You write, in your latest mail, of things which make me glad to be single and living alone, which reinstate my opinion that I was right to choose this path and not allow a hoard of other people to share my space, to take over my home and treat it as their own. I suspect this, on my side at least, is because I have spent my entire life doing pretty much what I wished to do, making my own decisions and moving from one place to another as and when I wished, even though some others might think they were the influencing factor. It has been a pleasure, at times, to be in company, but also a wonderful feeling to be able to simply withdraw within my own shell, within my own personal space, and do the things which make my soul happy, without having to care for the feelings of others, without having to worry over their comments, their looks, their feelings. This is, I suppose some would say, a very selfish attitude to have, and hardly one which a social person is our modern society should hold, but I am happy with it and, I believe, I can justify it too. And despite this I am a social creature, and a friendly one, but one who needs that little bit of personal space, as you do, in which to be myself.
I did a personal web assessment last night, something which is unusual for me but the idea intrigued me. A mass market British newspaper – of the better quality, I hasten to add – claimed it could assess the age of a person with just four or seven questions, all to do with how social we are, how prepared we are to talk to other people. The seven questions they needed for me covered situations in which I would talk to other people, predominantly strangers, which might bring the risk of some social interaction. I suspect that the bulk of people who would have said they were not inclined to talk to strangers – in some cases, rightly so – under certain normal situations, would have been the younger generation. Those of us who are old, and I most certainly count myself in this category now, would exchange a few words with someone on a bus, in the train, when looking for a table at a restaurant and coffee-house as a matter of course, being polite more than anything else. Younger people, and I have seen this often enough, tend to move in, take possession of a seat – especially in coffee houses – spread themselves around a table and more chairs than there are people – or take over two seats in a bus, as one is for their rucksack – and not bother checking to see if anyone else is inconvenienced. The assessment managed to almost get my age right; I could be a little forward here and say that it thought I would be ten years younger than I am, but that’s not necessarily a recommendation.
I suspect that this questionnaire was based more on the ability of some younger people to even hold a conversation, let alone be polite in new company, as much of their attention, even amongst themselves with four or five sitting at a table together, seems to be directed towards the small screen and not towards social interaction. I watched a young couple, clearly on a date together, sitting at a table near me whilst eating my evening meal the other day – sometimes, as a single person, I prefer not to cook and make the effort to go out and let someone else have the pleasure – and noticed that they both had their cell phones with them, and spent almost their entire time together, and this was clearly a date from the manner in which they were sitting together, looking at the small screen. Now and then they would share something, and that was the full extent of their social intercourse. I wonder, when that is a date, what will life be like for them in the future?
And when I am asked how I can bear living alone in such a large house, whether I ever get lost in the rooms, or if there are ghosts which wander around when I am not looking, I just laugh. Don’t we all wish for those moments when we can be alone, when there is nothing to disturb us and we can settle down, finally, to do those thing we have been planning, which can only be done in peace and quiet? But what about all the cleaning and cooking for myself and all the other things which go with a house? As if these things would not be there when I lived with another person: someone would still have to do all the cooking and cleaning, so why not me and for myself? At least I don’t have to run around cleaning up after a precocious five-year old, or a rebellious teen. And the arguments used against my style of living, my pleasure in being alone sometimes, are exactly the same as those used to criticise my desire to live in a small town rather than the big city, and travel in to events, to shows, to social gatherings. But I am fortunate, of course, as I have the choice.
I have never tried meditation, although I do know several people who swear by it. I also know others who say yoga is the way forward, or running marathons and sky diving. We all have our own way. Sometimes I think of the old Buddhist monk who began meditating and now, about two centuries later, people are arguing over whether he is still meditating, or has died. For me relaxation, a time to get into myself, is sitting with a good book, late in the evening, and being able to lose myself in a different world. If I wish to explore myself, as sometimes happens, then I write letters with a stronger personal streak in them – perhaps like this one – and explore my thoughts and actions that way. Or I write my journal, which I do every day anyway, and explore events that way. I daresay, had my upbringing been different, I would be more attuned to meditation and less to action, to travel, to exploring myself through the works of other people. Too late to change, I think: possible but not desired.
