Long term Parking Lot D at the Saint Louis Airport has one shuttle bus running to it, and when it’s single digit frigid, your knuckles will let you know how long you’re waiting at the stop with an ache which sinks slowly through your cheap knit gloves until it drills down into the raw marrow, turning the innards of your bones into tiny glaciers in your hands. Twenty minutes had passed since I was nearly knocked over by a young couple catching the last shuttle, emptying the contents of my bookbag (eight LPs, some lip balm, an advance copy of a friend’s novel, and a half-full tin of Altoids) into a constellation of nerdy across the floor near the United Airlines baggage carousel. That couple knew something I hadn’t, and weren’t hip to the idea of frostbite.
Even before I spent the majority of this past year doing such, I’ve enjoyed traveling alone. In a former life, the anxiety of waiting for people or traveling with folk who were not prepared for the airport experience (3-1-1 is not a new concept), or had travel habit X,Y, or, Z–not understanding airplane arm-rest etiquette (middle seat gets armrests, period), refusing to let the airline stow your carry on at the flight deck, poor tipping–almost took the fun out of traveling before we had left the departure gate. The frustration probably had less to do with the quirks (perceived or otherwise) of my companions and more to do with me deeply feeling and owning the only-child syndrome. The problem is that, more than ever, we have become a society neurotically concerned with being alone. Maybe it’s the technological disenfranchisement of social media–where connections are less and less analog. Maybe it has to do with the anxiety of modern life–where our single-serving/Keurig cup lifestyle is so richly mining our individuality that personal experience becomes an open window to our own sense of longing and isolation–a gap which we only see as widening the older we get. Maybe it’s just the truth of growing old and seeing the difficulty of making new friends–“understanding” human nature enough to be perilously jaded. Maybe it’s reality television exploiting that “understanding.” Maybe it’s too many dog-eared copies of Fight Club or Catcher in the Rye. Maybe it’s all the dating websites. Maybe it’s biological clocks ticking later, longer, and louder. Maybe it’s the way divorce rates have redefined what families look like compared to thirty years ago. Maybe it’s the fact Kiss is still together and still playing in make-up even though Ace and Peter haven’t been a part of the line-up for years now.
Maybe it’s just me, turning 38, and thinking way too much about it.
I went out with some friends last weekend, and the conversation of dating and meeting people kept coming up–it was almost overwhelming. The social connotation (not imposed by my friends at the bar) was how you need to be with someone. Being alone is not the same as lonely, but socially it might as well just be “alonely.” In the last year, between traveling and moving to Springfield, I notice how I’m regarded when I dine alone, especially at restaurants where there is a bar area. More often than not, I am politely offered a seat at the bar rather than a table or booth. I can understand the need to conserves some precious real estate on a weekend night, but I have gone into places on a Tuesday night for a nosh and given the polite option to sit at the bar. Part of me immediately bristles and wants to get all self-righteous over it, but I realize that the assumption is since I’m alone I would want to be there to have a pint or look to serve this need for social connection by rubbing elbows at the bar, but I don’t. At least I don’t think so…pretty sure…almost fifty-fifty about it a hundred percent of the time…shit.
Thirty-eight might be the two-minute warning for my family–where the expectation of grandchildren becomes replaced with the hope that the extra room in the house you should already own can be reserved for mom and dad moving in–an elevator pitch of a sitcom destined for midseason replacement status on the CW. “Think Frasier meets She’s the Sheriff, but you know, Asian. Jim’s got that Margaret Cho thing in a Wes Anderson way, right?” Actually, the fact that I’m out in the Midwest has taken some of the pressure off of me–there are enough relations nearby where I can come home now and be the quirky Uncle I’m destined to be. The role has served me well with my closest friends whose children have had me in their ear since they were at their most formative, offering The Clash, Watchmen, and Rushmore as nourishment to angst and rebellion. It’s my wheelhouse and I’m pretty damn good at it.
Moreover, I’ve become comfortable just being the guy living by his own terms rather than being the guy who announces that he’s “the guy who is living by his own terms.” I used to think that I had to assert my individuality openly and daily–that my “struggle for acceptance among a world of assimilation” had to be documented and wasn’t actually just a thinly veiled cry of vanity and recognition. Obviously I still need the validation (Would I be writing this and counting the number of Twitter followers I have on a Friday night if I didn’t?), but I’m more confident just being who I need to be in the best way possible. This might be the takeaway of this best worst year–worse things can/have/will happen but the best things have often been the product of my ability to give myself permission to figure all this out–steady. Ongoing. Alone. I have learned to own all of this as aspects of who I am and who I can possibly be and what I can offer in my life. I have been lucky enough, over the last six months, to learn that who I am able to be is more a product of who I choose to be than what I am willing to accept from someone else. The opportunity to live my life is a direct result of living my life rather than talking about living this life. I don’t know how it all works or if it will all work out, and I don’t have to pretend to know. I don’t have to pretend to be anything but what I really am. The only way you can truly learn to live with the face that stares back at you in the mirror is to face the mirror alone.
When the shuttle finally picks us up, I promise that I won’t be so cheap next time I fly out of St. Louis. I saved nine bucks but spent nearly an hour freezing. My time is worth more than the coin in my pocket. I scrape my windshield and wait for blood flow to return to my knuckles.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He lives in Springfield, IL. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.