Archive for the ‘Social Isolation’ Category
Have just finished *Going Solo,* the new book by NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg. This book is getting a lot of press in the US, and it’s easy to see why. Rates of living alone have skyrocketed since the 1970s, and this is the first book to assess the demographics and put people at ease about solo living.
There are a lot of good things about this book. It’s incredibly well-researched, and it does an admirable job of dismantling stigma. If you live alone and like it, and are tired of people asking if you’re “OK” on your own, then this is the book for you.
The only problem I had with this book was that people didn’t seem to have any problems. As a result, most of the text felt a bit bloodless to me. No one was lonely — or, if they were, loneliness was a fleeting, temporary problem. Most people had good jobs, nice apartments, lots of friends. Reading about them was a bit of a snooze.
I felt that the book finally came to life when Klinenberg got around to discussing people who were on the margins: namely, single men living in hostels, and the very elderly, facing old age alone. Klinenberg himself seems more interested in these people than he does in his happy singletons. (Klinenberg’s previous work was on the elderly dying alone in heat waves, and it’s easy to see where his sympathies really rest.)
So, verdict: a great book on stigma, and on the reasons why living alone is on the rise. This is also a *terrific* book on the subject of urban planning (since Klinenberg’s argument is that we need more high-density neighbourhoods where singletons can walk easily and meet others like themselves.) If you’re looking for a book about loneliness, look elsewhere. And if you’re seeking a book about solitude, my money is still on Anthony Storr’s *Solitude* — a beautiful piece of writing on the rewards of being alone.
So, LonelyTheBook readers, we’re heading into Christmas. I, for one, am slightly dreading the season. I remember last year in St. John’s–the tree, the cats playing with low-hanging ornaments, the stockings in the morning–and it all seems like a bit of a dream.
This year is going to be the Stripped Down version of Christmas. For reasons that aren’t 100% clear to me, I am avoiding all decorations. My apartment looks like it’s mid-June (minus the air conditioner). There are no traces of Christmas. None. No tree. No ornaments. No new toys for the cat. No gingerbread men or candy canes or anything like that.
I’m keeping things bare because I just don’t want to be reminded of past Christmases, when I’d follow Danielle into the woods for a tree, shop carefully, dine with her family, etc. Am doing quite a lot these days to avoid thinking of all of that. Have been spending a lot of time in libraries, working on Book the Second, and that helps, but the library staff need a holiday as well, and soon the Quiet Time will be upon us.
Fortunately, I won’t be alone. I’ll be spending Christmas Eve with my family, and Christmas Day with a dear friend. But I’m feeling fairly solitary heading into the holidays, and I feel guilty about this. I *know* that many people will really be alone–truly alone–on the 24th and 25th. So I should feel grateful, and in many respects I do, but it is still hard.
Is there any time of year that is worse for loneliness than Christmas? In the past, I’ve said that summer is worse (so many indications that you’re supposed to be out cavorting and enjoying the sunshine) but I might, today, retract that statement. There is so much pressure to be happily embedded, no? And if you lack an easy sense of embeddedness, it’s hard not to start to feel as though you’re in some ways flawed.
So warm wishes to everyone out there as Christmas approaches. I will try to post again before the holidays. And if you are alone, or think you might be alone over Christmas, my thoughts are with you.
Have been doing research for Book The Second, and came across an interesting finding I’d never seen before. It was a cite to a Japanese study, which found that 12% of women and 6% of men (all college students) reported having imaginary friends.
These numbers struck me as shockingly high. I haven’t yet read the original study, so I’m commenting on a summary, but I have to wonder how the survey question was worded. For example, if someone asked me, “Do you sometimes have involved conversations with people who are not physically present?” my answer would be yes. But I don’t think of myself as having imaginary friends, and the thought that other people do, or might, intrigues me.
I have vivid memories of having an imaginary friend in childhood. This was a boy, named Randy (Randy??), and I remember him as having red hair. But after I turned about ten or so, Randy simply vanished, and no other imaginary friends emerged to take his place.
I wonder now if my loneliness would have been more bearable if I had created imaginary friends as an adult. I remember taking real comfort from Randy when I was about eight: I have distinct memories of the “two of us” building a fort out of sofa cushions. Perhaps I could have summoned up a similarly comforting sense of companionship as a solitary adult, in my thirties. But I don’t do that now, even though I live alone, and I don’t seem to have any propensity to do it.
