Some people apparently thrive on living alone. Some people may even seek the solitary life as a desired state – call them hermits. Many people are forced to adapt to living alone and may even become reconciled to it – benign acceptance. Some never get used to loneliness.
It is said people even die of loneliness. There may be a heightened risk of this in circumstances of this extended Covid quarantine.
I for one am not happy with my isolation; I am discontented being separated from my close loved one, living alone with only Bonnie for company. (For greater certainty, Bonnie is my black Standard Poodle.) I find this somewhat ironic, introvert that I am, but I am reminded that introversion does not mean hermitage. Introverts need social intimacy as much as extroverts do, perhaps more, but they are selective as to time and duration of the intercourse. For introverts, it may be a matter of quality over quantity. But the default is not being alone as a permanent condition.
I find myself often thinking of my poor mother in her final 20 – 25 years of sentient life, living alone, with only her dog for company. (After he died Mom was lucky enough to have a stray cat adopt her; she called her ‘Cat’.) She was deeply introverted (Mom, not ‘Cat’) but she had a very active life while she still had reasonable health. She had been divorced forty years but the first 15 years or so were very productive and fulfilling: she continued to teach Grade School in Peterborough, she took in borders (Trent University students), she was Akela for a Wolf Cub Pack for twenty years, she worked hard to obtain a BA in English and Philosophy, she had suitors and seemed to be thriving in her independence despite the obvious anguish of divorce. But then she retired, and the boyfriends died or disappeared. Her life got quieter and quieter. At the time, I regret to say, I was very busy with my own life and was not paying enough attention to hers; I hoped that my brother who lived nearby, was. She often said when we would visit her from Ottawa, maybe five times a year, ‘I wish you lived closer’. She seemed to manage very well living alone, but is ‘managing’ sufficient? Was she thriving? or merely surviving? She got a brief new lease on life when she moved into the retirement home. She had her own private suite that my brother had furnished with her favourite things from home, her favourite chair, her best paintings. There was a well-stocked library – reading was her most cherished interest – and she had a renewed social life. But increasing dementia, and constant acute arthritic pain, gradually robbed her of most of her pleasure in life.
I seem to be living my own version of my mother’s life these days. Living without a partner truly sucks and I feel myself dreading the prospect of 10 – 15 years of this sort of life.
I am introverted myself (perhaps much to the surprise of many of my readers) but not to the same extent as my mother. I still seek social contact. I like stimulating conversation, a little flirtation, the chance to share knowledge – to entertain, possibly to educate, reciprocally. But I’m choosy – I’m selective about with whom, and when and for how long, I am willing to spend time. At this stage of my life I figure I don’t want to spend emotional energy on people with whom there is little or no mutuality. Maybe I’m not really an introvert, maybe I’m a control freak. The trouble with this strategy is, I may end up in the very state I wish to avoid – being alone.
I think the drift to reduced social intercourse is, in some respects, an inevitable consequence of retirement, but this Covid Quarantine has accelerated the process. As I have said in previous blogs, I resist the word retirement, the idea of retirement. I need to feel valued and purposeful. I want to live vigourously – mentally, physically, emotionally, even spiritually – for as long as I can. In fact I think living vigourously actually extends the living. But lately I feel myself languishing. The phone doesn’t ring, the emails don’t come, and worse, I don’t much feel like initiating. I find myself dreaming, in that weird distorted way dreams come to you, of my former professional lives. I am reliving my life, not living it. My sleep is often disturbed (and I find the luxury of afternoon naps now elude me); I no longer dream of the usual life stresses – of conflicts and money – but of my past professional lives, vaguely confused and unfulfilled. I don’t wake up with zest for my future plans, only with awareness that I have few plans, and some of them are dead ends. I find it depressing. As John Lennon famously said, though perhaps I misquote, ‘Life is what happens when you’re planning to do other things,’ but it seems to me that life without a plan is not much of a life. We know the ultimate end, but living in dread of it is hardly productive. It’s what we do in between that matters.
I recently did a Business Talk Radio broadcast on just this theme. You can listen to it here if you are so inclined.
So, despite my introversion, I do not like being alone, living alone. My normal planful proactive self would take action to solve this problem. Even in my crazy year after Marlene died, hair on fire, I was desperately trying to fill the void in my life, even if that meant traveling half way round the world to do so. (I hasten to add, I don’t really recommend my course of action – I was certainly being proactive, but grief hugely distorted my normal behaviour.)
I miss Carmen tremendously, though not in the way a young besotted lover misses his loved one. I miss the company, the simple presence of another human being who you know well, and find comforting just to have around. And I seriously miss the prospect of touch, the simple act of reaching out and touching someone, and knowing it is welcome. (I’ve come close to reaching out and touching someone in the grocery store but realized in time that was unlikely to end well.)
