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serendip

Standing in line at the French bistro, I glance nonchalantly over the employees ringing up the register, warming up croissants, making lattes. Among them, a new face – an Asian man walks to the foreground from within the kitchen, pulls at a hot tray of freshly baked breads, winces and drops it back. Clearly he is not familiar with the minutae of the work, but he acts as if he belongs there. He is probably the owner.  Nothing is predictable anymore.

I make my way towards a corner table with my chocolate croissant, pull out Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and the latest letter from grandma Larisa, and prepare to disappear into my private literary world. A man plops at a nearby table, his back to me, setting out on the table “Moscow! All You Wanted to Know” and Gramophone, the world’s authority on classical music. Devouring my croissant and gulping down the tea, I contemplate the self-sentencing isolation in which most of us live. It is time to put an end to it, I say (to myself, in my head), stop it today. So I take a last swig of Earl Grey, stand up and come towards the man with Moscow.

“Hi. I couldn’t help notice your Moscow tour book. I’m actually from Russia – are you planning to visit soon?” The man responds politely, and a pleasant, genuine conversation begins. We talk for a while, about St.Petersburg and Russian politics, about music and the love thereof, about literature, even, at which point I mention that I should probably return to my reading. As I stand up, he’s beaming and I say, “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. I’ve actually made it a point to meet interesting-looking strangers, and you’ve been the first today. I’m so glad I came up to you…” Actually, I didn’t. But wouldn’t it have been neat if I did?

Instead, I am still sitting, finishing up my tea, when the Asian man from behind the counter walks up to Moscow man, sits down facing him, and places between them a topless container with a yellowish hazy liquid.

“Do you see them? The little guys in the corner,” Asian man points, “See all the way at the bottom? They’re not so bad now, but they grow up to be pretty ugly creatures…” Moscow man responds with statistics on their growth from the internet, Asian man mentions that you can never trust those forums anyway – people’ll say anything. They start discussing water quality, stagnant vs. flowing , necessary aeration, plants inside to provide enough CO2. “…but in any case, they’re supposed to live up to 8-10 years.” Asian man concludes.

Curiosity overcoming self-consiousness, I walk up to their table and, smiling awkwardly, say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, I just couldn’t help but overhear you talking about something alive in that container, and I’ve been trying to guess what it is….” I trail off. They look at me. I look at them. It’s a freeze-frame. I back away and decide not to try that. Instead, I bury my eyes in grandma’s letter and attempt not to miss a single word.

She writes about living alone. Flowing organically from one sentence into the next, her prose talks of walking: “…which I prefer to do usually at about 1pm, after I have had my breakfast, cleaned up and gotten ready to pick up some things for dinner.  Usually when I come out, at about the same hour every day, most of the people out around me are also retirees. We stroll leisurely down the wide boulevards, understanding that at this time, the streets are ours. But several days ago I woke up late, my entire schedule had shifted and so it was past 3pm when I went outside. Everything was different. I noticed people around that are never there at 1 – young people, business people – rushing places, determined, focused. It wasn’t our place, cozy and familiar. I finished my shopping quickly and returned home. Since then, I’ve made it a point not to go out later than usual…”

Distracted by my merciless curiosity and jarred to action by an idea, I bolt out of my chair, pick up empty plate and cup, and head towards the counter as if to drop them off. On the way back, I peer with all of the laser vision I have in me to see what is in that container!! But I see nothing, and return to the letter.

The men are talking about Confucianism now: the importance of respecting your elders, the wisdom of doing all that you can while you still can. And in marriage, you cannot always hope for that perfect match, you have to find someone who is good enough, and value that. The other man replies, “I think, if you really love someone, you have to let them live to the fullest. You have to have the strength to give them the space they need. But we have that bond in common, and that part is ours, and we share it fully, together.”