I’ll follow up if I can locate the original Japanese article. Whether I track it down or not, I find the notion of adults having imaginary friends incredibly rich and intriguing, and somehow reassuring.
Apologies to readers who are not in Canada, but it’s another long weekend here (officially, I think it’s called “Simcoe Day”). I woke up this morning and began to puzzle about why long weekends are so incredibly challenging for the lonely. I mean, I work at home, so having an extra day off shouldn’t make that much of a difference, but it does. I think of the days stretching out ahead of me–three full days until life gets back to normal–and the sense of isolation is almost overwhelming.
I think part of the problem is that there are norms attaching to long weekends. In Canada, a long weekend is supposed to translate into time at the cottage, sitting on the deck and drinking beer (or light cocktails) with your friends. If you’re on your own, the sense of having gotten things “wrong” can be very powerful.
It’s also the case, as I’ve seen more than one person mention, that summer itself can be loneliness-inducing. BBQs, patio dinners, camping trips–these are the things you’re “meant” to be doing. And if you’re not doing them–if you’re in fact in your apartment, trying to find something to read–you can start to feel badly out of step.
My plans for this August long weekend? I’m going to try to keep busy, and keep writing (more on this to follow), and generally keep myself distracted. But the loneliness is there, right at the core of the days. I’m trying to ignore the strong sense of “should” (I should be at a cottage, should be out with friends, should be mixing and socializing, etc.) but it’s tricky. Warm thoughts to all other Canucks who find themselves alone this weekend. We’re all, in a sense, in this together.
So, dear readers, it’s happened quickly. The decision to separate has been followed by a separation agreement (signed yesterday) and a plane ticket (I’m flying out tomorrow).
The separation agreement has led me to think of the phrase, “I’m separated.” How appropriate is that? I do feel as though the parts of me have been loosened and rearranged, as though nothing fits together as well as it did. Will this feeling go away, I wonder? How long does someone remain “separated”?
Was listening to my Ipod this week and John Prine’s “Unlonely” came on. I winced. If there’s one song I don’t want to hear right now, it’s that one — it’s so full of happiness at the end of loneliness, and that’s just not where I am right now. Worry greatly about loneliness coming back and taking root in my life. Will blog more about this as the move to Toronto takes shape.
So, I’m off. Next post will be from Toronto. Best to all for the weekend.
First, thanks to everyone who has written in to offer support about Le Divorce. The messages are really wonderful to receive, and they remind me that there is a future — more books, a new city, a new start. So thank you for the kind words.
Started packing today, and began with my office. Thought this would be easy — it’s mostly paperwork, after all — but I found it a bit overwhelming. My office was the home for “Lonely,” and I have stacks and stacks of paper flowing from it: letters from my editor, chapter drafts, copyedits. At a certain point this morning, I was surrounded by pages, and I thought: (a) Why did I start here?, and (b) This is for real. Really, really real.
I have to say how strange it is to pack a book called “Lonely” into a box while you’re dealing with a separation. Am I bringing the loneliness with me? Or can I create a life without it? That latter question is what I’ll be focusing on in my next book.
More updates to follow. Thanks for keeping me sane.
Those of you who have read Lonely know that it ends with me meeting my partner, Danielle, and moving to Newfoundland. I’ve been very happy here, but–after a span of years–Danielle has announced that it is time for her to move on, without me. I would go into more detail, but her story is not mine to tell. Suffice it to say that I’m getting boxes and packing tape ready, and will soon be back in my former hometown of Toronto.
As someone who has written a lot about loneliness, the situation concerns me. Sure, it makes me tremendously sad, and leaves me shaky and undone, but it also sends my brain into overdrive. Will I feel isolated again? Will loneliness find me again? Is it my fate to feel lonely?
I’m trying to remain optimistic, people. I think my next book will help with this (thank God for books). I’ll write more about the next book soon — I’ll be looking for readers to talk to — but right now I’m just trying to remain focused on the day-to-day stuff: eating, sleeping, exercising. Deciding what will happen with the cats. All that fun stuff.
More soon…it’s nice to know that I have this blog to turn to at times like this. It really does make me feel better.