I wonder how many people, more or less self-isolated – and not just older people – are starving for human contacttouch. One of my therapist friends, or maybe it was my actual therapist, suggested I get a massage from time to time, an hour of whole body massage, not because my muscles ached but because my soul ached. I took up that advice and found a wonderful young massage therapist who not only kneaded out the knots but soothed my psyche; she is a good conversationalist – she listens well and she shared some of her own stories.
But Anna is not an intimate friend, she is a therapist. It is Carmen with whom I share intimacy, openness, candour, hopes and dreams, and fears. Despite language barriers – and even that is diminishing as Carmen’s English gets stronger and stronger, and my Tagalog limps along – and cultural cleavages, we find we are at ease with one another, comfortable in each other’s presence. She doesn’t always get my jokes – but then, few do – but she is always ready to please me. I only hope I please her as well.
12000 miles makes this very difficult – Skype and Messenger are a blessing, of sorts, but are no real substitute for presence – and immigration regulations make it worse. I know I don’t want to live fulltime in Philippines. Carmen says she wants to be with me wherever I want to be and she sees herself happily in Canada. But I know she will miss her family and her country and her little business which gives her a sense of self-reliance and achievement. Of course we can commute back and forth every six months or so, so long as the money holds out, and health.
This Covid Quarantine shines a black light on all the obstacles to our happy existence, and our future. If she only lived here, we could be together as much as we wanted, and be separate when we (I?) needed to be. (I find myself resenting ‘Emily’ for being near, but not wanting me, while Carmen wants me, but can’t be here.)
And so I fuss, mostly in the middle of the night.
Imagine waking up at 2: 14 a.m. to pee (I’m thinking most of you are familiar with that) and then not being able to get back to sleep, maybe for an hour or more. (I imagine most of you are familiar with that too.) But then, do you think about where your partner will be buried? I know where I will be buried, but what about Carmen? She says she wants to be buried with me in Pinecrest Cemetery (and this is a change – she used to say she wanted to be buried in Santa Rita near her mother; most Filipinas seem to want to go home when they die.) But what if I die first (most likely), what happens to Carmen then? Unless she becomes a Permanent Resident in Canada she won’t be allowed to stay. And the chance of her becoming a Permanent Resident in Canada is low.
I won’t burden you with the many such questions that keep me awake, but I think you can see how these sorts of questions are very disquieting.
So I force myself out of this line of thinking to try to get back to the present (and get back to sleep!). And the present I seek requires me to shove those troubling questions into the background. And what do I put in my mind to displace those troubling questions? My writing project of course: The Treasure of Stella Bay. Instead of my life problems I try to think of the problems I need to solve in my narrative’s logic, and vignettes and descriptions I might fold into the book. And then I think of my reading public – ‘will they like my new book?’ and, ‘how will I reach them?’ and the exposure and the judgments, and the lack of sales – but then I realize I’m just heading down another rat-hole of angst and push that out of my mind too.
And then I think, will Carmen be content to live with the neurotic Doug? Will she allow me my hours of solitude for writing and researching; most days it’s about five hours? Living a solitary life may have its merits – it means no tradeoffs, no need to negotiate with that significant other. I already know from our days together in The Philippines Carmen tolerates my habits. And a good thing too because I know I can’t tolerate my aloneness.
So where do things stand today?
I am close to returning to Philippines to see her and then bring Carmen back to Canada. I have put together an affidavit, duly witnessed by my notary public, signed and sealed, seeking to establish that Carmen and I have been together in an-going living together relationship that would satisfy IRCC’s definition of a ‘Close Family Member’. We will draw up a similar document, duly notarized, in the Philippines for Carmen. I am feeling pretty confident this will allow Carmen to enter Canada on her visitor’s visa as a Close Family Member. We hope it will be enough to allow her to exit Philippines itself. One of Carmen’s extended extended Espino family members works for Philippines Immigration; she advises that tourist entry to Philippines is still not permitted. But everyone hopes this will end soon – The Philippines economy is desperate for reopening to tourists and their wallets. So I wait. I have found, should Philippines Immigration relax their rules for foreign entry, I can serve my quarantine period at the Bayleaf Hotel Cavite where I stayed for a week last year. (I would prefer the Qubo Qabana Resort Hotel but it has still not reopened.) Bayleaf will pick me up at Ninoy Aquino International Airport and transport me to the hotel. I will be given a swab test and confined to my room, meals served there, until my test results come back in two days. If negative I will have the freedom of the hotel. (But if positive I will be transported by The Philippines Public Health Agency to an isolation facility!) Once cleared I will then spend a few weeks with Carmen in her little house in Trese Martires until it’s time to roll the dice and see if we can come back together to Canada.
My plan is to leave for Philippines mid-November and return to Canada mid-December. I know, it’s crazy. But Carmen wants to see winter, and I think a month in Pilipiñas will be enough for me this time, considering all the adventures I had the last time.
And I can say, I feel much better now for having written this blog. I feel my hopefulness increasing, my patience given a boost, and loneliness diminishing. And then I think, if I am not happy living alone now, imagine how I would feel in a Philippine detention centre.
Doug Jordan, Reporting to you from Kanata Ontario.
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