#18: Pretty Much Every Woman Ever and Loneliness

On six months in Chicago

I've been in Chicago for a little more than six months now, and we are squarely in the time that everyone has warned me about: it is winter, it is gray, and on many days, so foggy I can't see Lake Michigan half a mile from my office window. It is also very cold, and icy, and dark when I wake up and when I leave the office, and going outside feels insurmountable on some days.

It is also the time when certain realities of arriving in a new city are becoming apparent. For the first few months, I could get away with the rush of adrenaline that got me here in the first place, could go to every new social occasion bright eyed and hopeful that someone there might be someone who could be a friend, a real friend. Six months in, this is harder to convince myself of, and between the exhaustion of tremendous social effort with nice-but-not-always-nourishing rewards and the exhaustion of being just cold and in the dark every time I leave my apartment, I stay home a lot. 

Originally, this letter was also/again going to be about Emily Dickinson. Then it was going to be about Dorothy Day, and then about that scene in Greta Gerwig's Little Women where Jo is in the attic, crying, because of an utterly familiar combination of ambition and loneliness. Then it was maybe going to be about anchoresses, but that felt very dramatic for what is essentially a somewhat exacerbated case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Then women like Fanny Howe (who I will write a letter about someday) or Sor Juana (ditto) or Marilynne Robinson (ditto) or Frida Kahlo (who I have already written about) or George Eliot (ditto) or Flannery O’Connor (ditto) or and then I realized that to some extent, loneliness is just kind of an existential condition and we know about this because we have art.

Re-reading the Emily Dickinson letter, which I wrote on a chilly early-ish spring car ride back to my house after visiting her home/museum feels like seeing myself at a particularly naive point: “I won’t be lonely when I move! I’ll just focus on the life of the mind, and on the relationships I have!” This is true—I have really lovely relationships that are fulfilling, I live with someone I love very much and who I see every day, I have done so much more writing and translating and work in the last six months than possibly ever before in my life. However, I also have this deep desire for geographic closeness, for the kind of nights that stretch and turn and end up on someone’s couch, talking, unscheduled long days with friends. More importantly, or basically, I want people who will love me or want to hang out with me for reasons other than my relationship with people they already love and hang out with.

I had plans for this, last week, and then one after another, someone got sick (of course! it’s January!) and a phone call with friends got cancelled because life had gotten overwhelming (it is, again, still January) and that’s how I ended up on my couch drinking beers by myself, watching bad TV and trying not to cry. I…did not succeed in this.

I joked last week about going to a convent for a week or two, because being alone is less terrifying if you’ve chosen it for yourself, but I have a job and a house where I make dinner most nights and already have most of my vacation days planned out for the year, and so I’m stuck with this loneliness I didn’t necessarily choose for myself, but that I carry with me.

I at once want to make this loneliness a grand, romantic, artistic thing, like I’m in some kind of Forge of Greatness, and also recognize that it feels (or makes me feel) small and boring and banal and is more distracting than it is empowering or focusing. Still, there is something about this massive list of women whose work and lives and ambition I admire, and the solid fact of their occasional loneliness or solitude that is expressed in books and paintings and interviews and poetry that makes me less lonely in my loneliness. People have been lonely before, and will be lonely after me: loneliness is a survivable condition that sometimes produces great art like how you need a winter for a crocus to come up, and other times is just survivable, but that is enough.

I know that given enough time, it will be spring and I will walk outside. Given enough time, I will have friends that live here, and a community. I cannot promise myself that this time will ever feel useful or productive or good, but I can watch the trees outside my apartment window for that first glow of green, and wait.

Here’s a poem from Jane Mead that I saw on Twitter:

Welcome to Ojos de Santa Lucia: the 2020 edition! As you might be able to tell, in addition to a fancy new banner (color! no one is charging me for it! I am ALLOWED!) I’ve moved this over to Substack, in part for a desire for better archives, conversation and stats (I love stats, they make me very anxious and also feel good about myself). The newsletter will continue to be free and approximately monthly, so please share, subscribe, forward, tweet (@olivalejandra_), etc.

  1. I have a piece out today! “What Translating Annie Dillard Taught Me About Attending to a Dying World” is basically my greatest hits, all condensed into a single essay: translation! Annie Dillard! Simone Weil! The politics and spirituality of attention! Also, if you have read this essay and have thought, “wow, I wish there was more Latin in it,” fear not because I have self-published my annotated translation of the passage discussed in the essay for your perusal.

  2. Speaking of translation: I’m translating Rachel Ida Buff’s fantastic A is for Asylum Seeker (into Spanish not Latin) which will be out from Fordham University Press later this year! They still don’t have it on their website, but rest assured you will be receiving a link when they do. It’s an abecedary of immigration terms from Asylum Seeker to Zero Tolerance, and will be published in a bilingual edition with my text running alongside Rachel’s. I’ve learned so much (in a field I already knew a lot about!) by reading this book, and you will too.

  3. I’ve published a bunch for Remezcla in the past few months, so feel free to poke around my archive and find a booklist for any of your needs! I am proud of the American Dirt piece I wrote, which is a thing I did not stop thinking about for most of the last half of the month and has made it kind of hard for me to write, but also gave me an excuse to up writers and books I love.

  4. Here is a list of highlights for things I published last year! I’m proud of all of it, and really excited for all the writing I plan to do this year.

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