Rediscovering loneliness

Three years ago, if anyone had asked, I’d have said: I don’t get lonely.

Running away from it all

I’m a stone introvert – the kind who doesn’t just like to be alone but needs to be alone. In my 20s, I lived with friends or partners. Then, about the time most people start pairing up and shopping for pushchairs, I moved to Ibiza.

Time alone became the norm. Freelance writing, never the most social of professions, was a ticket to a lifestyle that, in retrospect, verged on isolation. But I was content. Or at least didn’t experience my situation as lonely.

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Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash

A slow tide

Discovering my capacity for loneliness happened gradually. Prior to meeting Chris I was happy to be a leaf drifting in the wind. Alone but not lonely.

When we fell in love and started rearranging our lives to be together, and I found myself lonely without him.

Acknowledging that should have been scary. What about my hard-won freedom? But it was so obvious, so inevitable, that I accepted it without a tremor.

Loneliness is not finite or discrete though. Our need for companionship extends beyond intimate relationships. When my internal barricade of plausible deniability/wishful thinking/calling it something else came down it made way for a tide of emotion.

Losing the everyday

Our abrupt move across the country taught me that the loss of familiarity – even routine, irritating, rubbish-strewn familiarity – can trigger paralysing loneliness.

The longer Chris and I have together, the more I crave the unthinkable: roots.

One big reason for moving was that we didn’t feel our last home was where we wanted to be long term. That’s still true, but it hasn’t stopped an onslaught of anxiety.

There were many good things about where we lived and it was comfortable. We didn’t have close friends or a lively social circle, but we had amiable neighbours. We knew their routinesroutines, signed for their packages, petted their dogs.

The old men sipping sherry at the corner kiosk waved hello as I walked to work, when my cat jumped out the window the kids playing outside banged on my door to tell me, the delivery drivers knew my ID number by heart.

Mundane treasures

Ripping myself away from all that revealed just how much energy goes into every day life. Snug in my routine, I forgot how draining, and how lonely, it is to have to think about everything. Thankfully, my intimate relationships and close friendships are intact, but that soothing web of mundane friendliness and ordinary interaction is gone for good.

Acquaintance, basic community, depends on presence. When you’re there you are part of it by default. If you leave you can come back as a visitor, or guest, but you’re not a thread in that particular tapestry any more.

Rebuilding

On the one hand (what we were thinking of as we hired a van, gave away old clothes, packed our life into boxes) a new setting is freedom. We can, in theory, rebuild the network any way we like. If we’re lucky, there will be new work, different perspectives, people who become dear friends.

On the other, leaving a place is a hard, expensive, exhausting enterprise that has no guarantee of coming good. I am lucky to have never, in the long term, regretted a move. Even Glasgow, my nadir, brought me cherished friendships and self-awareness.

One can, and does, rebuild. I’ve done it before. But those muscles are atrophied and honestly, all I want to do is curl up with my newfound-friend loneliness and cry.

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Photo by AJ Yorio on Unsplash

Opening up to more

From an individual point of view, loneliness is maladaptive. Why face something that makes you miserable? (And stunts your health, motivation and productivity.)

Yet as people, we need loneliness. Otherwise, what becomes of empathy and cohesion?

Loneliness is fundamental to emotional development — along with heartbreak, happiness, disappointment, anger, and everything else that makes us human.

Maybe not in the short term (right now, I feel about as empathetic and giving as The Grinch) but over time, it inculcates an awareness of how fragile happiness is, and how much we can contribute to each others’ well-being.

When we open ourselves to loneliness we invite anxiety, insecurity and sadness – but we also, just possibly, make space for something new.

“It is not only indolence which causes human relationships to repeat themselves with such unspeakable monotony, unrenewed from one occasion to another, it is the shyness of any new, incalculable experience which we do not feel ourselves equal to facing.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

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Elements of Storytelling 11: Imagery

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 11: Imagery

Deft use of imagery creates indelible images and provokes powerful emotions.

Case study: Maggie Smith Poet

What it is:

Maggie Smith’s poem ‘Let’s Not Begin’ is a meditation on life, death and courage. These are dangerous topics (Rilke, no less, advised against such broad themes) but Ms Smith nails it with an unforgettable simile: “My heart’s galloping hell / and gone from the paddock…. But let’s not end / with the heart as horse, / fear-lathered, spooked deaf.” The use of a figurative phrase transforms the cliche of a racing heart into a concrete image so vivid I can see the horse’s flared nostrils and flying sweat.

Why it matters:

For millennia poetry was entertainment, education and historical record. Spoken or sung, it had to make an instant, lasting impression on its audience. So poets got very good at painting word pictures. They learned to compare unlike things in a way that seized people’s imaginations and seared images into their brains. Now, we’re drowning in a sea of information. Metaphors are life-rings; similes shine like beacons. From poetry to advertising, the most imaginative, compelling, memorable use of imagery always win.

