New decade, same old tricks, including extended meditations on loneliness (again), this time as a sort of thinking alongside Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me Be Lonely and this playlist, one of many I’ve made while in my feelings where I appear to have taken up permanent residence. (This isn’t necessarily a negative thing.)
“In my dream I apologize to everyone I meet. Instead of introducing myself, I apologize for not knowing why I am alive. I am sorry. I am sorry. I apologize. In real life, oddly enough, when I am fully awake and out and about, if I catch someone’s eye, I quickly look away. Perhaps this too is a form of apology.”
Early in 2019, I thought I learnt a lesson about vulnerability and what happens when you share too much too soon, but I’m starting to think that was the wrong lesson. It might be true that you can’t spill some of your unspoken and unspeakable pain very early into getting to know someone without the possibility that they will be overwhelmed and retreat from you, which they are wholly entitled to do. It is also true that some people are just trifling and will reappear after six months of ghosting with the excuse that they lost their job and their pet died, not insignificant life events, but none of which impede the ability to text or call for six months…but I digress.
Lonely structures in Amherst, MA and Amherst, VA.
More importantly, I spent a fair amount of that six-month period berating myself for committing what I though was the foolish mistake of allowing myself to be vulnerable, for trusting someone I didn’t know that well, for ignoring the “obvious” warning signs one is inclined to identify only after the fact to try and make sense of the hurt. I also felt shame, most of it related to and caused by the details of the thing that I shared, which I am still incapable of explaining straightforwardly except for the vague repetition on this blog of maybe that didn’t happen. maybe I didn’t say no. But some of this shame came from the belief that I had no one else to blame than my self for thinking that it was safe to lower my emotional walls, and that I was actually deserving of care from someone who I wanted to care for as well. Please let me know if this is too much. I completely understand and would rather you said so than disappearing...
How could it be/ 20 something/ all alone still/ not a thing in my name/ ain’t got nothing, running from love/ only know fear -“20 Something,” Sza
Even the nebulous “societal/gendered expectations*” we always refer to in conversations around how people relate to each other somewhere along the scale of romantic vs. platonic (I don’t know if I believe that these things are polar opposites or mutually exclusive) can’t seem to agree. On one level, as long as you are acceptably relentless in the pursuit of material wealth—not only for personal advancement but towards the enrichment of your family, especially in cultural contexts where the collective sacrifice comes with an unspoken assumption of mutual responsibility—cultivating a varied and exciting social life, a promising career or one that will inspire approval and maybe a little envy when your parents brag, you don’t need to be worrying about all that romance stuff…until you do, most probably when that same collective who helped with school fees, medical bills, childcare etc. decides that it is indeed time to start worrying. At the same time, any expression of loneliness or yearning for different sorts of intimacy are met with a figurative averted eye, secondhand embarrassment for the person who is presumed to feel themselves inadequate on some level, they must, otherwise they would not be looking for completion in someone else.
Stills from music video for Girls Need Love
(2018), dir. Lacey Duke
Girls can’t never say they want it/ Girls can’t never say how/ Girls can’t ever say they need it…-“Girls Need Love,” Summer Walker
And then there is the further complication of what happens when you meet someone you find attractive for any number of reasons, but don’t want to be the one to remove the facade of nonchalance first, don’t want to be the one to send multiple texts in a row, to invite out, to ask to be held, to call on the phone, to be left on read. I hope these lamentations are not mistaken for the sort of rhetoric that blames millennials (an often amorphous demographic rarely identified according to the wide differences across which we walk in this world) for our own despair when fascism, white supremacy, the cruelty and greed of capitalism, and pretty much everything about the world as we currently know it are right there deserving of a large portion of the blame. I don’t even think that the fear of vulnerability or intense self-protection which may also resemble self-sabotage in the context of relationships is something that is unique to our generation. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was easier to ghost when your only options were letters or landlines, and I also know of 100% certified adults (i.e. around our parents’ age) who chose to disappear rather than be upfront with their ex-partner about their changed mind or circumstances.
“You spoke aloud?
I said, God rest me.
You’d let me be lonely?
I thought I was dead.”
It’s possible that if I was a historian, economist, sociologist, or some other sort of social scientist who also happened to have a solid grounding in Black feminism, critical race theory, and maybe psychology**, I would be able to make a more meaningful connection between capitalism, how we care for one another (or not), how consumption defines our lives to the extent that we are disposable to one another, the rate at which we consume all kinds of information without necessarily processing what we’ve seen***, how many of us fear appearing too earnest or too soft (millennials did not invent sneering at sentimentality, for the record), how everything we do and are has been priced and sold along with our personal data and our persistent hope of finding genuine connection with other humans who will try to be as careful with us as we try to be with them.
Stills from the film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012), dir. Terence Nance
“That’s too much…
Maybe, or death is second.
