide, and it bores me to think about. My current phone bill is impossibly low, which is also a factor. I have unlimited texting and 200 monthly minutes, and that’s all I really need. Adding data to that would raise my bill, and I’m not made of money right now.

The main reason, though, is that if I got a smartphone, I’m afraid it would change the way I wait for things. These days when I’m in the auto shop waiting room having my oil changed, I read a book. If I don’t have a book, I check out some of the old crappy magazines. If there aren’t magazines, I surreptitiously look around at the other people, or watch the mechanics at work. When I’m not the driver on car trips, I look out the window. When I take the dogs outside to pee, I watch them sniff the grass and amble around, or I watch the people at the nearby bus stop.

I think that if I got a smartphone, I would stop doing all those things. I’d stop being in the moment and use my phone instead. I hate that phrase, “be in the moment,” but I think it applies here. It’s during those little moments of down time that I get my best thinking done. When would I get my best thinking done if I had a smartphone to pull out instead?

I was going to write a paragraph here about how I think it’s so rude when people are on their phones all the time! Do you actually want to be out at dinner with your friends, or should you just have stayed home and played Candy Crush Saga or whatever the fuck you’re doing while waiting for the appetizers to arrive? But you’ve heard it all before, right? I know you have. I’ve written it before, too.

You’re going to tell me, why don’t you just get a smartphone and then not pull it out while you’re waiting for things? That’s a good point, but I don’t think I could help it. I’ve never been much for self-control. My staring-into-space time is precious to me, and I don’t want to jeopardize it even a little.

I’ve had this post in the back of my mind for awhile, but it came up to the front of my mind when I went tubing over the weekend, and one of the girls in our group was using her phone! In her tube! On the river! She had a beer in one hand and her iPhone in the other. Holy shit, was that ever ridiculous.