On Eating Alone

I’m sitting in a sunny window at a coffee shop not far from my house.  I’ve been noticing sunshine a lot lately.  There’s almost no sun in my house, and even if we chopped down some of the trees in the yard, we will never have a sunny house.  There are a lot of good things about the house I live in, so it would be dumb to move away just because there’s no place where you can sit in the sun.  But I’ve found myself longing for exactly this: a cup of coffee in a sunny corner where there are some plants growing, and time to write.

It’s hard to hold on to these moments where you have everything you’ve wanted.  They slip away.

To get here a series of small coincidences needed to work: my husband is out of town.  My kid is with his grandparents.  The sun is shining, and the booth is oriented just right.  (Getting what you want feels like this, too — it takes a little bit of squinting and screen adjusting to sit in a sunny corner.  There’s glare, it turns out, and it can get uncomfortably warm.  Sigh.  There are a bunch of guys sitting nearby talking about ice fishing, and it’s hard not to eavesdrop.)

I’m ready to write again.  I haven’t stopped writing, of course, but my writing since 2008 or so has been private.  I miss talking to the world.  There are things I’m mulling over, and I’d like to sort them out — and to hear what you guys think.

I talked to a student this week who’d spent the last semester abroad.  “How is it to be back?” I asked.  Well, she told me, it’s a little strange.  You know you remember the good things, but once you come back you realize there’s this other stuff, too, that you’d forgotten. (Tell me about it. Sitting in a sunny corner, alone, like I’ve been dreaming about for weeks, there’s all this glare.  Sheesh.)   “What do you mean?” I asked.  Oh, you know. She shrugged.  Okay, like, eating alone.  It’s a thing here — it’s not something people do.  Everyone always makes a plan about who they’re going to eat with, and if you don’t do that, it’s, you know, it’s a thing.

I leaned back and said, “A lot of things about getting old stink.  But one of the best things about it is you stop worrying about that kind of stuff.  And that kind of stuff can really tire you out.”

I wonder a lot when I’m going to get too old to be helpful to college students.  Maybe I already am.  Because I haven’t been self-conscious about eating alone for a long time.  Actually, it’s a special treat now.  It would be easy to dismiss that worry — to say, blithely, “Oh, who cares what they think?  If you want to eat alone, just eat alone!”

But that’s the thing about being in college.  It’s right to notice what other people are doing.  College is the time when you discover that the way the people in your high school did things isn’t the only or even the best way to do things.  It’s when you realize maybe your family isn’t normal, whatever that means, and you’re trying to figure out how other families are and what this means about you and what is possible for you in the world.  You’ve GOT to study the people around you — that’s the whole point.  If you’re not noticing the ways other people are doing things, and wondering if their way could be better, you’re missing the point.

And that’s so tiring.  You’ve got to learn whatever it is you’re reading — critical theory and post-colonialism and statistical methods and all that junk — and you are gathering data to build a mental model for the really important stuff: Am I lovable? am I being the person other people want me to be? Is that the person I want to be?  What on earth happens if it isn’t?

I remember this so well.  I respect it; I think it’s the work of a lifetime and I want to help. But I also know that it has been a long time since I’ve wondered whether I was lovable.  It’s been a long time since I’ve wondered whether I’m on the right track.

I like the Longform podcast a lot, and a nugget I’ve been mulling over since I heard it is this comment Margaret Atwood made to Brooke Gladstone that was related again in this podcast episode.  Margaret Atwood said:

Young people worry a lot more than older people. And the reason they worry a lot more than older people is that they don’t know the plot of their own lives yet. They don’t know how it’s going to turn out for them. At my age – and I am starting to sound like one of those people who says “at my age” – [both laugh] at my age, I kind of know how the story goes. So, should I get hit by a truck tomorrow, the plot will pretty much have unfolded.

Margaret Atwood is in her 70s; I’m 43.  I don’t feel like I’m done — there might be some surprises in store yet — but I also know some things about the plot.  Back in May at my college reunion I was having an interesting conversation and the other person said, “Oh, do you ever get over to Singapore?”  It was easy for me to say, “No. I do not.”  There are people who do pop over to Singapore a couple of times a year, maybe.  I’m not one of those.  I’m not a person who travels to Singapore.  I don’t even make it to New York very often.  There are some things I know.

I think a lot about what happens to people as they age.  Just like when you dream about a sunny spot you forget about the glare, and when you’re away from the campus you remember how great the food is and forget that eating alone can make you feel weird, I think we forget how it really feels to be young.  We remember the energy and adventure, the intensity of the friendships and the excitement of the flirtations, the intoxication of new ideas.  And we forget the all-consuming anxiety that comes with not knowing whether we’re doing it right, or how the plot is going to turn out.  I try really hard not to forget that, but I’m not sure reminding myself is the same as remembering.