I made a rare appearance at a house party a few months ago. It was a friend of a friend’s birthday, and I got towed along by an ex-flatmate who generally assumed the role of matchmaker after a double gin and juice. Tonight he was trying to set me up with a girl he knew. “Tell her about your road trip,” he said and walked away.
“Roadtrip?” asked the girl, so I detailed my six-month loop around America. Her name was Kara and she was in her third year studying psychology at Glasgow Uni. Anytime I looked down at her, she’d nod and blink with hazel-brown eyes.
“Wait,” she said, “you were alone?” Her jaw dropped like I was the incarnation of Oliver Twist. “But didn’t you get lonely?”
I went to a friend's concert the other day. He studied sound production at Strathclyde and his band has a compelling sound, like contemporary folk with an electronic twist. When they took the stage I was alone, but I still centered myself in the crowd to listen.
The chorus of their third song kept ending on a whole rest. Standing there in all of that noise it was like the avalanche calm before the crash—the whispered hush in a storm—and just before the coda, they held it. Silence swept across the crowd, dragging long enough for people to cheer and holler and then hold their breath. A string of notes followed: the melody, simple but deep, picking me up with every plucked string. At the end I was above myself, suspended in the stillness and held there by a simple, minor arpeggio.
Research for the book I’m writing involves interviewing Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. I’ll ask anything that might trigger a story, but last year I added a polar question.
“Are you lonely?” I say. The answer I almost exclusively get is “yes.” “Of course,” said one.
I recently put this question to a friend from France. His name is Jacques and he moved to Scotland at the age of nineteen for uni, but works part-time through his degree and can only fly home every other year. We’re at a bar in the Union where I’m trying to wrap my head around it. At nineteen years old I was nervous about spending four-months in Italy, so I ask, “Don't you get lonely?”
I’m thrown by the abruptness of his response. “No,” he says, annoyed. “There’s a huge international community here, and my course is very inclusive.” I smile and say “of course,” but he goes on to list a number of activities he’s involved in, citing groups of friends and social media followers, his work and uni. By the end of it, I'm wondering how he possibly finds time for sleep.
In one of his poems, Jack Gilbert describes a Greek farmer laboring in the orchid. White almond blossoms fall and litter his shoulders, but he’s sweating to part the earth and neglects the beauty between.
I never lived in Greece, but I spent two months in San Diego after surviving the winter in a stove-heated mountain home. Spring in SoCal was the closest thing to paradise I could imagine at that point, and I spent my first week running in the sun and out of money. I needed to save again in order to get back on the road, so I found a job as a clerk downtown and worked farmers’ markets on the side. Within days I was another one of the honking, cursing commuters racing down Highway One, oblivious to the pelicans that bathed alongside in the light and soft Pacific blue.
But that's life. Because when you’re caught up in a thing like living or love, you aren’t conscious of the moment. It’s only afterward, when you're alone in the quiet, that you remember the background noise or what you did with your hands. Brain-imaging studies of the frontal lobe (an area associated with perception, awareness, thought and consciousness) show more activity recalling a vivid memory than experiencing it—and the Limbic System of the brain, the area housing our emotional core, is inextricably tied to long-term memory—all of this to suggest that your mind is equally alive when lying awake in bed, cringing at the words you said but remembering how when you placed your hand on her wrist, she smiled.
We’ve all been told that life is the staccato notes on a piano, the crunch of heels on broken glass, but it is also in the between. Like when she left, how you spent a week unsober and then wept to a mute dance on your computer screen, wondering how movement could make beauty, how the song was in the silence.
Last year I couldn’t afford to fly home for Christmas. The sun set each day around 3pm, my flatmates left town one by one, and I spent three weeks feeling a lot like this meme. It was not an edifying experience.
However, I did notice things. Like how our cultural narrative compels us to resist being alone, and how loneliness is so shameful that we reach for our smartphones or group chats any time that we feel the uncomfortable creep of our own consciousness. But what we’re running away from is actually the seed of empathy. It’s the root of emotion and, at the end of every day, it’s our natural state. We’re forced to retreat into our own minds each night when we crawl into bed—blinking out the sounds of our flatmate binge-watching Game of Thrones, the Facebook posts and Snapchat stories, the WhatsApp and GroupMe threads—until, at last, we can escape inside of ourselves.
The question of whether I got lonely during my travels is a common one, and the answer is yes. But the truth is that some of the greatest moments of my life I've experienced alone. Standing at the edge of a river glimmering jade in the light, glacier hush and the realization that water is moving faster, higher, than two weeks before—that snow in the mountains is melting—and that, while everything else slows down in the silence, the world is bracing itself for the music to come back in.