Second to what?
loneliness (noun): a state of being or a fear of being seen that leads to feigning cynicism and nonchalance, or running and hiding from that person or situation requiring more vulnerability than feels safe. a secondhand**** imposition, so that even if one is vulnerable and willing to be seen, one can be left with open hands and open heart letting in all the whistling wind. a place where we spend our time despairing and desperately seeking something or someone to hold on to.
But I don’t think it is a coincidence that I have had very similar conversations with Black women who are very dear to me, all in their mid- to late 20’s, who have described a sort of loneliness that doesn’t disperse even in the face of the deeply loving friendships we maintain with each other and busy lives that include making art, political advocacy work, doing something one hates because rent is due, and other preoccupations. Even the acknowledgment of the extent to which societal pressure (there they go again)* dictates mandatory partnership***** when a woman reaches a “certain age” is not enough to diminish the longing to be seen and cared for in ways that are still inarticulable, precisely because some of the dimensions of this loneliness are inarticulable as well.
Stills from the music video for Planet U (2018), dir. Dawit N.M.
These contradictions manifest in the music we dance and cry to, from the soulful to the at times derisively described as “whisper-singing.” In “Planet U,” my new musical obsession Mereba raps “Never feel alone cos I’m getting to the stacks” chasing money > chasing a text back in the same verse as the earnest statement, “your gold heart keeps away my blue.” The same SiR who echoes Zacari’s line, “I ain’t in the mood if I ain’t in my bag” also starts “John Redcorn” with the question, “Why am I alone/ Every night alone when I know that you want me too?”
(Left to right) Lonely structures in Somerville, MA, Bridgetown, Barbados, and Boston, MA.
Because I have made far too many generalizations than I am comfortable with, I should probably point out that me my self, I am used to romantic relationships in which I have felt objectified, belittled, or picked apart for what seems like the fun of it but was most probably because the picker-apart was threatened by the very parts of me they claimed to admire and wanted to break them. This means that the fear of being (or rather appearing) thirsty or desperate and the reluctance to trust other people remains next to the self-doubt and insecurities left over from those encounters, even years after the fact. Even as I continue to grow more comfortable and even enamored with my self and the body she inhabits, I am also tired of being bombarded with reminders about colorism, ableism, classism, statistics on who is swiped right on the least on dating apps, and all sorts of other seemingly larger than our lives structures which suggest that loneliness or private admiration/fetishes concealed by the public performance of scorn are our lot in life as Black women, no matter our age.
Girls need love too
Girls (and by girls I mean this writer and anyone else who might recognize themselves in these words) need to find work that allows them to meet their material needs without also crushing their souls in the process; girls need to stop hiding if they want to be seen and cared for with intention; girls need to stop hiding and feeling hurt and abandoned when they are not seen in the way they would like to be; girls need to stop hiding.
Girls need love too
Girls need to love and be loved without the fear of obliteration of the self, girls need to be cared for without the fear of that care being thrown back into their faces when it becomes difficult, girls need to love and be loved in healthy ways that do not involve manipulation and martyrdom. Girls need to disabuse themselves of the idea that seeking care and intimacy is a trivial pursuit just because this desire to see and be seen is not necessarily contributing to the (presumably more urgent) well-being of other people.
So what’s a girl to do when she needs loving too
*I describe social norms and -isms as “nebulous,” not because I believe in the slightest that these violent forces are somehow intangible or cause no real threat in our lives, but because I’ve realized how easy it is to list, as I did, without really getting to the heart of what these forces do and how they subjugate and confer power at the same time. What am I so afraid of saying that I’d rather conceal it with the -ism checklist?
**I don’t know that I think these credentials are absolutely necessary to attempt to comment on these matters, but I could see how the personal experiences I’m able to name and explore could be given more context had I more of an ability to connect the dots with the help that rigorous study and training can provide.
***On a regular day, my Twitter feed reads something like the following: snarky tweet about living in Boston—climate catastrophe in the Amazon/Australia/on the coast of Senegal and Ghana—what this incredible Black woman artist is up to—African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean—Rihanna’s cleavage—celebrity worship is a plague—eat the rich—self-deprecating tweet about failing as a dutiful African daughter because I cannot yet pay back all the financial sacrifices and contributions that have been made for me—what does solidarity across diasporas look like in the face of American imperial horror—pleas for Rihanna to release her new album—who is the real leftist anyway?
****It has only been two years since “My Secondhand Lonely” was published, but I feel so much more mature, and I’m trying hard not to condemn my past self too harshly but damn, the martyrdom. I was expecting things from people I wasn’t willing to open my mouth and vocalize, burning myself out with other people’s trouble out of love, sure, but also out of a sense of duty—I thought if I didn’t, who would—and a fear that if I didn’t, they would abandon me.
*****Partnership specifically with a cishet man, as anyone else would be a different sort of taboo even more unimaginable than remaining single…