So, the “new book” has been kicking around in proposal form for a little while now. I haven’t, until today, been able to really articulate the problem I’ve been having with it. I think I’ve known for a while now what I wanted to write about, but I’ve been struggling with stigma.
It’s because I would so much love to write about a subject that’s socially “easy” that I keep changing the pitch. I’m reading The Happiness Project now (it’s good, but a bit uninformed when it comes to the subject of sociability). And I think about writing a book about happiness. How flippin’ fantastic is that? You could go to a party, tell someone what you’re writing about, and a cheerful, easy conversation would ensue.
You have to understand what I went through with Lonely. I’d say that I was writing about chronic loneliness, and people would freeze. Or walk away. Or laugh in this nervous, high-pitched way. They would clearly not want to have a discussion about the subject. The topic made people uncomfortable, and I was often viewed with outright suspicion for being interested in something so taboo.
The thought of sticking with loneliness and putting myself through that once again is a bit exhausting. I’d love to write a book about something non-stigmatized, like kittens, or interior design, or cake recipes. But–as I think I just realized today, while I was sipping tea in my office–I also have to understand my own life, and the lives of people I hear from. And if loneliness and isolation characterize those lives, then that’s what I have to address, right?
Thanks to all of you for your support of my odd writing projects. Hearing from people helps me handle the stigma. I’ll post again soon, with more details about the next book, after I talk to my agent, which should be some time next week. Keep well!
One of the main comments I received after Lonely came out was, “Wow, you didn’t mention any musicians in there.” The truth is, I’m a bit tone-deaf. I don’t think in terms of music. The only song I included in the book was John Prine’s “Unlonely,” and I’d been introduced to that song years ago, by the musician I used to live with.
For the past year, whenever anyone has said that there wasn’t enough music in the book, I’ve secretly thought, “Well, what difference does it make?” I spent my years of loneliness listening to the radio, but that was almost entirely talk radio or big band shows–not the sort of thing you’d download on ITunes. And I didn’t think I was missing anything. It didn’t seem to me as though listening to music was going to affect my loneliness one way or the other.
But I recently had a birthday and was given the very surprise gift of an IPod Nano. At first, I didn’t know what to make of it. I couldn’t figure out how to plug it into my computer, or how to download songs (in addition to being a music nerd, I’m a bit of a tech nerd). The first song I downloaded was, yes, “Unlonely,” and then I started flipping around, listening to songs from Fred Eaglesmith and the Canadian folk singer Sarah Harmer.
And it was interesting. Maybe it was the quality of the sound (excellent) or the freedom of choice (apparently unlimited) but something sort of clicked for me in terms of music and loneliness. I got why people were asking me about songs. Because the music I was listening to was making me feel slightly less alone, more connected, more in touch with an emotional experience.
I don’t think that music cures loneliness, and I will never be a full-fledged music lover, in the way that I am a committed lover of books. But I see the point that music lovers have been trying to make, which is that music can be a source of comfort and connectedness, and that you can lose or buffet your emotions with a song in the same way that you can with a really good story.
So many thanks to the people who have sent me their favourite loneliness songs — they’re much appreciated. I’m very slowly stocking my IPod with songs, and listening to my favourite CBC radio show (music, not talk), and thinking a bit more carefully about what music, as opposed to silence, might be able to do.
A question I get a lot is whether I find life in a smaller centre less lonely than life in a big city. (A few years ago I moved from Toronto to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Toronto has a population of about 5 million, St. John’s has a population of about 100,000.)
I’ve thought about this question a lot in the past few years, and I’ve come to two conclusions.
1. The size of the city doesn’t matter as much as the quality of the connections you have there. You could be living in an absolutely massive place, but so long as you feel connected, you probably won’t feel lonely.
2. You need to love the place itself. You could be in the cutest, quaintest small town in the world, but if you don’t feel attached to that place, there’s a good chance you’ll feel isolated.
I think 1 & 2 actually go together: the more connections you have in a place, the happier you’ll be with the place itself. This means that it’s not city size that matters so much as the quality of your social ties. I think that a lot of lonely people daydream about a more connected life in a small town but, trust me, it’s not that straightforward. Connections will influence your experience of place, no matter where you are.