the reading summer: fragments on loneliness

this month i’ve been thinking about loneliness. what it feels like, what it does to a person — the very texture of isolation. i’ve entered a period of my life where i finally don’t use it as a punishment, an excuse to shun the world. instead i embrace it. i do everything by myself lately. i go to the beach, the mountains, museums and italian deli shops. i still feel lonely but im no longer wallowing in that sadness. still, that desire to cocoon still resurfaces every so often.

this summer i am thinking a lot about kya, the protagonist of delia owens where the cradwads sing. kya was abandoned by her family and left fending for herself as a child in the wild, the marsh becoming her mother. she learns survival skills, the song of the earth — mother nature becomes her teacher and its animals her family. but she’s also an example of how isolation can affect a person. due to the town shunning her, her behaviour revolves around avoidance. the most striking part to me in the book is when tate, an old friend-turned-lover, witnesses kyas strange behaviour unfiltered for the first time. he sees her hunch down at the sound of an incoming boat, squatting low and duck-walking into the safety of the tall grass, feral, eyes: “dark and crazed.” kya is likened to a deer cautiously eyeing the departed panther. tate realizes that he always knew that she behaved this way, but had never: witnessed the raw, unpeeled core. how tormented, isolated, and strange.

this is the event of somebody witnessing our loneliness and isolation. olivia laing writes that loneliness can grow around a person like mould: a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. it is in this scene the reader, like tate, becomes aware of the extent of kyas mould, how much her isolation has affected her.

as someone who has spent an extended period of time alone — i can see myself in kya. the way loneliness affects your behaviour: i become irritable, unable to string together a sentence during the rare occasion somebody talks to me. i walk down the street only focused on making myself as small as possible, contracting inward. laing again:

You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone, but you don’t, you believe you are a calm untroubled or at worst melancholic person, you do not realise how irritable you are, how any little thing, the wrong kind of touch or tone, a lack of speed in answering a question, a particular cast of expression will send you into apoplexy because you are unchill, because you have not learnt how to soften your borders, how to make room.

– Olivia Laing, from Crudo

maybe this is a rite to becoming a person. seeing the mould growing around you and choosing to stand witness to that fact. deciding to soften those boarders and make room for something else. owens said that nothing can make your confidence soar like discovering how self-reliant you can be. kya reaches her full potential by learning how to take care of herself — but she doesn’t do it completely alone — she learns from her surroundings: nature, animals, and the few people in orbit around her. by learning self-reliance she does things she never thought possible. in an interview owens talks about how isolation can be the greatest teacher: when you can live in the wild — start a campfire in pouring rain and find your way in the dark — you truly believe in yourself. you may still be lonely and feel awkward around other people, but you can do much more than you ever thought possible.

therefore i have decided to make this period of my life about self-reliance: i show up to myself and the goals i set, i learn how to find love and comfort from my own surroundings, and i submit myself to the process of learning: about the world, about myself. books and poetry and nature become the salvation for me as they did for kya — tools for self-realization.

[but important] im not advocating for becoming a hermit, an armchair philosopher separate from the world. i am talking of making the best of a tough situation, of realizing you have a choice to how you react to the world’s currents. instead of making the easy choice: shutting the door, wallowing in the dark. i make the decision to savour this period, to treat myself kindly even if my mind tell me not to. i take time to cook myself slow and savouring dinners, i take myself out of my apartment and on adventures in the city: long metro rides into the bountiful expanse. i learn how to find community in my surroundings — the safety of the silent forest, the sounds of the wild ocean thrashing against the cliffs, the sun shining on my shoulders as i read book after book on the grass. this summer i am learning self-reliance. i am learning how to be at peace in the world as one, finding comfort in the ever-reaching arms of nature. i choose to savour this period, find space within my loneliness to make something beautiful out of it. nurture it close to my heart until the day comes when i no longer need it, because i — in turn — can be held.

i have chosen to scrub the mould off. to be a witness to my own metamorphosis. to make this summer about self-reliance, and — like kya, see how far into the clean blue air i can soar, where the geese are singing.

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