I spend a lot of time alone – most writers do. And yes, writers sometimes write in teams and I’ve done that. But that’s usually work “for hire” and not the work you do for yourself which seems to require solitude.
I also spend a lot of time doing other kinds of things alone. Gardening. Cooking. Swimming. Sailing. Sewing. Biking. Yoga. And yes, you can invite people along for some of these activities. My husband helps with the leaves and the watering and the garden clean up. We sometimes bike together. He often makes the salad while I grill the fish. And I’ve spent time in ashrams in group meditation and yoga. And sailed on larger boats where you need a crew. And there’s often someone else swimming, albeit in another lane or dawdling in the shallows at the beach.
But really there’s no escaping it — I’m a bit of a loner.
Which is why I love New York.
New York is one of the best places in the world to be alone. And that’s because you can be alone forever and a day and the minute you get sick of your own company, you can head out the door and be immersed in people.
And by “people” I don’t necessarily mean people you know. Although when you need friends, they’re a text away and you can always meet for dinner or drinks or a wander through a gallery.
But that’s not always what you need as a human. Sometimes you just need to be among your own kind. And that’s one of the lessons of COVID-19.
Here’s an excerpt from a post about this raw need for people from a playwright friend of mine, Romy Nordlinger:
“I want to dance in a darkened room full to bursting with people, sweat pouring, chests heaving, arms and legs wild, untamed, until we’re like one gigantic human wall…
I want to hustle through dark subway tunnels, totally unafraid, unafraid of the hundreds, the thousands of breaths mingling and bodies gyrating…
I want to fight to get a seat on the train in rush hour and pretend I don’t see anyone. Sink mercifully into a seat pressed up too tightly and curl up into them, into the tower of arms and legs and torsos. Hurtling. Flying. Dozing. Legs pressing, shoulders relaxing, torsos crumbling into one another. All the colors, ages, melding into one line of ugly beautiful humanity…”
We have a raw need to be with each other that goes beyond missing family and friends and colleagues. It’s primal.
Because of course we’re primal. We’re animals, which is something we often forget, our minds conveniently lifting us out of our bodies and convincing us that we’re somehow immune to all the things that mere animals suffer such as instincts, mutation, extinction.
And yet, like animals, we long for one another. Especially now when this long drawn out technological experiment of the last hundred or so years of telegraph and telephones and cinema and television and computers and internet has slowly but surely made gathering together unnecessary.
Who needs theaters and opera houses and auditoriums when you’ve got movies and television and concerts piped into the phone in your pocket? Who needs to travel thousands of miles for a conference when you’ve got zoom? Who needs to “go” to school when school can come to you?
We want to gather in stadiums and auditoriums and theaters and experience the same thing at the same time, leaping to our feet as one, our arms in the air, our throats hoarse as our teams scores and our stars bow. Turning to one another in the aisles – wasn’t that great! Sharing the experience. We love you! Thank you! As one.
We want to gather in churches and synagogues and mosques and ashrams and raise our voices and bow our heads and feel the spirit moving through us all like a wind through a field of wheat, bending and lifting us as one.
We want to file into classrooms and lecture halls and labs and focus intently on someone who knows so much more than we do and who promises to bring us along with her to an understanding and an inspiration and a purpose.
And in any of these crowded venues, if we don’t lift off, if it doesn’t make sense, if we absolutely hated it, we want to turn to the person next to us or behind us and say do you get it? Can you explain it? Can you help me? And get an answer or maybe even a new friend.
Which is not to say that phones and screens and recordings don’t allow us a lot of choice and accessibility and freedom. They do. And they have certainly helped make work and communication possible during this pandemic. But I think what we’re discovering is their limitations. They are not a replacement for human contact.
We need one another.
And not just as an extension of our brains. Even though the hive mind is more powerful than any single mind out there. And Wikipedia is one of the glorious experiments of this last century. And think tanks and focus groups and brain trusts achieve great things.
But one of the many humiliations of the last six months is the sheer limitation of the human brain when faced with a voracious virus. We don’t understand it — and we may never understand it. We may never have a vaccine or a treatment or a cure.
We haven’t even been able to persuade one another of what little we do understand. And even if we do discover a cure or a vaccine or even a vulnerability in the virus that leads to protocols or treatments, we may never be able to break through to people convinced of their own point of view.
So the mind, however glorious, is limited.
And the body, however glorious, is vulnerable.
And separating is the only thing that seems to help.
And it hurts.
And like my friend Romy, I long for people. Like Romy, I remember the comfort of sinking into a seat on a packed train and feeling the solidity of the shoulder of the woman next to me, the warmth of the shoulder of the man on the other side. Perhaps a glance or a nod but no words, all of us immersed in our books or our thoughts or our phones, resting there, pressed together like one body, gently jostling along with the rhythm of the train, going somewhere anywhere together.
I miss us.
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)