I wish I could be more certain of how natural it is to live on your own through your twenties. I’m an unusually solitary person anyways, but the uninterrupted lengths of time I go without being near my family, or without making meaningful contact with friends, makes me wonder if this striving to be independent isn’t a little unsettling to some natural instinct for family and community.
I got a sumptuous massage from a friend today, and realized that I go untouched for weeks most of the time. It’s not a sexual thing at all, but maybe just an intimacy thing. I wonder if I’d be as sensitive to all the things that cause me anxiety if I gave myself more regular opportunities to feel close to others.
I love my apartment to death; I’ve nicknamed it Antares after a beloved star, and for how far away from the world it can make me feel on a good day. But sometimes I wonder how strange it would look to someone from a different country, time, or culture, to see me living in it alone every night, reading, writing, Netflixing, and then waking up alone again in the morning. That itself doesn’t bother me; what bothers me is the possible effect it might be having on my temperament that I’m not even consciously aware of.
I mean, if this was natural, then why would a girl raised in an atheist, culturally blank home, a girl who’s a serial shiksa (or would be if I had the guts and no conscience), why else would I find so much peace in listening to the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof? On repeat. I lie in bed and listen to this track again and again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZZj-Od7Ot0
Now, I had a desperate hunger for ethnicity and a cultural identity long before I lived on my own; even in sixth grade I would latch onto ethnicities and learn about them, finding comfort in pretending I had an identifiable background. But Sabbath Prayer hits me deeper than that familiar longing for culture. This track hits me in the family bone, in the part of me that wants to be cared about. It’s a part I keep rigidly under control, and gratify on my walks, pretending that the stars and wind care about me, that they want to protect me. I rely on being independent, yet within that I know there’s a delight in the feeling of existing under a mighty aegis.
I’ve never been blessed; I’m not really sure what that word means, but I see parents blessing their children in other cultures, rabbis blessing babies. I like the idea of someone well-wishing me in some small ritual. it doesn’t have to be a big deal. I don’t need to believe that this blessing confers the protection of the gods upon me. But I feel sort of achey and empty when I think of the simple act of one human openly wishing another well, in some way just slightly more ceremonious than “have a good night!”
The idea of someone touching my head, closing their eyes, and immersing momentarily in care and affection in the hopes that their feelings will follow me as a little charm of luck; I probably wouldn’t be able to handle that, actually. I’d love it so much I’d plunk down and sob, and their charm wouldn’t be following me anywhere until I stopped hiccuping. Their baffled blessing would float awkwardly above my head, going “Ummm… I think I just made things worse.”
I very, very rarely think about things like family or emotional support. My thoughts are much more frequently caught up in the ecstasy of revenge and redemption, in blazing wild, fiery paths through ice, in the strength of a black hole wrenching a galaxy in motion. It takes one massage from one friend to remind me how necessary closeness and caring is. I never, ever think of myself as a person who needs to be cared for. I think I actively define myself in opposition to that. But I really wish I could experiment with this; I wonder… if I was in a position to receive regular tokens of love and concern from family and friends, to get a small hug from my mother before I went off to read by myself for a few ours, I wonder how I would be different.
I wonder if the sound of someone’s loud TV in the next apartment over would still make me nauseous with anxiety. I wonder if my heart would still shrink in slick, withered worry about whether the noise will ever stop. Will I be able to write? Sleep? Think? I wonder if I lived close to an emotional support system rather than isolating myself the way a properly independent twenty-four year old does in our culture, would I get so defensive in public on the streets? I turn into a little motoring fortress in public, whipping around slow walkers, glaring at smokers– to be honest, I was like that when I lived with my family, but then, my family was not a support system in high school, not at all.
I’m jealous of the friends I know who have a strong cultural, familial, even religious background that gives them the opportunity and framework to feel close to their parents and siblings. But it’s probably not that simple at all. Maybe culture and religion themselves do nothing to hold people together, but the way they’re practiced does. Can’t get into that, because I have practically no experience, and also, it’s 5:30 a.m. and my analytic skills are diminishing along with my rhetorical dexterity.
