Being neighbourly

I’ve just finished re-reading Anneli Rufus’ book, Party of One. In part it’s an exploration of the word “loner”, and particularly the media’s use of the word very freely in relation to disturbed killers.

She points out how often the perpetrator of a crime is headlined as “loner”, and how neighbours will always report that “he kept to herself”.

I took a look around at my neighbours. Not that I think any of them are deranged, but it occurred to me that what is said about the perpetrator by the neighbours after an event is utterly irrelevant because we’d all say the same thing about our neighbours and they’d say the same thing about us.

I live in a small dead-end street, and I live at the bottom of it so I see almost all the residents walking or driving past. And almost everyone goes past alone. This is not because they are all single but because they leave for work at different times.

Sometimes people will smile as they pass if they see me on my porch. If I were to report in a neighbourly way on these people, what would I say about them, and they about me? “She seemed ordinary, not unfriendly but kept to herself”. Indeed.

So either I live in a street filled with potential psychopaths, or that’s just how people in my part of the world normally behave.

Actually it occurs to me I may be living in the ideal neighbourhood for me. I have a semi retired architect who works next door but doesn’t live there. He’s been pretty unfriendly but recently we chatted a bit and yesterday he offered me a couple of spare plants. He’s there on his own during the day and I never see him with anyone else, clients or family. Across the road is a couple who I’ve spoken with a few times. Their family is well grown up and they have grandchildren although the grandkids don’t come to stay. There are a couple of singles further up the street who I don’t know but I see them walking past.

The reason this is ideal? I know by sight the people in the street, I know a couple enough to say hello to, but I’m not expected to be in and out of their homes. In an earthquake we’d know enough to know if someone was missing.

That’s neighbourly enough for me.

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Bothering the doctor

I’ve been watching a rather hilarious show, Very British Problems. Most of it is about avoiding people in a variety of situations.

One comedian had a great definition of her best friends: the ones who cancel on her. She maintains this is perfect because they keep in touch and intend to see one another but cancel so they don’t actually have to see each other.

Clearly I have a LOT of British DNA in me.

Another example: “I don’t like going to the doctor’s because I feel like I’m annoying them”. Ha! That’s me to a ‘T’.

I did go to the doctor on Friday though. I went because my taste buds had been seriously messed up after using a new toothpaste and the taste was taking a long time to come back. There’s little worse than chocolate that tastes like soap.

I decided to walk there and halfway I had to sit down on the ground because I felt like I was going to collapse. By the time I got to the surgery I was sweating, breathless and feeling dreadful.

That spun out into tests, and that was my day gone. The tests showed nothing much, which is good (not serious) and bad (no idea what’s going on). Conclusion: a virus. Thank god for viruses, they explain everything that doesn’t show up on a test.

It’s a few days later now and I’m still here, so all good. I don’t really know what’s going on but if I get worse I’ll be back to bother the doctor again.

Meanwhile, I’ve had an excuse (feeling poorly) to cancel any plans with friends this weekend.

Being alone with a friend, in a good way

Being alone with a friend sounds like either an oxymoron, or “friend” really means wanna-be partner. However, in this case, it’s neither.

Last weekend was the end of a long and and tiring week and I had reached the bottom of my battery. In an effort to recharge I spent most of Saturday in or on my bed trying to feel like doing something vaguely productive or interesting, and failing. Sunday was looking like it was heading the same way.

And then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse, from my friend and former colleague Ingrid.

Let me tell you a bit about her. We worked together for about a year, and we hit it off straight away. We worked really well together, swapping work back and forth and handing things off seamlessly. We knew we’d honed our craft when no one could tell the difference between our work.

Ingrid is far more artistic than me. She’s had a long history of design and craft, draws and paints well, makes all kinds of things, is a dab hand with power tools, and has a whole large room dedicated to and set up for making things.

One day we were discussing our idea of fun activities and I learned that she routinely packs her car with essentials of various kinds (varied according to the activity du jour) and drives somewhere with a view, preferably without too many people, sits in the back of her car and eats her chosen food and does her chosen activity – be that read, do a cryptic crossword, draw, paint, photograph, collect shells, knit, write, whatever.

I thought this was the coolest thing I’d heard. I immediately wondered why I’d never thought to do this as a regular thing.

Ingrid left work, deciding that 9-5 was not for her, so we arranged to see one another for Elevenses every week on my work-from-home day to keep in touch and just because that’s what you do with friends.

We missed the previous week’s Elevenses because I had something on, so instead she suggested we do something on Sunday. She proposed a car trip. How perfect.

We drove to brunch, then out to a nearby rocky bay she had recently discovered. We bought some cakes for afternoon tea, and parked on the foreshore to watch the waves and the birds. We went for a walk to collect shells and interesting things to draw (including two crab ‘skeletons’). We sat in the car and did two cryptic crosswords. Then we drove home. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Solo car picnics might be my new favourite thing.

Being alone with a friend is like being by yourself but better because you’re doing what you like doing but you’ve got someone there who enjoys it as much as you. You’re not at odds, one person feeling restless and bored (them) while the other (me) feels like they’re getting pressured to race around and Do Things just for the sake of it.

It was fun, relaxing and interesting, and I felt like I had Done Something with my weekend that had recharged me. A win all round.

I’m alone, I’m not lonely

Every so often, an article appears on line about loneliness, and many refer to the UCLA Loneliness Scale (here from an NIH article). The survey questions are careful to distinguish between ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’ and don’t treat them as synonyms, although I’ve seen variants of the survey that do confuse the two.

Lonely is a feeling; alone is a state. They may co-occur but there is nothing automatic about their co-occurrence. How lonely you feel hasn’t got much to do with how alone you are.

Although most people understand the difference between the two conditions when it’s pointed out to them, they routinely conflate them in daily life. If I am alone, people assume this is an undesirable state and take measures to ‘relieve’ my aloneness. This is of course kind-hearted of them – they believe they are relieving my suffering – except it’s not what I want.

I am aware that the health consequences of loneliness are serious and alarming (in one article I read, the equivalent of a 15-cigarettes-a-day habit). What bothers me is the leap from “x% of people are lonely” to “people are social animals and no-one should be alone because it’s bad for them”. Therefore, anyone who is alone should be forcibly socialised for the good of their health.

Except I’m not lonely: I’m alone and I’ve chosen to be alone because I enjoy being alone. Humans may be social creatures, but that doesn’t mean we all have to socialise all the time. For me, the consequences of forced socialisation have as harmful an impact as the consequences of loneliness: stress, fatigue, and physical symptoms like upset stomach.

I like sitting in a cafe on my own, enjoying the break from conversation and people.  At a party, I’d rather stand around the fringes and watch people than be part of a circle of people talking and laughing.

So in the nicest possible way: please leave me alone. You’d be doing me a favour.