I do also have similar frustrations to yours, though, even when I am theoretically living alone: there is always the cat. I don’t know whether you have ever lived with a cat, but it is often far worse than the situation you described in your mail to me. Cats, as an example, can often not open doors, but they do insist on being allowed to go through them, no matter what you might be doing at the time, and then, as they see the way is clear, take a quick look at what is on the other side and change their minds. Having changed their mind they will hurry back to where you were sitting, perch themselves exactly on your warmed up place, and begin cleaning themselves as if it is a god-given right for them to be there. You left the chair, I claim dibs on it. Or, of course, the demand for affection at the most awkward moments, such as when you are trying to concentrate on a specific passage in a book – I am doing a university course at the moment, so I know a lot about this – and cat tries to sit on your lap. Or uses its claws to climb your leg. My cat has its own chair, but still insists on jumping up onto the arm of mine, between me and my book, and the light. Not quite the same as having someone put their feet up on your bed unasked, but annoying nonetheless.
I could never be a hermit, as appealing as the idea is now and then, could you? Completely cut off from the rest of the world, except for the occasional intrepid hiker who makes it to the top of your mountain and asks for directions. There was an advertisement, either this year or late last, for the position of hermit in Austria (if I remember correctly). The position came with a small hermitage perched on the side of, or built into, a cliff near Saalfelden in Austria, but without any salary, so the successful applicant would have to be capable of supporting themselves financially, and be prepared to live with no running water, no electricity and, horror of all horrors in our modern world, no internet. And, sadly, not a real hermit with peace and quiet and all the time in the world to enjoy the wonderful view. Apparently this hermit – and the job is only open between April and November because of the cold – would be more of a tourist guide; there to greet visitors and enjoy the view with them.
Believe it or not – I just did some research to refresh my poor memory – there were fifty applicants for the post of hermit, and it went to a Belgian man called Stan, a fifty-eight year old former soldier. Previously the position was held by a priest and a monk, and one of the former occupants, a good few years ago, was scared off by an unsuccessful rival, who fired at the hermitage door with a shotgun after not getting the job. I’m not s sure that this would suit me, the lack of electricity is a thing if I cannot read my books at night, write my letters during the day. And I think that, as far as comfort is concerned, a stint at the Hermitage in Sankt Petersburg would be far more my thing. Not that I crave luxury, you understand, but it would be good to live with all that history and so many wonderful works of art for a while. Some of my best times have been spent in museums and art galleries, when not too many other people have been around. Almost as wonderful a feeling as being in a good bookstore, or your own library.
Communication is also important to me, so I think a hermit’s job would be fairly low down on my list of things to do as a career. Perhaps as a summer job, for a few months, but no more than that. At present I need my internet connection, as much as I need my books and the ability to move about and write letters freely, as I am doing a university course with Harvard on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the way Shylock is portrayed. Since I cannot attend the lectures in person, it would be impossible to do without that wonderful virtual connection to the rest of the world. On the other hand, I’d also not be able to do it if I was constantly being interrupted by someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of being left in peace and quiet, as you have been going through. I suppose we simply have to try to find a middle way in life, and do the best we can with what we have.
Going back to Shakespeare has been great fun as much as it has been a revelation. I read his works with different eyes and understanding now, the last time I touched a play of this nature – aside from watching the Bolshoi Ballet perform The Taming of the Shrew back in November, was back in my school days, and they are one or two decades back in time now. Reading about Venice in the sixteenth century, from Shakespeare’s point of view, brings together my own knowledge of the area and that gained from several other works which I have read recently. As I read them I hadn’t been intending to do the course, it is just something which seemed to come together at the right moment in time. Strange the way things work.
I hope that you have had a good transition into the new year, and that your Christmas celebrations were enjoyable despite everything going on around you, and I look forward to continuing our rich and enjoyable correspondences into 2018.