Solitary Solidarity: Choosing Solitude in an Age of Interconnection

‘We Are the Weather’ by Jonathan Safran Foer (FSG 2019)

In October I wrote a review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book We Are the Weather, which had been released at the end of August. Since the publishing industry moves at a glacial pace, the review wasn’t posted for another six months, at which point I’d moved on to other books.

The lives lived in the gaps between writing and publishing sometimes feel as though no time has passed, and other times it feels like an eternity.

I know I’m not alone in saying the last six months — if not the last six days — have felt like an eternity. We Are the Weather became a distant memory, even though I closed the book determined to shift my daily habits, to tread more lightly on the planet. Then life happened, which is precisely the premise of the book: how to act on what we know, and interrogating why we don’t act when we do know.

Lately, I lie in bed at night and imagine the knock-on effects of the pandemic. It’s like counting sheep, except it doesn’t put me to sleep very quickly, and when it does, it prompts turbulent dreams. The other night I dreamt I went to a bar with my older brother and it was almost empty. We weren’t sure where to sit. I felt guilty for even being there. The dream was interrupted by my dog barking.

Wide awake in the middle of the night, Foer’s book floated to the forefront of my mind.

In the second chapter, Foer writes, Americans in cities along the East Coast turned off their lights at dusk during World War II. The cities weren’t in danger of being bombed, but the effort was to prevent German U-boats from using urban backlighting to spot and destroy ships exiting harbor.

As the war progressed, blackouts were practiced in cities across the country, even those far from the coast, to immerse civilians in a conflict whose horrors were out of sight but whose victory would require collective action. On the home front, Americans needed a reminder that life as they knew it could be destroyed, and darkness was one way to illuminate the threat. (Foer)

When the coronavirus was escalated to a pandemic, I started to see social media posts stating, Our elders were called to war to save lives. We are being called to sit on the couch to save theirs. This presumes that only the lives of elders are impacted by the pandemic, when other populations and communities are also vulnerable. But yes, some of our elders were called to war, and those who weren’t contributed in other ways.

Foer writes, World War II would not have been won without home-front actions that had both psychological and tangible impacts: ordinary people joining together to support the greater cause. Manufacturing companies shifted production to military goods, citizens planted victory gardens, Hollywood and Disney films supported the war efforts, and widespread rationing and reuse of resources occurred.

In April of 1942, President Roosevelt said, Here at home everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary […]. This will require, of course, the abandonment not only of luxuries, but of many other creature comforts.

A friend in Canada messaged and asked how my “lockdown” was going, and I replied that it was not much different than my usual day to day — which is at once eerie and privileged. Six months ago, I intentionally scaled back social engagements and commitments to spend more time alone. After my spouse and I amicably split and he moved back to the East Coast, and after a brief interlude into the dating pool that collapsed more spectacularly than an above ground swimming pool, I retreated into solitude: no social engagements, no social media, no distractions, and no television for three weeks.

One friend chastised me, said it was the opposite of what I should be doing, but I disagreed. At first it felt uncomfortable — at times I simply sat and stared at the wall — but soon I became obsessed with solitude: a subject often written about and glorified by men, whereas women who choose to be alone are crazy spinsters. I’m not interested in extreme retreats like Vipassana or removals from society as much as I am interested in how to weave solitude into day-to-day life; I’m interested in the texture and shape of it — what it looks and feels like to be alone in an age of interconnection. I even began writing a book on the topic, but when I started leaning into solitude, I couldn’t have imagined entire nations would be locked indoors for weeks at a time, if not months. Suddenly my chosen solitude, which I’d begun to take for granted, was thrown into sharp relief.

I live alone with my dog. My apartment is a block from a park, where we sometimes walk for an hour without seeing another human being, even though it’s within city limits. I work part-time in an office, where I am the sole employee, answering emails and phone calls. The rest of the time I work as a freelancer, and though I’ve already experienced a loss in income, it pales in comparison to those who can’t go to work at all. I own a car and a bicycle and don’t rely on public transit. The only modern conveniences my apartment lacks are a microwave and a washer-dryer. My closest family members live over 200 miles away, and most are on the East Coast. I am thoroughly alone almost all the time.

I personally love solitude, and yet, despite or perhaps because of all this, the sudden enforced solitude makes me want to go out, to rebel. In Anthony Storr’s 1988 book on the subject, the psychiatrist and author notes how enforced solitude is very different from chosen solitude. In 2011, a UN expert said solitary confinement could be cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and should be banned.

