written/non-written things by me (from 2005-2008)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

How to be Alone.

About 3 years ago I went on a Jonathan Franzen kick, after reading one of my favorite books, The Corrections. The kick had concluded with his lastest book, How to be Alone, a collection of essays on the subject. I had read the book at a time when I wasn’t alone (as it happens, in both the physical and romantic sense). I was living with someone and ‘we’ were enjoying the hyper-active social life of students. I remember feeling a tad self-conscious to read the book in bed (with its title showing) with someone lying next to me, as if it were an indictment of the state of a relationship, or worse, perhaps it would be perceived as a self-help book of some post-break up variety, perhaps my partner might falsely foreshadow an impending end. But it was neither. It was just another Franzen book that I had to read.

Despite, our familiar association with aloneness as being “single,” the book isn’t about romantic relationships at all, its about being alone with your ‘self’ and the phenomena which then play out. I remember that to read How to be Alone in such time felt like I was living vicariously through it, recollecting my past. Even in college, I had lived alone previously for a few years. No doubt being an only child raised by a single mother has something to do with it. Alone has always, and potentially always will be, the baseline, the normative state. Conversely, to live in close proximity with others had always felt like an instructional experience, maybe “How to be Not Alone.” Despite learning from it, always I felt tested by it, how to get along nicely, how to assuage, how to maintain what it is that makes a partnership good to begin with. To say no more, I had read the book at the wrong time. But now, it seems right.

I came across the book surprisingly the other day in the Bookworm (an English language cafĂ© and lending Library in Sanlitun). I didn’t necessarily want to re-read it again--despite the conditions being perfect: young foreign women, newly in China, speaking little Chinese--here, the state of aloneness is real and welcomed because daily life in a new and alien place can be exhilarating and challenging. Seeing the book did remind me that I should re-listen to an NPR interview with Franzen. See, since being here--furthermore, since keeping this blog and the basket of mixed-feelings I have about writing so personally, and so visibly--I had been trying to recall a particularly on-the-mark comment he had made about the difference between alone and lonely, most in particular what he says about aloneness. Despite not remembering the exact phrasing, the idea has hovered around me I write (sometimes), and photograph, as I merely walk and listen to music and take in this new thing I call my Life in China. Genuinely and often I feel like I am within something, like a movie, that’s stereoscopic and reflective.

I am re-listening to Franzen’s interview. The quote in its exactness :
“Alone, in a way, simply means there is some story that you are telling about yourself. You are actually a character in a narrative, rather than passively absorbing other narratives. Aloneness in that sense is a pure good.”

Alone and Loneliness. I have felt both here and like to believe I am pretty aware of the difference. My bouts of loneliness have been mostly triggered by the missing of old friends, rather than not having any new friends. I like to think that these ‘bouts’ are all healthy and formative. An only child has his/her strategies to evade loneliness, anyone who knows me, knows I have many hobbies and means of amusing myself. And now, that I have my own place with ample space to lay them out, I feel ecstatic to enliven the Hannah I was when I was 8, the girl with bedroom and a playroom and a dancing loft because again I have all three, and then some. Right now I write this looking out onto my sun porch, through my cluttered laundry line, cold air conditioner blowing directly on my forehead, outside there are birds and crickets, and the sounds of a season that reminds me even more so of aloneness, Summer. It’s a pure good.

My name is Hannah Pierce-Carlson