Danse Russe

“I am lonely, lonely. haring4

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”…

 

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

 

William Carlos Williams,

“Danse Russe”

Lately, the philosophical question plaguing me is whether solitude is the natural state of humans… which says something about the state I’m lately in.

It’s July and, as a teacher, I don’t report to work. However, my wife still leaves each morning, my son lives elsewhere, and this summer my daughter has a job in the wilderness of Wisconsin. Between seven am and seven pm, email, Facebook, and the internet generally keep me company. With my sabbatical ahead, I forecast a long stretch of similarly uninterrupted solitude for the next 14 months.

Scientists believe they’ve answered my philosophical question definitively: humans are not solitary, never have been, and, in fact, experience changes in genetic expression in response to social situations. Where scientists once believed you were stuck with the genes you possessed at birth, they now recognize the environment, including the social environment, can turn on certain genes and change traits thought immutable. Research indicates people who live alone develop suppressed immune systems and manifest marked changes in genes linked to depression. Abused children with access to support outside the home, for instance, show–genetically—less sensitivity to stress and trauma. Closeted gay men fall much more rapidly to AIDS than more connected victims. Solitude, science says, is bad for you.

I’m not naturally social. In that great divide between those energized by company and those taxed by it, I’m squarely in the second group. A day of teaching runs upstream against my disposition, and, by the end of the workday, I have no talk left. As most people do, my wife looks forward to parties, guests, and visits. I try to. I remind myself how much fun I’ll have, how good it will be to reconnect with friends, how exciting meeting new people can be. Nonetheless, my apprehension grows. Almost involuntarily, I experience a kind of dread.

I’m no recluse. I love most humans and seem to function well in public. Some people, I’m always surprised to hear, say I’m interesting, even charming. Still, solitude is easier.

There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is a choice. Loneliness implies unfulfilled desire. A solitary person likes quiet, enjoys controlling his or her time, and finds productive and satisfying ways to spend what may appear to others empty hours. In contrast, a lonely person feels lost in a desert of time and wonders where the oasis is, where life-sustaining company might be, right then. Solitude evokes strength, self-sufficiency, autonomy, confidence, and completion. Loneliness stings. It never feels right and elicits resentment, bitterness at the thought of being dismissed or neglected.

I aim for solitude, but its border with loneliness wavers. I consider calling people so we can get together, then I give the idea up as weakness—they have their own lives and could certainly call me if they wished. I shouldn’t impose. I remind myself of my good fortune, the time to read, and study, and think, and write. Then, when I’m not looking, the switch flips. I feel excruciatingly bored and forgotten. The day begins with journal writing, a to-do list, an hour or so of studying a psychology text, and work on my latest creative projects. It ends with Netflix, iPad games, and anything to pass time before my wife (finally) walks in.

If I complain, she says, rightly, “Do something about it.” And I say, “I should.” Yet, the next day, I return to the same strategy of making the most of being alone. Sometime soon, I may scream. In the meantime, I structure my new solitary life like a dike to keep loneliness out. I mean to keep loneliness out.

A researcher named Steve Cole has devoted his career to studying the physical effect of social isolation and has discovered that, even more than stress, “Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”

Scientists may have answered the question of whether humans are solitary, but my own experiment continues. My days negotiate self-reliance and desire, fellowship and autonomy, productivity and yearning to hear another voice. Nothing seems so immediate and real as this battle between being myself and being part of something. Even this post is a skirmish, a surrogate for conversation, piled earthwork, more effort to occupy time.

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7 Comments

Filed under Ambition, Depression, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Facebook, Friendship, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Sabbaticals, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Time, Voice, Work, Worry

7 responses to “Danse Russe

  1. Margaret Shearin

    You pose an a debatable question; whatever these scientists may say I don’t think living in solitude is bad for a person, if it suits them. It seems to suit me, or perhaps I’m just used to it, but I do enjoy a sense of self-reliance my married friends no longer know.

    • dmarshall58

      Scientists only answer the questions they ask, and therein lies the problem. To arrive at any sensible result, they can only focus on one variable at a time, and, for a time, that variable seems critical… until they think of another variable to examine.

      The question of solitude is, of course, more complicated than science makes it appear. I imagine it’s a matter of how you look at being alone, how you feel. Right now, I’m not feeling so good. My expectations need adjusting, and that’s always the hardest negotiation. Maybe I require less human contact than most, but I’m not an island, that’s clear.

      We should talk about how you look at solitude. I’d like to learn. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. –D

  2. Peter Newton

    Enjoyed your ruminations on solitude and loneliness. Here’s a small selection of my poems from a book called Lonely Together that I wrote with four other poets. A fun letterpress project. Loneliness, I’d say, is a condition we’re all born with. Some are more symptomatic than others. Poets and matinee goers may be more prone.

    * * *

    matinee goers each of us slow to leave

    * * *

    a little less
    lonely together
    internet cafe

    * * *

    commuting . . .
    our loneliness
    almost touching

    * * *

    a crow on top of the pine
    to be the first
    to feel the snow

    • dmarshall58

      I love these!… especially as I encountered them after I returned from a Wednesday matinee.

      The letterpress project sounds wonderful. I participated in a book arts workshop in June and hope to turn some of the haibun I’ve been writing lately into a book. Did you do the work yourself or did you farm it out? While I’d like to do the typesetting myself, it seems so daunting.

      I’d love to hear about your project. Thanks for visiting! –D

  3. Peter Newton

    David,

    As for my letterpress book– Lonely Together, (an anthology with Stanford Forrester, vincent tripi, Joyce Clement and Fran Witham–we each have about 10 poems each in it) Stanford Forrester edited, hand set (each letter of every poem!) and printed the book on special paper (nut wagon press, 2013) Stan did 400 copies of each page but he probably did closer to 500 (trial and error) A ton of work. vince tripi then hand punched all the holes with an awl and sewed each copy using a technique called Japanese stab binding. I actually sewed some copies as well because I wanted to learn how. Very cool. Made me want to try something simpler like a broadside–no sewing. Letterpress is time-consuming to say the least. Text that is truly the opposite of texting. Fewer and fewer people appreciate the work involved.

    Your own handmade book might be a cool project for you to do during your sabbatical. 14 months indeed. That’s a lot of time. A lot of matinees.

    E-mail me your physical address (again) and I’ll pop a copy of this little 4″ x 4″ Lonely Together book your way. You deserve free books for the hundreds of posts I’ve read here.

    Greetings from Bread Loaf, a place you kinda of know. It hasn’t changed.
    –Peter

    • dmarshall58

      I made a stab bound book for my final project in my workshop and have made a couple of books since then experimenting with other types of binding (stiff leaf, pamplet, concertina). So far, I’ve spent much more time making homemade books than working on my sabbatical project!

      No letterpress, though. It’s beautiful and, for me, the best element of a handmade book, but I don’t have the equipment and am quite intimidated by the process.

      My hopes are to make 10 copies of a long haibun (with letterpress pages opposite my art), but I thought I might look for someone else to set the type. In the meantime, I’m going to keep making smaller books, just to practice the techniques I learned… and try some new ones.

      I’d love a book and will send you my address (along with some pictures of my books), but you ought to let me pay for your work. It’s worth it to me.

      –D

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