Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

On Being Alone

By now it's a trope that writers tend to be solitary types. But what about readers? I ponder this question--not for the first time--on the morning following my office's holiday party.

It was exhausting.

We have an in-house event planner who loves her work. She's the type who rearranges all the furnishings in little perfect groupings and makes certain the Christmas decorations (no nods to the many Jews in the office--more on this later) are all just so. I was her assistant this year, meaning I spent yesterday putting up Christmas lights, helping move said furniture, setting up the kiddie party, and winding holiday greenery up the railing leading from the first to second floor. (This was a two-story shindig.)

The event planner was astonished that I had never before strung Christmas lights. Jews don't string lights, I kept saying.

But don't you DECORATE?

Uh, no. I mean, now I'm married to Hockeyman, who is Catholic in name only. We get a Christmas tree. We decorate that, then set my Grandma's Menorah beside it and admire the effect. That's it.

Interestingly, she did not understand that the decorations she saw as "holiday"--red and green glass balls, silver garlands, dolls dressed in santa gear, the students who volunteered to act as elf and Santa--are not holiday. They're as Christmas as the Poinsettas spread all over the office.

I kept my mouth shut, but wondered what the many Jewish students and faculty thought. Maybe they're used to it? Maybe they were too drunk to care?

Whatever. By five o'clock, when the party began, I was dead tired. Naturally, the first real storm of the year arrived, raining and blowing. I longed to be at home, in bed with a book and a glass of scotch.

But the weather was no deterrent. In no time the building was swarming with students, faculty, postdocs, important administrators, and lots of small children. People were having a ball.

Except me. I wasn't having a terrible time--the catering was good, I had a glass of wine--but all I wanted was for it to end, so I could go home and be alone.

At nine o'clock, I got my wish. I groped my way home through a blinding storm, crawled into bed, awoke at one, and unable to sleep, ate some of the beef stew I'd made for H-Man and read until three. Went back to sleep a few hours. Awoke. Remain dead tired.


As a four-year-old preschooler, I often sought solitude just outside the classroom door, in the cool corner created by the milk machine and brick wall. The milk machine was deep blue and seemed enormous; with my forehead against it I could shut out the mayhem generated by my classmates.

Of course I thought myself undetected, but the teacher had telephoned my mother. Both agreed my behavior was nothing serious, as I was already able to read and socialized well enough when I was in the mood. Today I'd probably be sporting some acronymed diagnosis and a prescription. Back then, they let me be.

As I grew older, I remained a loner. I always had a couple friends; once I had a best friend, an intense relationship that lasted three years before combusting. Now I have a few people I could socialize with more, were I so inclined. The thing is, I'm not.

It isn't the people--all are what anybody would want in friends: kind, funny, generous, bright. It's me. I prefer being alone. That is, I have to be alone. Too much time with other people--working late Thursday, when I had to run a meeting, followed by the party less than 24 hours later--and I fall apart. I feel raw, disjointed, stressed. Today will be all but lost to recovering, to sleeping, to regaining my equilibrium before Monday comes again and I am forced back into my public self.

I think my love of books is deeply related to being a loner. I am somehow able to "be" with people (and yes, I know how crazy that sounds) in literature in a way I rarely can with actual humans. Sad? I suppose so, but awareness of my isolationist tendencies is half the battle. I understand I cannot hide beside the milk machine forever, as much as I might like to.

But in all honesty, many are the moments I close a favorite book and wish to be THERE, rather than here. These moments are most intense during the holiday season, with all its frantic socializing. As I decline invitations to numerous functions, I can't help but wonder if I am the only person who ever wished to be at the holiday party that opens Simone de Beauvior's The Mandarins instead of last night's blitz. Or eating a ham sandwhich in bed on Christmas Day, as Elizabeth David longed to. And what of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmases, lovingly recounted? Where the gifts were simple, handmade things--mittens, an apron, a rag doll so famous she is now in a museum? Where people were thankful for the roasted hare and a tiny bit of butter was such a wondrous treat the writer recalled it sixty years later?

Of course, it's easy to idealize books. The Mandarins, after all, is far from joyous, Elizabeth David had her heartbreaks, and the Ingalls family suffered greatly for those mittens. And even the most appealing characters are static, frozen in their stories. Our relationships with them are unto those who follow celebrities: strictly one-way.

(God, imagine how many lit-crit-theorists I just pissed off. )

And there are inherent contradictions in preferring books to people: after all, people write books, and populate them with more (albeit invented) people. Meaning the characters I am so fond of are created by the very masses I shy away from.

Atop all this is my new life as a blogger. Suddenly I am gabbing away with people I would never otherwise meet. But I am hidden. Anonymous. And as we all know, a computer can be shut off.

I will be always be the four-year-old listening to the milk machine's hum. As I age, and my tendency to isolate likely increases, I know I will have to be careful or risk getting strange. Hence the volunteer work in a community kitchen, the party assistance, the occasional visit from the fellow hockey fan.

And then the reward, the respite of solitude and a good book.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boy, this really resonated with me. It's sort of comforting to know that I'm not the only one like that.

You might like this passage from Jenny Diski (from "On Trying to Keep Still")

"Being really alone means being free from anticipation. Even to know that something is going to happen, that I am required to do something is an intrusion on the emptiness I am after. What I love to see is an empty diary, pages and pages of nothing planned. A date, an arrangement, is a point in the future when something is required of me. I begin to worry about it days, sometimes weeks ahead. Just a haircut, a hospital visit, a dinner party. Going out. The weight of the thing-that-is-going-to-happen sits on my heart and crushes the present into non-existence. My ability to live in the here and now depends on not having any plans, on there being no expected interruption. I have no other way to do it. How can you be alone, properly alone, if you know someone is going to knock at the door in five hours, or tomorrow morning, or you have to get ready and go out in three days' time? I can't abide the fracturing of the present by the intrusion of a planned future."

December 12, 2006 12:59 PM  
Blogger Barking Kitten said...

Amen...I couldn't agree more....and since that post, I've turned down a lunch, a party--no two parties--and a brunch.

December 13, 2006 6:55 PM  

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