Grandma continues, “I do often wonder, waking up alone, eating along, walking alone, every day alone, whether I’ve made the right decision. It is difficult, being on your own all the time…”

Moscow man picks up, “I want to overwhelm them with my generosity…”

At this point Borges chimes in, “In my view, that notion is not particularly exciting. I cannot say the same for another idea, however: the idea that the Almightly is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a yet superior (or perhaps simply necessary, albeit equal) Someone, and so on, to the End – or better yet, the Endlessness – of Time. Or perhaps cyclically.” He, of course, is talking about the imaginary writer Mir Bahadur’ Ali’s imaginary novel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.

I am distracted again by the mystery creatures in the container. These people will up and leave, and I will never know who was in there. A young employee comes up to the Asian man and reminds him about her paycheck. That proves my conjecture about him. Moscow man gets up, wishes his friend luck with them, and heads out. Asian man picks up the container and empty coffee cup and returns behind the counter.

Borges puts his finishing touch: “I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nimes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.”

I pick up the book, letters and pens, and exit stage left.

Photograph by Liza Ezhevskaya of Juniper Spring Photography

Someone wise once told me that you have to live alone for a while before getting married: not with roommates, not in the garage of your parents’ house, but alone, independent. Pretty common-sense stuff and great advice that I still managed not to take. In college I lived at home with my parents and the rest of the fam, after college I lived with my husband and two children. The only time I lived mostly alone was the year studying abroad in Paris. And even there, the time that I was really, truly alone and independent amounted to no more than a couple of months. Perhaps the happiest in my life.

The turns in my life which led to this situation start looking ridiculous if you think about how much I relish solitude.

Indeed I enjoy to be alone, all the more so, perhaps, because I get to be alone so rarely.

There’s a great definition of what it means to be an introvert and an extrovert: an extrovert gets energized by communicating and interacting with others, whereas an introvert gets drained, deriving his or her energy from time spent alone. For me, it is both exciting and draining to share myself with others, and both fascinating and draining to “feel” others as they share themselves with me. (Seeing as the common denominator is “draining”, I would safely categorize myself as introvert.)

My job as an interpreter calls for a heightened level of “atune-ness” on a continuous basis, thinking and feeling my way into someone else’s mind and heart in order to understand what it is they’re saying, to feel what they want to say, what they mean to say. As I work, my mind becomes a sieve through which their thoughts percolate to come, as formed sentences in a foreign language, out of my mouth.

My role as spouse and parents is no less demanding. Imagine, if you will, emotion-sensing tentacles coming out of you towards each person you are interacting with, either directly or indirectly. Plus you also have sensors that perceive the interactions between the other people in the space you occupy. (This is a complex metaphor of how I feel at home.) So you have me, all nice and coiled up onto myself, and then a child comes home, you start interacting with them, then another, then the husband, then they start interacting with each other, and suddenly you have six sensors blasting information at you (three times two times one) and overloading you, and you can’t just run away but have to interact with everyone and somehow simulate a peaceful, comfortable living environment.

With my children, the emotion sensor tentacles are out even if the kids are in a different room, playing by themselves, or even not interacting with each other but watching a movie, or even when they’re asleep. In fact, as I sit here at work (gasp!) part of my mind is occupied with them. I think this is permanent: the umbilical that binds child to mother at birth is never cut, only replaced by an unseen chord which remains for the rest of one’s life*.

Bottom line: this is exhausting.

When I am alone, I feel as if all of these emotional tentacles (or probes – maybe tentacles isn’t the ideal comparison for the visually minded) are drawn in. I feel more complete and grounded.

But I find this at work as well: there is an immense strength in making yourself vulnerable. My strength arises out of my willingness to share my weakness. I wonder then, how to be open oneself and available to receive others, while not losing your grounding in your own emotional identity.

*I think this is the reason why some mothers may have such a hard time when their children move out: they’ve been attached for so long, anticipating their child’s wants, fears and needs, pouring themselves into the child and having the child pour into them, that when they leave, it really does feel like a part of the mother’s being leaves with them.

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