All By Yourself
My cat ran away over the summer, so now it's easier for me to pick my favorite person: it used to be neck-in-neck between Satchmo (cat) and Alexis (human). Now that Satchmo is gone, Alexis is my favorite by a landslide.
Alexis is my younger sister. If you haven't read anything I've written about her yet (there's plenty), here's a quick primer. Alexis has an elaborate Zelda Tri-Force tattooed on her back, and the mythical land of Rivendell (ala Lord of the Rings) quarter-sleeved on her left shoulder. She's good friends with Keith Baker (he wrote Gloom, and is letting Alexis test-play his new game). She is a photographer. She scales mountains. She teaches yoga. She codes computers. In other words, she's the perfect woman, and everyone who knows anything about her understands this.
Last summer, at dinner with our family, Alexis said that she didn't think she would ever get married. She said she would be comfortable having a life commitment ceremony where she committed herself to me and I committed myself to her, but that was all she could really imagine doing. I agree. Alexis is the love of my life. We should be allowed to have a giant party to celebrate that, where there are assorted galettes. (That's the only thing about having a wedding that really appeals to me: you get to have fancy pie.)
I say all this to make it abundantly clear that when Alexis dropped her phone in the ocean last weekend -- while on a solitary adventure with our family dog, because she's the perfect woman (see above) -- I was NOT amused. Alexis' phone is a huge part of my life, since she lives thousands of miles away from me.
But recently, Alexis told me that she wanted to take a social hiatus.
"Why?" I said.
"I just need space," she said.
"Who do you need space from?" I asked.
"Everyone," she said.
It's not like Alexis is moody or anything -- she's actually an extrovert; but she DOES have a lot on her plate. She has an important nine-to-five, and she's simultaneously in grad school. Something had to change.
Three days after she dropped her phone in the ocean, Alexis sent an e-mail to our entire family. It said, "As I hope you all know by now, I do not have a cell phone. I am really enjoying not having a cell phone, and am not sure when I will get my old phone reactivated."
Two nights ago, my roommate Hannah told me that she was intentionally spending the evening alone in the kitchen making butternut squash soup. She was going to intentionally miss a meeting, she was going to intentionally not check her e-mail. She said I could join her for the soup, but that frankly, she'd be fine eating it alone too. Obviously, I joined her, because who is going to turn down butternut squash soup? Only crazy people, and people with squash allergies. (To those with squash allergies: My SINCEREST condolences. That must suck.)
At dinner, she told me about how her friend Shelley famously turned her phone off every Saturday. She spent the day cut off, dotting around the house, doing little projects, gardening, and reading fiction novels in bed. I thought, "I can't imagine what it would be like to turn my phone off for a day."
Later, my friend Luke called me from a business trip he's taking in Alabama. I asked what his plan was for the night and he said he was going to go to a Korean restaurant by himself. I asked him if he did that a lot. He said, "Oh yeah. I am a strong proponent of having dinner alone, and going to movies alone, and alone time in general."
I know what hell looks like, and here it is. You're at a crawfish boil. There are 20 other people at the crawfish boil, who you sort of tangentially know, but you can't remember any of their names. They ALL remember YOUR name, and line of work, and most recent boyfriend. ("Are you still heartbroken? He was such a CATCH!" they say.) The person who is in charge of music only has moderately-known classic rock records from the late seventies, and plays them just loud enough that it strains your voice to talk over them. You keep saying, "I have to go!" And the people say, "Don't go! Please stay! We want you to stay. Here. Eat a crawfish." They hand you a crawfish, and you say you are a vegetarian, and they say fish don't count.
I've always disliked being around people. As a kid, I thought this was simple: I was an introvert, the end. In large social gatherings, I get embarrassingly gregarious: I ask "would you rather" questions, run around trying to do dishes prematurely, and spend unacceptable lengths of time in the bathroom. I am very good at Irish Exits. (Or, rather, I tend to think I am very good at Irish Exits. Usually I slip out the back and basically immediately receive a text from someone inside that says something like, "Dude, did you just Irish Exit? Not cool.") I assumed, until very recently, that my social anxiety in group settings was unusual and signified some kind of inherent brokenness.
Case in point: last night I went to a dinner party at my friend Shant's house. His mother was in town and she cooked for 15: rice, lentils, salads, and plenty of savory pastries. Shant had invited a small group of seemingly-extroverted people. When I got there, ten guests were tangled up in the kitchen, laughing and helping to prepare the meal. I hung back, watching the alphas of my species engage in a typical social environment with an ease that I couldn't fathom. "Could you please pass me that box of napkins?" A pretty girl with a genuine-looking smile motioned to a package of disposable napkins behind me. How did she DO that? She just walked right up and interacted with me like it was NO BIG DEAL. I could never be like her. I continued to hang back.
Shant's roommate Jared came up behind me. Jared and I are close, so I felt like I could be honest with him.
"Are you ok? What's up?" he asked.
"This is horrible. Isn't this horrible? I don't know these people! I don't know how to TALK to anyone."
Jared put his hand on my shoulder, like we were in an after-school special. "You know EVERYONE feels that way, right?" I wanted to tell Jared about the napkin girl -- how she so nonchalantly asked me for napkins, like it was the most basic thing in the world. But Jared was gone, off into wilderness of social interaction without so much as a goodbye.
Alexis is an extrovert. Psychologically speaking, that means she is someone who is energized by being around other people. I am, indeed, an introvert -- meaning that I am energized by being alone. The thing that I have been wrong about for so long is this idea that anyone could really only need one (socialization) or the other (solitude). Humans are social creatures. We need to be around each other; we long for community. We also require space and time to be alone and cultivate self-loving.
The "cultivate self-loving" part is key. Self-love doesn't come from other people telling you you're great; it doesn't come from audiences laughing at your stand-up material or strangers favoriting your Tweets; it doesn't come from getting people you used to know to click "Like" on your nihilistic Facebook updates; it doesn't come from talking to your sister on the phone so she can confirm for you that [Boy] really IS being an asshole, and you really ARE a hero. Validation from others feels nice, but it has no sticking power if you haven't been able to really sit with yourself for a while, allowing yourself to love your life exactly as it is.
That's what's so powerful about Alexis' decision not to get a new phone, and Hannah's decision to make soup by herself, and Luke's decision to eat dinner out alone as regularly as he can. These are all decisions to give oneself some TIME. It's not the same as coming home from work feeling dejected and exhausted and saying, "Fuck it, everything's already a disaster, I'm just gonna binge-watch 'Scandal' and order a pizza, because I'm a huge mess of a human being." There's something very important about saying, "I am giving myself some time to love the life that's here" with intention.
When I really feel like I've taken time for myself -- uncompromised, non-work-related time -- I do better at dinner parties and crawfish boils. I start to feel like I have more space to be around other people, and I am able to let go (at least a little) of the social anxiety that comes with huge groups of strangers. Sometimes I start to actually have FUN.
So I've started adding blocks of time into my calendar that say, "SOPHIE DATE: IMPORTANT." Sometimes people I really love call and ask if I can hang out with them during those time blocks. It has been enormously challenging, but I'm learning to say, "I actually have a really important meeting at that time. Let's look at next week."
This is my version of throwing my phone into the ocean.