You get so alone at times that it just makes sense
Updated: Jun 21
Lately, I’ve been wanting to stay up all night with people I’ve just met. I want to learn everything about them. I want them to know everything about me. Those nights where you stop watching the time. You forget to top up your drinks. The birds start singing but you don't feel bad about it.
Hanging out in Sheffield, 2016.
When I started writing this, it was going to be an ode to hanging out. I was going to write about how lockdown made me so obsessed with work and anything I could tick off a checklist (French, reading, films etc.) that I’d forgotten about the joy of just being with people and doing nothing productive but feeling alright anyway.
Then I started thinking about loneliness. I've wanted to write about loneliness for a long time; storing loose sentences in Word documents and notes apps. The posts on this blog usually circle back to it in some way, whether I'm writing about dancing alone or travelling alone. But loneliness itself felt like a humongous topic. It was too big. When I imagine it, I think of a vast empty void. How do you fill a void like that with words that mean anything? I needed to experience the opposite of loneliness, however fleeting, to be able to finally write about it.
Last bank holiday as the sun beat down and pubs welcomed us in, things felt a bit more ‘normal’ for the first time in months. Parks and beer gardens were filled with shiny, happy people. We drank too much and slept too little, filling up Instagram stories and emptying bank accounts. It really did feel like the best bank holiday. It felt like the first bank holiday; like things could be ok again. Better than ok, even. Things could be good.
I don't usually feel like that after a bank holiday. I know that the above paragraph describes far from a universal experience. I used to hate bank holidays, spending three days fantasising about all the things I might be missing out on. It didn't matter that it would be impossible for these imagined events to ever be as good as they were in my head. It made me feel bad anyway. I wrote a poem about that feeling a few years ago on a rainy bank holiday called Happy When It Rains. I was bitter about everyone having fun so I was glad when it rained for three days straight. One part went, “when it rains I can be blue eyed not green / dreaming of you dropping by / a string of perfect summer nights / with people I thought I knew.” That sums up how I normally feel about sunny bank holidays.
But the last bank holiday was different.
For a long time before lockdown, I was lonely. I felt so lonely that I was sure that people could smell it on me, like any time I entered a room, squeezed up against someone at a bar, offered a hesitant hello I was radiating an embarrassing level of aloneness. Then lockdown happened and, over the past year, everyone has been lonely. We’re familiar with loneliness now. We feel its empty spaces everywhere. We teach ourselves how to mould and play with it only to watch the emptiness multiply. We know how it makes us act strangely, or get quiet, or bitter, or needy. How we still try to kill it in the wrong places with work, with booze, with dating apps.
And we all knew that feeling before the pandemic. We just hid it better. Because young people are lonely (40% of 16-24 year-olds report feeling lonely often or very often.) Only now it doesn’t feel so shameful anymore. Now, it’s normal. We can exchange tales of loneliness at loud parties and acknowledge the happy irony. The loneliness doesn’t stick to me anymore. It permeates the room, mixing with other people’s and simply by virtue of doing that, it’s no longer lonely.
Perhaps that’s why I feel more confident, more extroverted than before. Or maybe that’s just from therapy, or maturity. But it feels like people want to get to know me now. When I’m in a cynical mood I put it all down to my career. I’ve seen people change their attitude towards me when they find out what I do. It seems shiny and exciting beneath porchlights at parties when I’m sharing cigarettes with strangers but writing it down feels narcissistic and sometimes, I get home and want to wash it all off me. It’s sticky; the gaze of someone who gets to know you off of one drunk conversation, who compliments you blindly, clicks follow on Instagram.
But sometimes one drunk conversation is the start of something. And sometimes it's not and that's fine too. I used to wander around social situations seeking some vague preconceived notion of intimacy, truth, or depth to try and fill up my loneliness, and would curse myself on the way home for seeking those things instead of just having fun.
However, having fun isn’t this intense, euphoric state I used to think it was. Having fun is listening to friends' conversations even if you don’t contribute. It’s letting someone else pick songs to play on a drive home the day after a party. It’s feeling socially anxious then noticing that feeling slowly fade. It’s drinking tea at the end of the night. It’s sitting in the park in the sun and you look around and everyone’s smiling. It’s hanging out.
Dazed and Confused (1993) dir. Richard Linklater
Last week was Dazed and Confused day. The film is set on 28 May 1976 and it's one of the perfect hanging out films; one that makes people yearn for another era, one without phones (although I'm sure they all had their own contemporary bugbears.) The film follows a group of teenagers on their last day of school as they drive around, listen to music, drink beer, smoke weed, make out, throw a keg party – all classic teenage stuff, or the stuff that American high school films would have us believe is 'classic teenage stuff.' I didn’t do any of that on my last day of school. I went home on my own and watched Dazed and Confused on my laptop instead and wished that I had been 'hanging out' like they were.
I still feel an intense desire to be at the centre of things. This is an impossible and unhealthy goal. Who's to say where the centre of things is and what people are really doing there? And even if somehow you got there, could it ever be as great as you imagined it? So, I think I need to be happy with just hanging out. There's no goal or destination or achievement. It just is. When I'm hanging out I think of the past version of myself who was lonelier and I think about change. I don't feel so alone in my aloneness anymore.
*title from Charles Bukowski.