Citizen of limbo: on solitude, belonging and freedom

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Zoe Leonard, Chapter 17 from Analogue, chromogenic colour prints (1998–2009)

In Yiyun Li’s story ‘On the Street Where You Live’, a six-year-old boy with autistic tendencies is asked to name the one thing that scares him most. Unlike the other children in his class, who mention things like snakes or monsters under the bed, his answer is monophobia – the fear of being alone. And yet he’s chosen not to speak to most people, and struggles to connect with those closest to him.

As this story illustrates, there is a difference between loneliness and solitude. In her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing writes about loneliness in her own life and in the lives and work of artists such as Edward Hopper, Zoe Leonard and Andy Warhol. She says:

By no means all people who live their lives in the absence of company are lonely, while it is possible to experience acute loneliness while in a relationship or among a group of friends. As Epictetus wrote almost two thousand years ago: ‘For because a man is alone, he is not for that reason also solitary; just as though a man is among numbers, he is not therefore not solitary.’

Since I was a child, I have loved solitude. I don’t get bored when I’m alone, and I’m often happiest when I’m by myself. I enjoy the usual solitary pursuits like writing and reading, and I also love going for walks and travelling alone. Without company, I’m able to experience and explore things fully, unaffected by another person’s preferences, mood or energy.

As a young girl I remember sitting outside at the garden table reading or writing outlines for novels, and walking around the neighbourhood imagining the lives of the people in the houses I passed, making up stories about them. As Rebecca Solnit writes in The Faraway Nearby:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared in to them like someone running into the woods. What surprised me and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity, I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

In the city where I lived before, every week I would go to a forest park where I wrote at a table overlooking a large pond. To get there, I walked for about half an hour along a broad sidewalk next to a busy road lined with hedges that changed colors and blooms through the seasons. The sidewalk was seldom busy, a welcome relief from the crowds everywhere else, and the park was usually deserted too. It was just me and the crows, and in winter the swans.

On the empty sidewalks, I enjoyed the space and solitude, while at the same time I’d watch as cars whizzed by and entertain myself thinking about the people in them, wondering where they’d been and where they were going next. It was usually a Sunday, so I’d pictured them returning from family lunches or days at the beach, going home for dinner, or maybe on their way to meet someone for the first time. And on my way home, as it started to get dark I passed by apartment blocks and dreamed up lives for the people behind the lit-up windows. Imagining all these lives inspired and comforted me. Rebecca Solnit describes this feeling of being on the outside but not disconnected in her essay collection about walking, Wanderlust:

A lone walker is both present and detached from the world around, more than an audience but less than a participant. Walking assuages or legitimizes this alienation: one is mildly disconnected because one is walking, not because one is incapable of connecting.

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Jon Koko, Buddhas in Matrix, archival print (2015)

Since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of living alone. As a little girl, I had a recurring fantasy that suspended from the ceiling of the bedroom I shared with my brother was my own private apartment that was invisible and inaccessible to everyone but me. This desire to live alone never left me, and was finally realised four years ago when I moved to Japan. I’ve never been more content than when in my one-roomed apartment to which only I had a key, and which was uninhabited by any energy other than my own, my sanctuary for which I was grateful every day.

Over the years, I have lived with many people, from family to close friends to relative strangers. I recall how I would sometimes get a sinking feeling at the sound of a key in the lock, of someone bringing into the space a mood that might be too elevated, or angry or morose. I tend to take other people’s behavior too personally and soak up their energy like a sponge. So it can be difficult for me to be around people for long stretches, especially when I haven’t chosen to be, as in the case of work colleagues. It takes effort, and it can be draining. I prefer to be able to control when I am going to spend time with someone, to be prepared mentally.

I think this is all quite standard introvert behaviour. Still, I know there is an element of selfishness involved, in not wanting to compromise or give up my time. I am not a misanthrope, but like most people, I am full of contradiction. While I often experience strong feelings of compassion for near strangers, I sometimes find myself distancing from people I know well. I know it’s not fair, but it’s not hard to analyse – with strangers there is less risk of getting hurt. Less responsibility, too. When I first read the passage below, I identified with Olivia Laing’s description of Andy Warhol and how he fluctuated between over- and under-involvement with others, though I hope I am slowly finding a balance.

It’s about wanting and not wanting; about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego; being swamped or flooded, ingesting or being infected by the mess and drama of someone else’s life, as if their words were literally agents of transmission.

She writes about how buying a TV became a solution of sorts for him.

Able to conjure or dismiss company at the touch of a button, he found that it made him stop caring so much about getting close to other people, the process he’s found so hurtful in the past.

roses and one shoe

Andy Warhol, Shoes and Roses, ink, dye and graphite on paper (1956)

I started writing this essay several months ago, before I began this blog. I wanted to write a sort of ode to solitude, a celebration of aloneness, as I felt that it is so often seen as something negative – a state that has been forced on you, with implications of abandonment or rejection – and I wanted to write about how it can be positive, and voluntary. Despite all the time I’ve spent alone throughout my life, the closest I can recall to feeling lonely was when I was involved in unhappy relationships. But I don’t think I had ever experienced true loneliness, and I admit I sometimes felt impatient and irritated hearing people talk about it. It seemed to me like a lack of imagination, childlike neediness, to be incapable of being content alone, fulfilled only in the company of other people. In hindsight, I can see the pride and defensiveness beneath this judgment. And as I started to write this I wondered, how would I feel when I moved to a big city on my own, where I knew almost no one? As much as I loved being by myself, would I get lonely? What did loneliness feel like, really? I was curious.

During the first few weeks, in the excitement of moving to a new place, I was as content as I’ve ever been, happily engaged in my favorite solitary pursuits and relishing in the freedom of not bumping into someone I knew every time I left my home. But then this week, there were a few days of holiday, my friends had gone home to their families, and I could not get in touch with any of the agents to find out if I still had a place to stay next week. I felt anxious, and I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in days.

