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The Lonely Animals

July 19, 2013

The topic of “loneliness” has drifted in and out of my mind on more than one occasion ever since I moved away from home three years ago. Actually, it started even before I moved away.

Perhaps the feelings of loneliness started back in middle school when I felt that I was different from everybody else. Or perhaps it started in high school when at times, it felt like everybody was dating somebody except for me. Or perhaps it started in first year of university when I truly felt removed from many of my loved ones. Or perhaps it was in second year of university that I truly knew what loneliness meant when I felt that nobody knew or understood the real me. Or perhaps it was at the beginning of third year of university that I finally understood what loneliness meant when I literally lived alone and hardly spoke to anyone.

One thing’s for sure though: I haven’t felt or even thought about “loneliness” since September, which is a pretty long time to me. Well, that is, until today.

Despite the wonderful week I’ve been having thus far, I thought about loneliness today–not because I felt lonely. Au contraire! Although I was at the local café, reading alone, I felt very content. I didn’t feel alone because I wasn’t alone: I had my books (Maus II by Art Spiegelman and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein).

But the thought of “loneliness” came across my mind because I interacted with someone at the café who seemed to be feeling lonely, and this was not the first time that I’ve interacted with people who struck me as appearing “lonely.”

I used to frequent a particular café near my apartment when I was at school. There was one lady in her fifties who I secretly nicknamed, “The Knitting Lady” because she was always knitting. She also always sat at the exact same time at the exact same time everyday. After a couple of weeks, I managed to grab a seat at the table beside her. She noticed that I was reading a Margaret Atwood book, and we started conversing about it. Ever since then, BL and I have been sweet friends. We always met at that café to talk. Actually, it was mostly she who was doing the talking, but I didn’t mind. I loved to hear her stories. When I told her that I was going back home for the year, she was sad but she was very understanding. And when I returned to the city a couple of months ago, she hugged me, gave me plenty of bises, and told me how much she had missed me. Over this past year, she has sent me many letters (a package too), all en français and attached with little snippets of newspaper with information of art gallery showings here in Toronto (she’s an artist). In fact, I just received a letter from her yesterday and wrote one back to her today.

She once told me how lonely she felt during the summer because all of her friends were away. And judging the speed at which she was telling me everything that was happening in her life, it really hit me that the talk that she and I were having was curing her loneliness.

Today, I was sitting in my usual seat at the café when a woman in her sixties came up to me and asked if anyone was sitting next to me. I told her no, and she smiled at me. She put her things down, asked me to watch them while she went to order her drink. Several times over the next hour-and-a-half, she asked me to watched her belongings for her as she went to get some food, or went to the bathroom, or went to go look for her friend, or went to go pick up her book. Of course, I said yes. I was just sitting there anyway, reading Stein’s book (which, by the way, is confusing and all over the place but is still very interesting). Every time she came back from wherever she had went, we would speak for one or two minutes. I would ask her if she had gotten her book yet, or if she had found her friend, &c.

Then around 5:30 p.m., I started to pack up my things to leave. She turned to me and said, “Oh, but you can’t leave!” She said it in a jokingly manner, so I smiled and said, “Why not?” She didn’t answer me right away, but when she did, she said, “You have just been such great company.” I smiled and said, “Thank you” while I continued to pack up my things. When I stood up, she turned to me and looked worried. “You’re leaving?! You can’t!” she said. Her worrisome expression made me anxious. I didn’t want her to feel distressful. I told her, “Oh, but I must. I have been here for too long now. Almost four hours!” And then she asked me if I lived far, to which I answered, “Not at all. If I walk slowly, it takes about thirty minutes.” She was taken aback and asked me why I didn’t just take a taxi. I chuckled (because I was thinking, me? Taking a taxi? I don’t think so!) and told her it was fine–that I was used to walking everywhere, and in fact, I love walking when it’s beautiful outside. At that point, I picked up my bag and bade her goodbye. “Have a lovely evening,” I said to her. “I hope to see you again,” she said. To that, I said, “Oh don’t worry. I’m here all the time!” (Which is completely true. Today, the barista who now knows me by name asked me if I had a job because I am always at the café. I told him my full-time job is reading, writing, and spending alone time.)

After leaving her, I replayed my whole encounter with her in my head. I didn’t feel as though I did much or even said much to her, but the fact that she said, “You have just been such great company” led me to the conclusion that sometimes, all you really need is just for someone to be there with you. Old, young, middle-aged–we all sometimes need someone to talk to, to listen to us, or to just be there with us.

But sometimes, being alone can be great. More than one friend has pointed out to me that I spend too much “me-time”–that this sounds alarm bells and is Depressing. I pointed out to one such friend that I actually enjoy my me-time a lot, and that I never feel lonely when I’m spending time with myself. I pointed out that being alone is not the same as feeling alone. The latter, you can gather, is much worse. Sometimes, you can be alone and feel incredible happy, as is the case with all of the me-time I have been having lately. And sometimes, you can be among a sea of people and still feel incredibly lonely. Sometimes, you can just be walking on the street and suddenly feel lonely without knowing why.

The word “lonely” is just a derivative of the word “alone,” and yet, they can mean such different things. Isn’t it strange that we can feel lonely without being alone? Or isn’t strange that we can be alone without feeling lonely?

And isn’t it strange that humans are supposed to be social animals, and yet, we are still capable of feelings of such loneliness?

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