Alone. As an only child, this word has never seemed particularly threatening to me. I am currently studying in Paris, and although I have made friends here, I really am alone. I speak very broken French, and unlike some of my classmates, I have neither jet-setting international relatives in France nor a previous experience of being in other countries for more than a week at a time. But (perhaps because I live in an English-speaking bubble) I am pretty comfortable here. I’m not singing out from the bell tower of Notre Dame with joy, but all of my expectations have been met or exceeded, and I have seen many interesting things that most people only dream of seeing, and so I am content. To expect for your life to transform magically once you are placed in a new environment is an unrealistic, cinematic expectation. When a plant is repotted, it is still the same plant, the flowers it produces will be the same type. But being alone in a new place, once you’re used to it, allows you to see yourself for who you really are a bit clearer. And as I gain some perspective on my inner and outer worlds, I have thought a lot about what it means to be alone.
When I was small, I spent a lot of time by myself, and so developed a complex inner world full of stories and imaginary characters. I drew and read obsessively. As I grow up, I regret not making the time to continue doing both those things, but at the same time I have also begun to understand the downsides of being stuck in your own head. This kind of aloneness does have its advantages, and since I didn’t have any siblings, I was exposed to things from the “adult world” sooner, I think, than many others my age. I was able to go to art museums and petting zoos and I didn’t have to share my mom’s old “dress-up” clothes with anyone. On the other hand, I learned about death and old age before some of my peers, and vividly remember visiting my grandparents in nursing homes and hearing an insane patient down the hall screaming. My childhood was very happy but often very serious, and I think it shaped who I am today: optimistic and curious, but introspective and cautious.
I grew up far away from any relatives my age, but somehow my extended family had a lot to do with my worldview up until I was 19 or so. The idea that one must build their own happiness with their bare hands, that one must put in an incredible amount of work for everything they have, was not one I had thought about much. I thought good things, like steady jobs and spouses, just sort of floated into people’s lives, and that some painful and unfair things were bound to each of us, but that people could usually recover from those things. I grew up middle-class in suburbia, and my two sets of grandparents were married for 51 and 67 years, so maybe it makes some sense I had that idea. But at this point in my life, I am realizing that my only-ness will make my path to building happiness interesting, challenging (but hopefully not too much), and unconventional. My parents did not have me young, and with no extended family near me that I am close with, I imagine that my future family will probably include aunts and uncles for my children that are really just my friends. I’m not pitying myself and pretending that I’m some kind of forgotten misanthrope, but it is both exciting and a little jarring to realize that my future family will be almost completely chosen by me instead of given to me by genetics. And now that I am more aware of this aloneness, I am not sure how to approach it. I have been living in a foreign country for four months and will soon return to the big, familiar city I moved to two years ago. Everything I have in my future—my career, which must be acquired with an Art History degree and in a bleak, insecure job market; my family, which will be determined by the friends I have made and will continue to make and by whomever I have children with; the attitude with which I choose to see my world—must be constructed exclusively by me. I am the captain of my own ship, the chief cook and bottle washer, and if the ship runs aground or makes it to port, I am the only one accountable. I don’t know if I should feel liberated or terrified.
I consider myself socially and politically liberal, but I am realizing that when it comes to my own life, I do things very by-the-book. I thought life existed in the black-and-white of Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and I still fear that I could, like Mary, “grow up” to be that lonely, bookish woman she becomes when George is taken out of the equation. It’s funny how my life seems both empty and full now that I’m “out in the world” and can get a glimpse into how other people really live their lives (although comparison is usually a bad idea). It seems the color on my old TV set could be turned on somehow, but I’m too busy shielding my eyes from the light.