Enforced solitude makes me want to leave my cocoon, and yet I’m usually quite content to stay home and read. It’s as though I know what needs to be done to stave off the spread of a pandemic, but I don’t want to do it.

There isn’t widespread testing, and there’s only been a few confirmed cases in the county in which I reside in Wisconsin. I could choose to ignore it, or brush aside the severity of the situation, thinking it exists over there and not here. But I’d rather be safe and wrong than unsafe and wrong. It isn’t a huge sacrifice for me to abstain from going to a coffee shop or out to dinner, though I’ll miss my latest luxury: weekly dinners with my friend at a restaurant equidistant from our respective apartments.

On the phone instead, we remarked at how uncomfortable this all feels, and how it’s uncertain when and if life will go back to the way it once was, pre-pandemic. The same could be said for the climate crisis, and yet we continue on with our lives in relative comfort, forgetting or forgoing the uncomfortable truths about the state of the earth. We pretend or ignore it until we can’t any longer, until we’re forced to act, to drastically reroute our daily routines.

Foer mentions a friend who is a passionate environmentalist but refuses to read Eating Animals, his book on factory farming, because, He told me he’s afraid to read the book because he knows that it will require him to make a change he can’t make.

Which is the entire premise of We Are the Weather: Instead of marking himself as an expert on climate change and extolling the precise steps one needs to take to save the planet, the author and narrator admits how, though they know what needs to be done, they still can’t seem to do it. It’s marketed as a book on climate change that’s about so much more than climate — it’s about how to live; it’s about what to do in the face of a seemingly insurmountable problem.

Responses to the pandemic range from helpful articles to humorous memes (some unfortunately at the expense of those who are scared and vulnerable) to doomsday prophecies to conspiracy theories to self-help gurus and creatives telling everyone to just calm down and “raise the earth’s vibration.” Meditate! Be patient! And while you’re waiting, buy this immunity-boosting serum! In the midst of such a deluge of information, I’m not sure what to say — a phenomenon I mentioned in the review of We Are the Weather regarding my sense of speechlessness when people want to talk about fast fashion’s impacts on the environment. What else is there to say?

But saying nothing is also saying something.

When I found the words to describe We Are the Weather, I came up against some familiar arguments. People disagreed with the premise of the book before they’d even read it, immediately broaching the same point: our individual habits don’t matter, and focusing on personal responsibility excuses corporations and nations whose contributions to the climate crisis are inexcusable.

The same could be said for the pandemic, but opting to stay indoors to prevent the spread of disease (for those of us who are able) shouldn’t excuse corporations and nations from also taking action. Hopefully it propels them to act, because we need to stay inside and we need universal healthcare and social and financial systems that can take care of citizens (not just corporations) in times of crisis. It’s not either/or. It’s all of the above.

Roosevelt said everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary. Foer described how the WWII blackouts spread to the rest of the nation, even those far from the coast, because Americans needed a reminder that life as they knew it could be destroyed, and darkness was one way to illuminate the threat.

Perhaps solitude is our generation’s version of darkness, and in our solitary solidarity we can be reminded of the fragility of life, alongside glimmers of goodness and hope.

When, at the end of this great struggle, we shall have saved our free way of life, we shall have made no ‘sacrifice.’ (Roosevelt)

How would we regard someone who, in the middle of a great struggle to save not only millions of lives but ‘our free way of life.’ deemed turning off his lights too much of a sacrifice? (Foer)

But it’s easy for me to say that. I often choose solitude. So I’m not going to tell you what to do. You’re an adult. You probably already know what to do, or how to find the answer to the question of what to do. I’m not going to tell you to panic or stay calm or stay indoors (or #staythefuckhome) or meditate or take deep breaths, even though nonfiction is often predicated on the notion that the author is an expert who knows all the answers, or is willing to act as a vessel for the answers, neatly tying them in a bow at the end of the essay. But who am I to tell you what to do, when every ounce of me wants to do the opposite — to go outside, see friends, pretend nothing has changed? Who am I to tell you to enjoy your solitude when I’d happily exchange mine for the embrace of my nonexistent beloved?

I will only tell you this: in Michael Harris’s book on solitude, he notes, romantic connections benefit from solitude nearly as much as the beloved’s company. We need absence in order to appreciate presence.

After all, he writes, it is the inevitable fact of our body’s isolation, it’s hard limits — alone with the fact of our death — that makes us love one another so well in the brief, bewildering chance that we have.

A version of ‘On Solitude’ originally appeared in the cedeling newsletter. The review of ‘We Are the Weather’ can be found at The Millions.

writer, editor, & bookstore co-founder —

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