Molly Fisk: The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness

4044211790_cdaeb8d649_zPhoto by Moyan Brenn via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One big drawback to living with cats is they’re not good at holding a conversation. Monologues, yes, which I mostly understand, that have to do with food, competition, my lap, and bad weather. And food. I would actually be interested to hear if blue jays taste better than gophers and why they don’t eat that one internal organ always left on the carpet. I bet they could tell me what’s happened to some of our cats who’ve disappeared. But about these subjects they are mum.

I have lively discussions with the baristas at my favorite coffee shop, and my friends and I talk each others’ ears off. But I actually spend most of my days either by myself or teaching, which is another monologue sport. Facebook provides an interesting social scene I never expected, and now and then a good conversation emerges, but mostly it tends toward one-liners or argumentation. Writing has aspects of conversation to it — I get to propose something I’m interested in. But no one responds, or they respond a few days later, after they’ve heard me on the radio.

What I’m thinking about right now is the paper-thin line between solitude and loneliness — why the first is replenishing and the second debilitating, when in both cases you might just be sitting on your front stoop listening to wind in the trees. A mother of three teenagers would call it blessed solitude when her kids are all at the movies and she gets a minute to herself. Whereas a bachelor could feel crushed by loneliness sitting out there wondering what the hell to make for dinner for the two-hundredth time.

I call it solitude when I’m in a good mood and saw a lot of people the day before. But if it’s the fifth night by myself and the phone is silent, I’m near the screaming level of loneliness. The quickest fix for me is to go to the grocery store. Seeing all those checkers I’ve known for years is oddly comforting, and reminds me I live in this particular town and haven’t just drifted off the edge of the world. Usually then I can gather up enough energy to call a friend or make some kind of plan so I won’t be alone the next day.

People in families have no idea what privileges they enjoy: to be touched, to belong, to engage in conversation. I don’t mean to idealize anything. . .  we all know families can be hard, too. But the dilemma of managing your own loneliness is often solved just by proximity. People who live in isolation have to be on the ball not to let it get out of hand. That cliff-edge over the Sea of Despond is always closer than you think.

Which is one reason I frequent my favorite coffee shop almost every morning. Today, as I was writing, a friend settled into his chair beside me and said,

“For my 16th birthday my dad took me bear hunting.”

 Now that’s what I call a conversation-starter.

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  • Dina Barzilai October 29, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks Molly. Reading and thinking about this was the impetus that helped me force myself to go out with friends last night. I’m glad I did.

  • Molly Fisk October 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    I’m glad so many of you are relating to this, and as a person who’s lived alone most of her life, I just want to say to people who are in big families, it’s possible and can be quite fruitful to live alone, but there’s adjusting required of course. I haven’t felt “not relevant” as Susanna mentions, but I know that people can, especially as we get older. Since I’m a poet, I’m kind of in charge of my own relevance, anyway, poetry being on the margins of modern American life the way it is. Much love to you all, M.

  • Robin C October 26, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    lovely, Molly – I’m living en famille lately & you remind me of the part I like – noise and the sense of others living – to offset the NOISE of others living! – these days instead of going out to find people I go out to escape people – all the same, eh? balance is all –

  • Susanna in Santa Cruz October 26, 2015 at 11:57 am

    How well you’ve delved into this shaming dilemma: admitting to any form of loneliness means that you’re no longer “relevant,” and this is a reality for some of us.
    People call…but only when they want something, not for the pleasure of sharing a cup of coffee or, would that it were, an invitation to something fun.
    There’s so much more to say on this topic. Thanks, Nolly, for bringing it up.

  • Sharon McGee October 24, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    When both of my sons left for school this fall, I noticed how the silence in my home was different. It wasn’t the relieved silence of a home without noisy children…for a minute. It wasn’t the worried silence when teenagers were out driving…until they got back home. It was a sad silence; a heavy silence; a silence filled with loss and longing.

    I’m growing accustomed to the new silence in my home, but I find myself at work longer, at the gym later, and I’ve found that solitude is less treasured when I have it in such abundance.

  • Leslie in Oregon October 24, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    This piece really speaks to me, Molly. Although I am privileged to live on the solitude side of the spectrum most of the time, I am keenly aware of just how easily and fast I could find myself on the loneliness side all of the time. I’m not sure what will happen when I have to reach outside of my household in order to relieve that loneliness with something more than casual contact.

  • Sharon Hollis October 24, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Perfect reading for today. I can totally relate.

  • Molly Fisk October 24, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks, Roz, and very good point about libraries. They are golden. 😉

  • Roz Warren October 24, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Good piece. The local public library is also a terrific place to go if you want some interaction with your fellow humans. I work at my local public library and we have a lot of regular patrons who live on their own and come in often to browse and schmooze with us and with other patrons.