Self-Portrait at 27

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This is your first summer not out in the sun, and it is hard.

This time last year, you were paddling a canoe up in Canada.

And the year before that, you were watching the tide crash on Cape Cod.

And the year before that, you were backpacking through the Adirondacks and finalizing your road trip plans.

before that before that before that

It has been three years of wandering. Three long, sun-kissed, moonlit years.

Stability both taunts and terrifies you. It is strange having an apartment to yourself, being reunited with your kitchen supplies and business casual wardrobe. Some days you just want to burn it all and drive off into the sunset, but you are grateful for purpose and stability in this time of upheaval. It’s as if the world conspired to make you stay still, taking away all your easy escapes. You have never quite figured out if you are running away or toward.

Twenty-seven doesn’t feel much different than any other age. You wear the same clothes and listen to the same bands and keep your hair at approximately the same length. The biggest difference is that people like to inform you that you are getting closer to thirty, and then you have to politely inform them that it doesn’t matter and what we refer to as time, like many things, is a construct that we have developed in order to hide what we don’t understand, and did you know that string theory requires ten dimensions, time being only the fourth of them? No? OK, let’s move on.

You’ve spent a lot of time on self-reflection this year, most of it pandemic-induced. You unearthed some good bits and some not-so-good bits, and you’ve come to the realization that you are highly flawed, but you are honest about most of it, which somehow makes it OK. You consider yourself very aware of your thoughts and actions, but someone pointed out that sometimes you stop talking in the middle of a sentence, and you cannot figure out why you do that, why you give up halfway through, why words sometimes evaporate and you are left alone in the middle of your thoughts.

This does not keep you up at night. But what does keep you up at night is how sometimes you feel like you are simultaneously too much and not enough. (String theory keeps you up at night, too.)

In this time of solitude, you have been very nostalgic. Memories wash in like waves, some of them called for, some of them not. You vividly remember standing against a large door frame this past winter in California and jumping as an older woman put her hand on your waist, saying, it’s so nice that you young folks are spending time out here, and the part that you remember is her hand on your waist, and how it was touch that startled you, the suddenness of someone’s body against yours.

In a way, California was a snapshot of door frames. Closing and opening and nervous knocking and are you busy? and feeling disappointed and feeling excited and watching the door handle of the kitchen turn as you ate cereal, wondering if you could guess who was about to emerge.

One morning you stood in a cabin door frame as you said a final goodbye to a coworker and you remember the exact line he called back to you over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hill. That line he said lingers. You still have it. You do that a lot—picking up the scraps people have left behind and knitting them into something bigger than they were ever intended. People will sometimes compliment your memory, and you always fail to articulate how heavy it can be.

You sometimes do the mental math as to what time it is in California and then sharply remember that it doesn’t matter anymore.

Because you are back on the East Coast living a sweaty animal existence. You work and create art and read and try in vain to distinguish between swamp oaks and bur oaks. You’ve started meditating in a nearby park, and as you walk back to your apartment, men will sometimes catcall you, and that imagery alone really sums up what life is like these days.

Sometimes you sit on your second-story porch in your underwear and just watch the rain. It never rains enough.

 

 

(You can read my self-portrait at 26 here, and self-portrait at 25 here.)

(Also, string theory is only 10-dimensional for superstring theory, not some of the others, but pretty sure no one was going to fact check me on that one. . .)

to be alone

cocoa puffs, lee price 2009

Cocoa Puffs, 2009, Lee Price. (This is a painting! Check out more of her stuff here).

 

“There are worse things
than being alone
but it often takes
decades to realize this
and most often when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
than too late.”
—Charles Bukowski

to be alone
to be alone (with you)
to be alone

It was Friday night, and my friends and I were at a bar, a dirty curbside affair that served cheese fries through a literal hole in the wall. I was newly 21 and I wasn’t entirely sold on bars and beer, but this is what people my age did and I was trying to say yes to more things, trying to fit into the shape of the world around me.

What do you want from life? my friend asked me as we sat at the counter.

I remember being surprised at the depth of his question. To be happy, I replied, which was the shortest amount of words I could utter and still be honest.

Are you happy?

Usually. I try.

But you’re alone?

Even now, six years later, I can freeze frame on that moment. Him—sitting on the stool clad in jeans and a navy zip-up. And me, on his left, stunned silent for a moment. I don’t remember how I responded. I probably didn’t.