In her own words:well

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Weep Up (Tupelo Press, forthcoming 2018); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), winner of the 2012 Dorset Prize and the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry; and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), winner of the 2003 Benjamin Saltman Award.

A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and elsewhere. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and is a Consulting Editor to the Kenyon Review. Read more

Practice: Complete these sentences with vivid images. To really get the most of the exercise, don’t worry about coming up with something good, just write. The whole idea is to get your subconscious to make connections in a new, more creative way.

  1. Blue paint spilled on the road like___________________________.
  2. Canceled checks in the abandoned subway car

    seemed___________________________.

  3. A spider under the rug is like___________________________.
  4. Graffiti on the abandoned building like___________________________.”

via The Balance

Remember: “A metaphor is a kind o’ lie to help people understand what’s true.”
~Terry Pratchett

Elements of Storytelling 7: Belonging

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 7: Belonging

Good stories make the audience feel part of something special, feel a sense of kinship.

Case study: Agrotourismo Cas Gasi

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Cas Gasi

What it is:

Cas Gasi is an internationally famous boutique hotel in the heart of Ibiza that bucked the odds to become a success. Its  challenges included a converting an old farmhouse, stables and outbuilding into luxury rooms; and marketing an Ibiza destination located away from the clubs or beaches that are the island’s biggest attractions. It is also, to borrow the Stella Artois slogan, reassuringly expensive. Yet it thrives year-round, catering to a loyal audience of celebrities, aristocracy and captains of industry who come for a simple reason: at Cas Gasi they feel special.

Why it matters:

There are a few things every luxury hotel must do well: exquisite linen, top-of-the-range TVs, delicate room fragrances, weighty bathrobes, fine food and gracious service. Beyond that, success is down to who has the best story. Cas Gasi’s pitch is short and sweet: When you’re here, your family.

Everyone who visits from financiers and minor royalty to Hollywood stars, tax exiles, and well-heeled young couples is treated like part of an extended family. A cultured, urbane, educated family that has superb taste in food, wine and art and the means to indulge these interests.

Cas Gasi nurtures this sense of belonging by eschewing advertising (though friendly write-ups in Vogue, Conde Nast and Harper’s Bazaar are welcome) in favour of word-of-mouth recommendations. Guests are further encouraged to unwind by discreet service and an institutional obsession with privacy and quiet. Cleverly, the owners realised at the start that not everyone will like the hotel, so they created a space that a select group of people love.

In its own words:

Ibiza-born Luis Trigeros Juan grew up between Barcelona and the island, for which he developed a deep love. A lawyer and passionate sailor, Luis sailed around the world in 1986 before making Ibiza his permanent home alongside wife Margaret von Korff, Barcelona-born with German family roots in Baltic nobility and French, Austrian and Russian family connections.

Together they have found their niche, setting up a organic farming project, transforming their home into the beautiful boutique hotel to welcome guests from around the world – the Cas Gasi ‘extended family’ – and promoting their personal philosophy of fusing life’s luxuries with sustainable living.

Read more

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Clara, house dog

Practice: “The concept of a tribe transcends a customer merely liking or being satisfied with your brand or product. Your tribe is made up of your brand’s biggest fans – customers or prospects that will often take to Twitter and Facebook to share your praises or recommend your product….

Remember that word of mouth is still the best marketing. Consider setting up a referral program that rewards customers that deliver leads to your doorstep – in effect, have your existing fans recruit more tribe members.” via Wasp Buzz

Remember: “In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.” ~John Steinbeck

Elements of Storytelling 4: Heritage

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Whether you are a writer, entrepreneur or politician your story is how you connect with people.

The elements of storytelling are like the letters of the alphabet. Once you know them, you can put them together to tell your story in the best way possible.

Element 4: Heritage

Stories are how we connect to the past and make sense of the present. Heritage gives us a sense of shared lives, experiences, and memories.

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Case study: St. John & Dolly Smith’s Pickles

What it is:

Possibly Britain’s best pickles, sauces and chutneys. The first time I tried St. John & Dolly Smith’s ‘Scotch Bonnet Pickle’ my taste buds lit up like someone put 1000 volts through them. It was a blistering simultaneous hit of taste and sensation. The heat-wave receded leaving two questions: Who made this? And: Where can I get some more?

I tracked down founder and self-styled Pickleman Chris Smith and discovered a backstory as flavourful as his creations.

