In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – a compendium of newly and creatively nominated, but ubiquitously felt sorrows – John Koenig writes of ‘ioche,’ the anxiety of being an individual:
You never really get used to the feeling of being an individual. How strange it is that you’re born alone and die alone. That you alone must carry your own body, and your own name. Nobody else can feel the pain you feel, or hear the ringing in your ears, or will ever be able to share an unforgettable dream. You alone manage this particular storehouse of memories, being the only one to remember certain things, or the only one to forget.
There is a war between those that think aloneness is sad, and those who think it is exultant. Plucky internet memes attempt to convince lost and ambling souls scrolling the back corners of the internet thought desert, that being alone doesn’t necessitate loneliness. Rather, they say, aloneness bears the fruit of solitude. Solitude is beautiful, they say. And it is. Certainly.
Solitude breeds ideas that cannot stand to be stirred by many hands. Solitude is for looking long and deep into distant clouds to find shapes and forms and stories previously unimagined. Solitude is for finding peace amidst such conflict as we draw to ourselves in these times. I would write a love song for solitude, if I had any talent for such things, but the medium wouldn’t allow it. There is a reason that sad indie folk singers croon of hearts yearning for connection. And I love me some sad indie folk songs. I have whole Pandora stations devoted to such things.
My kids give me all kinds of crap for being a lover of sad indie folk songs. Why? They ask. These songs are so saaaad, they opine. Because sad songs bring such joy! Obviously. Musician Phoebe Bridgers, who is much more articulate in her (sad indie folk) music than in this interview says:
“Some people who misunderstand sad music are like, “Why? Why would you want to, kind of soak in that feeling?” … There’s a weight lifted because it’s just someone that you look up to laying all this out, that you relate to.”
I really struggle with the weight of expectation and aloneness. I know connection with others is critical to mental health. That’s a known fact. But does that mean that our lives are incomplete unless they are fully intertwined with another? There isn’t anyone out there writing sad indie folk songs about being full of joy on your own. It’s the reason there are so many dating apps and is a facet of just about every song, book, film or TV show you can think of.
Find a partner, the ancient drum beats. Find a partner.
Society desperately wants us to be melded with another. Identifying one’s self as half of a whole is a kind of social passport. Having a partner is nearly a requirement to be a successful politician. Our tax code generously rewards two person households. As recently as the 60s and 70s a woman couldn’t get their own bank account without a husband. “Oh,” the room exhales. Someone has verified you as a person by attaching themself to you, attesting in the deepest way possible to the validity of your reasonableness to join civil society.
But I don’t really give a shit about society, these days. More and more, society doesn’t really give a shit about me. In today’s world, banks couldn’t care less what your marital status is. In the Trump era, whether you’re married or not is the very least concern about social fitness. The tax code hasn’t changed, but boo-hoo, we have to pay taxes. You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit. I can say with certainty that spending time with someone who doesn’t really like you anymore is a waste of time, no matter how much pressure there may be, from within or without, to be half of a whole.
Still, the drum beats like deep tones in a racist colonizer flick where white heroes are lost in the jungle and just start to realize by ominous, rhythmic sounds that dangerous natives are near.
Blue eyes whip around – where is that frightening sound coming from?
Boom. Boom. Boom. Fiiind a paaartner. Boom. Boom. Boom.
Raise your machete. Back toward your blonde safari partner.
“Chad? Do you hear that Chad?”
“Yes. They’re close now. Get behind me Karen!”
Boom. Boom. Boom. Fiiind a paaartner. Boom. Boom. Boom.
Still, I am torn. Does having a partner complete an otherwise incomplete person? Is that feeling – and I feel it every day, all the time – the true expression of something deeply real about being a person? Or is it yet another leftover relic of messaging I’ve been bombarded with from a time before I can remember by society, by my parents and family, by the amplification of my own inner echo chamber?
My own inner echo chamber is probably the biggest culprit. I remember in my early twenties, I would fall asleep, alone, and look out the window into the night sky and sing in my mind a line from a Sting song, which begins simply: A-nother night finds me alooone. Poor me. I remember thinking, during this same chapter in my life, how brave it was that after her husband of 50+ years died, my grandmother stated, in no uncertain terms, “If I can’t live with Bayliss, I’m not interested in living with anyone else.” And she didn’t. And I think she was pretty happy in her later life before dementia led her down darker, falser paths.
And I know. I know. I’m emerging from a long season of loss and grief. This isn’t the time for making grand pronouncements. This journal is love letter to my kids – so that if they’re interested, they might know their father better. So kids, here’s something I struggle with and always have. I even struggled with it while I was married. I struggle with knowing whether there is something fundamentally missing from a person who is without a partner and if I should then heed the drum beat calling us to find a partner . . . fiiind a paaartner.
Or if I should fight it – strive to overcome a false sense of emptiness unnaturally put there by all the forces that have shaped me. To be held by someone who truly cares for you is a marvelous and wondrous thing. But so is waking up without obligation next to a purring cat who is simultaneously the softest thing in the known universe and the sharpest thing.
I believe, more and more, in the power of intention – that we draw to us the things we ask for and work toward. It’s overly simplistic, but I do think intention has power. It shapes our vision of how to walk in the world. On this one, I’m torn. “Wait and see” isn’t a very strong intention. But kiddos, it’s what I’ve got. So it will have to do.