Friday, August 21, 2009

Enough with the angst, already; what are you reading?

I suffer from intermittent bouts of loneliness, which I stubbornly refuse to treat, but which leave me absurdly sensitive to all mentions of my condition in books.

I was reading "Iris and Ruby" by Rosie Thomas, which is about a granddaughter (Ruby) and her grandmother (Iris) who are in Cairo (where Iris lives and to which Ruby has run away) when the middle generation, Ruby's mother Lesley, appears. The three women are in the courtyard of the house in Cairo, talking about the upcoming Christmas holiday.

It was a winter's day. The parallelogram of sky overhead was pewter grey, but the garden offered shelter from the cold as well as the heat of summer. Iris sat wrapped in blankets, her stick laid beside her chair.

Lesley bowed her head. "I understand. But you see, Mummy, I have to go home to Andrew and Ed because we do have Christmas; Ed's still a little boy, really. But I am torn because I don't want to go and leave you when you are not strong, and I don't want you to be lonely."

Ruby looked quickly away, up at the needle points of the minarets that now seemed almost to pierce the heavy clouds.

"Lonely," Iris repeated, in a voice that sounded as cold as frost.

Lesley persisted, unwisely. "Yes."

Iris's fingers tapped on the wooden arm of her chair. "It takes some initial determination to be alone. After that it is easy."


"Perhaps you are the one who is lonely."

Ruby drew in a sharp breath and stole a look at her mother. Lesley sat very still. There were tight lines drawn from her nose to the corners of her mouth. "Perhaps," she agreed.

No one said anything else and raindrops suddenly scattered on the tiles.

"Let's see you indoors," Lesley murmured and went to help Iris to her feet.

Two things strike me as interesting about this passage: first of all, it's how loneliness is perceived, as the worst possible outcome. What is it about our society that we think being by yourself is the worst thing? It isn't; but being seen as a lonely person is pretty awful. The sickly pity, the refrain of "Eleanor Rigby" hummed along in the background. (Ah, look at all the lonely people! Where do they all come from?)

The second thing that made me notice this little scene in what is, after all, a pretty big and very engaging novel, is the difference, shown by language but not pointed at explicitly, between being alone and being lonely. It is, I have often believed, quite possible to be alone and not at all lonely. The opposite is also true: I have been in several relationships where I was gasping from loneliness, when I wasn't supposed to be and couldn't admit it. ("You couldn't possibly be lonely, now that you've finally got yourself a boyfriend!" people would have said, refusing to see what is apparent if it doesn't fit with what they believe.)

I also believe quite firmly in what Iris says: It takes some initial determination to be lonely - although sometimes, like greatness, loneliness is thrust upon us.

After that it's easy.

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