Sometimes I read two articles in the press, that at first sight contradict each other despite the fact that they both address a similar topic. A good example of this was a recent essay by the novelist and short-story writer Sara Maitland entitled “Why do we have such a problem with being alone?” In it, Maitland explored the pros and cons of living in isolation. After more than twenty years of dwelling on her own she is probably a specialist in the subject. Her house is in a remote part of Scotland with distant shops, no mobile phone connection and very little traffic.
Idyllic, I hear some of you say. Well, it depends on how you see this almost total withdrawal from the world. To Sara there is a question about identity and belonging that appears as soon as some chooses to live in these circumstances. However this question of identity and belonging is being posed to someone who has used his or her personal freedom to select their lifestyle. It’s a valid theory and one I had never considered, perhaps because I am still on a Cuban mindset and my upbringing was rather dogmatic. Why do people fear living on their own?
There are myriad inconveniences to cutting oneself from the world and Maitland explains them in detail. Some of them I heard in a recent conversation with someone who is looking to relocate back to Britain from abroad. We touched on those middle-aged people who have saved all their lives and finally can afford to buy a small house in a picturesque village in Devon, Cornwall or Dorset. It is not long before they realise that having a car is indispensable in their new area because the only bus in town runs every hour and there’s a rumour that the service will stop soon due to local budget cuts. Hmmm... for some reason the estate agent forgot to mention that. In addition there is old age to think of. What if one half of the couple suddenly pops off leaving the other half facing an empty, big house with all the challenges that come with it? The dream home turns into a nightmare. But Sara’s essay does not just deal with this hellish scenario. It also highlights the positive of leading a hermit-like life.
For starters, a person’s individuality is reinforced in these circumstances. It is almost like running back to an earlier period in one’s life when one was allowed to be her/himself and the world accepted them, warts and all. A toddler/child state, I would say, but with a full, mature, working brain. Secondly, opting for a solitary existence demonstrates fortitude. You not only have to face the many challenges life will throw at you, but also people’s perception of you as a “castaway”. Maitland touches on some of these misconceptions: women are spinsters and men are seen as sociopaths or “not well up there”.
But then a few days later I read an article about farmers around the world sharing their “felfies”, a “selfie” taken on a farm. I know, I know, I also had to check the calendar to see if I’d fallen into deep slumber and woken up on 1st April.
By the way, I am not equating living in isolation with living on a farm. But many of those who take “felfies” live in remote areas with hardly any regular contact with another human being.
So, what is it? This “felfie” idea? Just a laugh, or a cry for company, albeit of the virtual kind? The irony was not lost on me. Whilst Maitland has swapped gregariousness for loneliness, these farmers post felfies on social media, including blogs and Twitter. To me it seems that despite the joy they derive from living on their own they also see need this lifeline as a way to anchor themselves to the world. On discussing crops, fertilisers and floods they are reaching out to like-minded farmers around the world.
Can we, as human beings, ever turn our backs totally on the world? By the same token should we, then, recast solitude “solitude”? Sara Maitland has neighbours (true they live in five miles away so she can’t just pop in unannounced for a cuppa), she knows her postman by (first) name and she can count on a cheerful young farmer to come to her house and work on her sheep. That is why when I read about Maitland’s isolation the first thing that came to my mind was Mario Benedetti’s love poem Rostro de Vos: Tengo una soledad tan concurrida/tan llena de nostalgias y de rostros de vos/de adioses hace tiempo y besos bienvenidos/de primeras de cambio y de último vagón. Mario’s solitude did not travel alone. It had companions: his memories, his beloved’s many faces and their goodbyes. In our globalised world we are never truly alone no matter what the average population density is in our neck of the woods. If in doubt, check those farmers’ “felfies.
Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd January at 11:59pm (GMT)