I always look forward to Valentine’s Day; this is something of a mystery to my friends, since I am the most perpetually single person that they tend to know. However, it’s not a mystery to me; I’m a relentless Romantic, but I’m aware that my definition of ‘romance’ is very different from the relationship-focused, Bachelor-esque connotation it’s acquired in this century. My type of ‘romance’ is only similar in a few conceptual ways to the original 19th century meaning. But since this is a word that keeps evolving, I think I can use it to describe my own experience with it.
Romance has never seemed to me to be contingent upon the presence of another person. Rather, I find it most commonly in a state of sumptuous, active solitude– like being on a hunt. I often wonder how that heightened level of exhilaration could be either granted or sustained if another person were around, but I’m assured it happens; I’m just not sure I’m suited to share the experience. My “romances” are typicallybrought on bymusic in massive, noise-cancelling headphones, the lowered inhibition of knowing I’m completely alone, and a sensation of seeing my own imagination reflected in nature—lofty-sounding factors, but factors that require isolation.
I suppose I like Valentine’s Day because it insists that a freezing February night can be joyful, heart-racing, and this is something I’ve always found on my own. My most romantic nights are the ones that are too cold for anyone else to want to be outside; the cold drives everyone indoors so that I can be assured I’ll have the snow, sky, streets, wind and lake to almost completely to myself. It softens my guard to know I’m unlikely to have to share these things with any more than a few stray pedestrians who will thin out as I get closer to the water; it opens me up to immersing in my music and internal narratives. I put on gigantic headphones and set off, the freezing wind feeling like a glowing promise of solitude, and I start to get lost in one of the stories I’m writing or begin composing a new one.
It’s on these walks that some of the most magical things of my life have happened to me, things I know I wouldn’t have seen or been a part of if I’d tried to share it. Anyone I walk with eventually begs me to slow down, or gets cold and wants to go inside. And so my ‘romance’ may seem incompatible with Valentine’s Day’s target demographic, namely couples, but I always look forward to it as a confirmation that blazing excitement and joy can bloom on a cold, slushy night.
Since this is my definition of romance, I’m unsure if I could be romantic with a person—it’s is so ingrained into me as a solitary outdoor activity that takes energy, nerve, resolve, and a kind of childlike wonder that I know would be naturally unattractive to a fellow adult. Furthermore, how could I expect someone to follow me on these treks? For starters, I walk FAST. Walking with me is exhausting even when I’m not these states; I frequently zip around tall boys on the street. Second, there’s the music to consider. I have a heart-shaped jack which takes two sets of headphones, but I only bought it because I had the same idea for it in seventh grade; I don’t expect it would be very practical in use. I also don’t have favourable memories of sharing music with people; they tend to talk or text during it, or if not, are alarmed by my reaction.
I would never be able to share the quickening of my heart; the steely ferocity that sets in when a particular song begins, or enters its climatic throes; how could I share the feeling of being physically pulled, as if by the gravity of the moon or Jupiter or something out past the Kuiper belt, towards some inexpressible, terrible, marvellous, sublime destination. How would I communicate to them that walking like this, alone in the music, puts me into a trance, makes me feel as though I’m seeing the curve of the earth, only it’s not Earth—I can’t even describe it here with words. But I’ve long since gotten comfortable with the idea that some things are not shareable, and that’s what’s so wonderful about them.
The last time someone tried to follow me, he was sobbing hysterically and demanding I either come back inside or let him come with me. I could only feel oddly detached from his effusions; romance is as much a matter of instinct as it is emotion for me. I felt like an animal watching him, like a coyote or an osprey, eyes with no white in them, unable to empathize with his distress. I calmly explained to him that I go for walks all the time, and that I was in no danger.
“You can’t go out there!” I remember him squalling. I’m still as strangely without empathy now as I was then.
I felt something internal tugging the corners of my mouth upwards when I heard that; I honestly didn’t do so to mock him. But I felt too much like a beast being shouted at by a cleric; the moment I had given into the need for this walk, some part of my civilized self was left behind. And with that unfeeling smile, I said: “No, you can’t. I can.”
I didn’t mean to torment him, but my brand of romance is rooted in something atavistic, something that must look cruel and unfeeling from the outside. On the inside, it feels like sparkling waterfalls, flaming limbs of a spiral galaxy, a cascade of tiny petals about to forever scatter; it feels nucleotides finding one other and fusing, like synopses bursting and reforming. From where I live inside myself, it’s exactly like flying. And I suppose living like that, even for an hour or two, demands temporarily relinquishing some humanity.
