On The Edge
LONELINESS. It is a silent and solitary epidemic. One we all feel from time to time, even when we are holding court in a crowded room, or laughing outrageously with those we love the most, who know us the best. One that doesn’t just infect ageing bachelors who sit smoking their pipes over crumbling cottages in the most desolate parts of rural Ireland. Despite the caricatures, there is something perennial about the symptoms of loneliness. Something that aches deep down in the soul, scratches at that ‘inviolable core of solitude’, to plagiarise a term once used with characteristic aplomb by the late Clare Island philosopher, Michael Joe O’Malley.
It is many years since I read Brian Moore’s debut novel, ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’. Highly acclaimed, the late Moore was praised for his ability to empathise and depict – get into the mind of – a woman of a certain age whose interior life is far from the cold realities of her daily struggles.
From a genteel Belfast background, Judith Hearne ekes out a lonely life in a Dublin boarding house, resorting to the companionship of alcohol after a delusional love affair unravels.
Like Beatle, Paul McCartney’s character in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ the sense of solitude, separateness and loneliness of the soul is palpable in this intimate narrative. The difference is that McCartney’s melody, despite the starkness of the lyrics, softens the impact of the feelings of solitude evoked by the song.
One verse says it all: “Ah look at all the lonely people/ Ah look at all the lonely people/ Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice/ In the church where a wedding has been/ Lives in a dream/Waits at the window, wearing the face/ That she keeps in a jar by the door/ Who is it for?”
Jar by the door
AH! Yes. “That she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for?”
Our faces in that jar by the door are for the postman, the office receptionist, the newsagent, the person on the end of the phone, the bank manager, the young woman with the pram passing by on the greenway, the adult child who Skypes from New Zealand or Dubai, the sister who has just received bad news, the father who is unaware of his dementia.
According to Census 2011 living alone has become more the rule rather than the exception in many areas. It recorded 392,000 one-person households in Ireland, with this number having grown significantly (by 62,500) over the past five years. Official figures state that single-person households will be a defining social trend during the next decade accounting for 70 percent of the growth in households by 2026.
Indeed, Euromonitor International confirms the number of people living alone globally is rising fast, from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011 – an 80 percent rise over 15 years.
So, perhaps, solitary living needs to be reassessed? Maybe, living alone is not quite as lonely as it says on the tin? After all, the advantages are obvious: nobody else shedding pesky hairs in the shower; leaving the toilet seat up or down (depending on the gender); squeezing the toothpaste from the wrong end; leaving dirty dishes in the sink; snoring like a bull pup or elephant with apnea; interrupting your favourite soap with some trivia about a golf score.
That list could be endless, couldn’t it?
But why, then, when I attempted to write a series earlier this summer, on the subject of living alone, could I not find anyone to talk about it to The Mayo News? The people I contacted said they felt too vulnerable, that they would be too exposed, their privacy compromised.
Understandable, of course. Our society is still fabricated around the nuclear family: a happy Daddy and Mammy with two to five children, a dog with floppy ears, a car with a big boot, a garden with a swing, and the smell of fairy cakes wafting from the oven every Saturday afternoon.
Sit alone in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day and it is easy to feel like a pariah. The stigma of solitude still stinks of loneliness.