It struck me for two reasons. One, that you would call out someone’s aloneness. That you would ignore their friends and family and look at their dearth of dating, and tell them that they are alone. And two, that being alone and being happy cannot exist simultaneously.

I think about being alone a lot. It is something I actively work on and work toward.

Having a goal of finding a partner, of getting married, of anything of that ilk feels uncontrollable. It is putting my future in someone else’s hands. Because what if you don’t find that person? What if you never know a person whose presence feels like home? Do you say yes to the next person who asks because you’re getting older and more uncomfortable with your aloneness? Do you settle? What do you do?

It feels too blindly hopeful to aim for a relationship status. In the Russian classic “A Hero of Our Time,” Lermontov writes, Why did you hope? To want something and to strive for it, that I can understand, but whoever hopes?  If I set a goal of climbing that mountain, of writing that book, of identifying every tree in that godforsaken park, I will get there. I can do that with my own dedication, my own two hands and eager mind. But that’s not true of finding a partner. There is a sense of randomness to it. Good timing. Luck. A conspiring of the universe and all its unstable elements.

But you’re alone?

One time I went to a concert alone. I was visiting my parents that weekend and the concert was halfway between their house and where I lived. Upon returning, one of my friends said, You went by yourself? I would *never* go to a concert alone. Her tone gave me pause. I couldn’t tell if she was impressed that I went or if she thought it was weird. Not that I particularly cared. But it made me think of all the things we miss out on because we’re scared of doing them alone. Scared that we will be bored or lonely, or that the people around will judge us. Sometimes the choice is to do something alone or to not do it at all. What then?

But you’re alone?

Being alone is easier in some respects. When I’m alone, I never have to justify my existence. When I’m alone, no one tells me that I’m walking too slowly or that I’m too quiet in all the wrong moments or that my joke was ill-timed.  Being alone means you can be unapologetic. It means you can exist in your mess and glory and complexity without explanation. It means you can lie on your mattress and only eat Doritos for dinner and listen to the new Fiona Apple album on repeat and stare at the dark ceiling for hours and exist in this tangled tired fashion and no one gives a shit because no one is there.

In one of my all-time favorite essays, Helena Fitzgerald writes about all she gave up when she knitted her life to someone else’s. The piece is incredible (read it here), both for the full scope it encompasses and the details. The lack of obligation to arrange my face in a way that someone else would understand, she writes, and which I love because of how true it feels on a basic, primal level.

We’ve sculpted aloneness as something to be feared, to avoid. It is a sign of failure. If you are alone, specifically romantically so, you cannot be happy. Not fully. It is Plato’s Symposium all over again—a hunt for our other half.

But what if we made aloneness something to strive toward, something desirable? Something, whether you are there by choice or circumstance, it is still wondrous? Loneliness is not the terror we escape, Fitzgerald writes, it is instead the reward we give up when we believe something else to be worth the sacrifice.

But you’re alone?

It can be difficult to be alone. There are moments when your apartment feels too empty, when no one asks you about your day, when you want to remark upon the sunset and realize there is no one there to care. Sometimes your skin feels unbearably lonely. Aloneness can ache. But I think all of life can.

The past couple of years, I’ve put a lot of effort into my platonic relationships. I write letters, I talk on the phone, I reach out and check in when communication has been sparse. I try and try and try to be a good friend, to be there for people. In a world dominated by romantic ideals, friendship sometimes feels like settling, a backup plan for when you can’t have something else, something more.

But that’s a lie. Good friendship is everything. My friends send me pictures of wildflowers and bears and trees bathed in sunset. They read books I recommend and message me with updates and favorite quotes as they go along. They gift me souvenirs from their travels, and art they created, and strange plastic collectibles of that Iowa YouTuber I’m obsessed with. The list goes on and on. People being thoughtful and generous with their time and energy. People picking up the phone and listening when I call at strange hours to vomit up my feelings. People appreciating me and acknowledging me and loving me for so many different things, from so many different angles.

This is all just to say that solitude is a lovely worthy thing, something to embrace, something to be grateful for. I know it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes it’s hard to be alone.

I’ve said this before, but I’m always surprised at who reaches out to me based off this humble little blog and what they have to say. I’ve gotten some letters over the past year that have been brutally, wonderfully honest, and it just makes me think how much better it would all be if we talked about the things that matter more, if it was easier to say I am lonely. I am sad. How do I hold this solitude? None of us have to be that alone.

So if you’re feeling alone and not in the good, Fiona Apple sort of way, just know I’m always here if you need anything. You’re only as alone as you want to be.