So when I turned and walked away from him into the darkness (I just remembered I was actually wearing a cape– all unintentionally dramatic) and heard him howl in anguish, I felt giddy, electric thrills as if he was the melodramatic voice of civilization that I was leaving behind for a foray into some dangerous, savage communion.
It would be untrue to say I’m completely alone on these pilgrimages; truthfully, they wouldn’t be what they are if I wasn’t inundated by the sensation of being watched, followed, cared about by an unseen multitude. Empirically, I know this sensation is fabricated, but then, so is a good actor’s belief in his own words. So is the ecstasy that monks achieve. In light of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s recent film Don Jon (which I thought was brilliant, and will write a post on later) so is every guy while watching porn and every girl while watching a romantic movie—all immersed in a sensation that may not be reflecting an empirical reality, but is materially powerful and meaningful within the mind. Romance, for me, is quite literally a theatre in which my brain and nerves interface with natural stimuli to put on a show of such spectacle that even ancient Greek audiences would find it tasteless. Romance is a co-production between two major opera houses with the express intention of making the fresco’d ceilings crack and melt. When I see conductors lose themselves to the keystone role they play, bridging the performers and the orchestra who can’t interface directly– I feel such vibrant recognition. Vibrant– almost violent. Seeing how deeply invested a conductor becomes while pulling these two behemoths together makes me go “YES– I know that feeling!” Obviously they undergo far more training and are far more disciplined than I, but I recognize what it is to contain both, and it’s not just a trance– romance is power.
Power, and the feeling of being powerless at the same time, swallowed up, consumed by the experience. To fully immerse in an illusion so marvellous that it makes every snowflake incandescent; it gives the lake a voice, and makes it feel like every star in the sky (which in downtown Toronto isn’t much) is interested in what I’m doing, in my thoughts. I used to think this was arrogant, but I’m more forgiving now. I’ve recognized that I’m never more vulnerable than in these moments, rarely more humble that I am in the face of the massive universe I feel acutely connected to—and strangely, loved by. These episodes of high romance are incredibly redemptive, and they wash away the frustration, despondency, and loneliness that builds up from living in a world where one appears so perverse to most everyone else. I always feel so loving afterwards, not just of this alien world but of myself. For a little while after, I feel like I belong on this planet.
People tell me this is how their boyfriend or girlfriend makes them feel; believe me, I may have my own peculiar brand of romance, but I’m hardly insensitive to how lovely that is. And though I have no personal experience with that, I completely believe it’s authentic and true. Friends sometimes assume that I’m cynical and bitter about love just because I’m so rarely impressed by the options, but this could not be less true. I’m a huge fan of love; I just don’t necessarily think it’s interchangeable with or necessary for romance. Romance, for me, is purer than love; it’s nearer to nature. Romance makes my eyes go black, my lungs fill with liquid mercury, and draws me away from safety.
I might someday figure out how to share this wilderness with another person, but I’m not in any rush to do so. It took me about eight years longer than other kids to make friends and much longer to even be attracted to someone—I’m comfortable being a decade or so behind a few curves. I can almost imagine, when I really push myself, what it’d be like to share a piece of music with someone, but when I get close, I actually feel my cheeks get hot and I’m too embarrassed to continue thinking about it. Like how sometimes I can’t watch the gushy scenes in movies; not because I find them schmaltzy– ask some of my friends. They’ll tell you I hide behind a pillow or a stuffed animal at a particularly sincere, tender moment between the romantic leads. Maybe because I think if I was in that situation, it would be unbearably intimate. How does anyone maintain eye contact with someone they like?! How do you hold their hand without blushing and screaming and jumping around?? Sorry– those are questions for my next post.
In the meantime, I’d like to be able to offer an alternative kind of romance to anyone who is unhappy to be single on Valentine’s day: give yourself some credit. You’re probably capable of creating your own romance if you allow yourself to follow a crazy, exhilarating instinct.
Finally, romance is something I say is an immersion in productive illusions, which is true—empirically. I’ve delineated here how profoundly these illusions affect my life, but what that black-eyed coyote-osprey doesn’t want you to know is that I only half-believe that romance is just belief ❤