Why it matters:

The sauces, pickles and chutneys would be extraordinary, with or without the story of St. John and Dolly Smith. But by connecting his product to its heritage, Chris taps into a primal hunger for stories about love, belonging, success and navigating an ever-changing world. His heritage touches on history, empire, education, immigration, death, and the inevitable march of time. The details of our stories are different, but every one of us experiences equally big, scary, life events. I fell in love with the pickle and its promise that change can be beautiful and there is always another chapter to be written.

The St. John & Dolly Smith story:

St. John Smith taught at some of India’s best schools, some of which were boarding schools where Dolly’s role was that of house matron. When their two older sons left university they moved to England with 13-year-old Chris. It was the first time he’d left India and his abiding memory is of coming off the boat to see frost so thick on the ground it looked like snow. The utter foreignness of his new home was assuaged by the familiar foods of Bangalore.

“Friends were crazy about my parent’s cooking. They would come around with a list of requests for their favourites but my mum and dad were very modest,” Chris recalls fondly. “They always thought ‘oh, they’re just being polite.’”

As the son of gifted cooks, he admits to never doing much in the kitchen. “Why would I, when they could do it better?” One of Dolly’s traditions was taking jars of pickle to school reunions, a flavoursome evocation of shared memories. After his mother passed away, a chance meeting with one of her old friends encouraged Chris to dig out her recipes and revisit his culinary heritage.

Read more here

Practice: “Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul. What can you recall about your birthday parties — the disasters, the days of grace, your relatives’ faces lit up by birthday candles? Scratch around for details: what people ate, listened to, wore — those terrible petaled swim caps, the men’s awful trunks, the cocktail dress your voluptuous aunt wore that was so slinky she practically needed the Jaws of Life to get out of it.” ~Anne Lamott in Bird By Bird

Remember: Even if you were in a prison whose walls allowed none of the sounds of the world to reach your senses — would you not still have always your childhood, that precious, royal richness, that treasure house of memories?” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Poem of the Month – If by Rudyard Kipling

If is the poetic equivalent of “…Baby One More Time”: it’s naff, simplistic, brash and its politics don’t bear examination but Christ it’s catchy. I can’t remember when I first read or heard the poem, but fragments of it are buried in my brain like shrapnel.

Kipling was a jingoistic racist. If is patronising hooey. Still, the line “if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run…” has gotten me up more hills than I can count. So there’s that.

Why memorise If? In part because I think it’ll come in handy over the next couple of months in Ibiza (“If you can keep your head when all about you/ are losing theirs…”) and partly to acknowledge the fact that bad poetry can be as useful, or meaningful, in the right context, as the most exquisite sonnet.

What’s your favourite bad poem? Share in the comments.
run

If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Treed

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A poem in progress

TREED

Suspended in your limbs the
sky shatters to dancing fractals.
Height makes me dizzy.
Pressed by gravity to your
contours
corpuscles shriek.
My heart screeches
out of control.
Refusing to
fall
I
will
climb
(down).

Wood against flesh.
Taut, anxious;
mute and clumsy; bones
rattle against every
branch on the way. Till I

f
a
l
l

and tangle in your roots.

Bruises rise like
sap. Sunshine
sears the skin your fingers warmed.
Wind dips to kindly whisper:
Let go.

Running, Writing and Creativity

An excerpt from an essay I wrote on my relationship with running, writing, and creativity.

Read the full piece at The Nervous Breakdown

Run time

Run time

I now recognise the two things my soul needs: running and writing. Running, first, because it is obvious, though the less important of the two. Like good grammar, it is essential to my sense of order and well-being, but I only make a fuss in its absence. A nagging pain in my foot warns me to leave my trainers under the bed, unlaced. My brain knows better than to aggravate an injury but the rest of my body is twitchily uninformed. There is nothing wrong with me apart from a sense of abstraction and discontent. Without the discipline of running and long breaths of cold, cleansing air I am inefficient, fretful, soft in a bruised-fruit kind of way.

Without creative activity my brain fidgets and stews. As with running, the longer I go not writing the more I yearn to and, paradoxically, the more difficult it becomes. After a few days off I feel both dread and pleasure at the prospect of a run. Similarly, when I don’t write the idea of writing fills my head, swells to such vast importance that the process grows alien and terrifying. My fractious mind elides twenty-odd years of devotion and discipline and whispers “you can’t,” or “you can, but it won’t be any good.” Absence opens the door and Doubt saunters in carrying a funhouse mirror where past and future crush unbearably against the present. Anxiety ripples through me like a tiny earthquake, shimmying books off shelves and setting my internal crockery a-rattle. The Fear descends: my book will remain unwritten; questions scribbled in notebook margins will remain unexplored; I will tell no stories; never again will I craft a beautiful essay or forget time as I play a private game with my twenty-six favourite toys.


What co-creative activity gets your writing flowing? Share in the comments.