One afternoon I was walking through the park. It was drizzling lightly, but there were still people in rowing boats on the pond, families eating lunch and chatting on benches, a group of students singing and playing guitars. As I watched then, I observed what was happening inside me. It was a strange feeling, not quite what I’d expected. I felt a kind of tenderness, a heightened sensitivity. I looked around me at the couples, families and friends, and experienced a profound sense how precious these moments were that they were sharing, even if some of them looked irritated with each other, bored or preoccupied. I suddenly felt a deep longing for someone, anyone to say something to me. As people walked past me, I wondered if they could see in my face how alone I was in that moment. I imagined stopping someone to tell them. How would they react? And yet when a cashier at the supermarket spoke to me in a gentle tone, I felt close to tears. I felt raw. Sad. So this was loneliness.

And yet the feeling was not entirely unpleasant. I did not feel despair. I know that I will meet new people soon and form new connections. This is why I came here, and  most of the time I feel hopeful and excited to finally be doing what I want to do. And I’m glad to have had this experience. It’s hard to put in words, but somehow, in my aloneness, I felt more aware than ever before of the deeper connection that exists between all humans. As separate as I felt, I also knew and was comforted by the fact that that there is no real separation between people. This is something I have understood for a while on an intellectual level, only now I was experiencing it – that separation is really an illusion that causes suffering and loneliness.

kiyoshi tenderness

Kiyoshi Saito, Tenderness, woodblock print (1959)

For most of my life I felt like a bit of an outsider. I felt this way throughout school, in various social groups, and when traveling through foreign countries. As a solo traveler I enjoyed the perspective this gave me, but paradoxically I also wanted to belong, to be part of and live in the place I was visiting and not just pass through it. Which is one of the reasons I moved to Japan, to live here rather than just visit – though I could not have chosen a place where I would be less likely to belong in the literal sense.

Foreigners, says Alistair Reid, are curable romantics. They retain an illusion from childhood that there might be some place into which they can finally sink to rest; some magic land, some golden age, some significantly other self. Yet the foreigner’s own oddness keeps them separate from every encounter. Unless they regard this as something fruitful, they cannot be considered cured.

The quote above is from an essay by Donald Richie, an American who lived in, filmed and wrote about Japan for over fifty years. On the Museum of the Moving Image Pinewood Dialogues podcast, Richie says the following, which, when I first heard it, shifted how I felt about being a foreigner in Japan. For the first three years, there were times I felt I had found my home, but there were also moments when I felt close to bitter at the impossibility of ever being accepted. Now I have come to see how not belonging can be a kind of privilege.

One of the joys of being an expatriate is the complete freedom that it gives you, particularly in Japan where foreigners are held in a separate box, as it were, a separate category where what applies to the Japanese does not necessarily apply to the foreigners and so the specialness gives you a kind of freedom. It doesn’t give you license. It doesn’t mean you can just do anything you like then, but it makes you aware in a very strange kind of way and it prevents your having any of the comforts of belonging to any category.

In another essay he talks about viewing Japan as if from a mountaintop:

I can look back to the plains of snowbound province of Ohio where I came from and it doesn’t have any hold on me, it has formed me but doesn’t have anything to do with my life right now. Then I can look down into the sunny valley of the land I have chosen and know that I can never go down there. I can look at it and I can take strolls but I am never going to belong to it or it to me. And so this gives me all of a sudden a kind of freedom I didn’t have before. I’ve become a citizen of limbo and limbo is the most democratic state that there is.

I love this idea of becoming a citizen of limbo. As my definition of belonging shifts and I more often experience the truth that we’re all connected, I am starting to let go of the desire to belong and to embrace freedom instead. Richie writes:

I have learned to regard freedom as more important than belonging. This is what my years of expatriation have taught me. I have not yet graduated, but Japan with its rigorous combination of invitation and exclusion has promised me a degree.

And it is here, in the space of not belonging and freedom, where art is born. As Natsume Soseki writes in Kusamakura:

However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live. And when its difficulties intensify, you find yourself longing to leave that world and dwell in some easier one – and then, when you understand at last that difficulties will dog you wherever you may live, this is when poetry and art are born.

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Kiyoshi Saito, Winter in Aizu, colour woodblock print (1967)

This acceptance of life as it is, and of yourself as you are, brings about the feeling of belonging anywhere. Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, ‘Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.’ Beyond this is the deeper, true belonging expressed in Rilke’s poem ‘Sunset’:

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.

 

3 thoughts on “Citizen of limbo: on solitude, belonging and freedom”

  1. Wow, what a lovely post, a timely one too as I’m reading a book about solitude called Quiet by Susan Cain! We have much in common you and I, what you wrote here resonates and has got me wondering if my problems (of which you know about) stem from my not living an authentic life, true to my desires and character. A life that is authentic to my character would be a life lived alone I think! Like you, I cherish my independence, enjoy solitude, never feel lonely or bored when alone, distance myself from people, and feel loneliest in unhappy relationships. I have never made an effort to make friends in the town where I live because my own company fulfils me. I am going to print this post off and underline passages that resonate with me! Thank you for another lovely post x

    1. Thank you, Helen! It makes me so glad to read this and know that I’m not ‘alone’ in enjoying solitude so much. It seems there are quite a lot people out there who feel this way, whether they’re single or married with families. And I think solitude should be celebrated more and not seen as something to be pitied or some kind of deficiency.

      But connection is vital too. I don’t think you need to be around people constantly to connect, but I’m working on finding a balance.

      Thank you so much as always for your lovely comment 🙂 I have Susan Cain’s book on my Kindle — I must read it! xx

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