On Radical Love and How to Be Alone
January 9, 2019 § 10 Comments
by Zach Shultz
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, something within me exploded. One minute I was cooking dinner, and the next I was hunched over the couch and dialing my psychiatrist to explain through unintelligible sobs, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
Despite countless therapy sessions to help cope with the pain of estrangement from my parents—whose unrelenting homophobia over the years has strained our relationship beyond repair—whenever the holidays approach a familiar feeling of unshakeable loneliness creeps up. There is no shortage of seasonal triggers: Christmas music on loop in every store; the aroma of freshly cut pine wafting in the wind from trees languishing on sidewalks like forgotten kids at daycare; the persistent questions from well-intentioned coworkers, such as “What are your plans?” followed by disingenuous invitations to tag along in their Hallmark family moment.
I had reason to hope things might be different this year. After three years of dating a semi-closeted man, he invited me to his family’s gathering for the first time. We would finally be together as a couple, openly, and I’d never spend the holidays alone again—or so I thought. On Thanksgiving Day, however, my ex called to let me know it was too much for him; he “needed space” and told me to “do my own thing.” Breathless from the gut punch of news, I chased down a Klonopin with a glass of wine, waited for the wave of numbness to wash over me, and sent a resolute text in reply. “Goodbye.”
Weeks later, still reeling in the post-breakup melancholia, I told myself: Enough. Instead of rushing home to mope after work, I schlepped down to Brooklyn for a monthly reading series in a charming bookstore underneath the Manhattan Bridge. I had come to hear Garrard Conley share an excerpt from his conversion therapy memoir but stayed for the surprise delight of Lane Moore reading “Happy Holidays to Everyone But You, You Lonely Weirdo,” from her collection of essays How To Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t.
In a creative nonfiction course I once took, the teacher told us that the goal of good writing should be to make the reader “tingle with recognition.” If that’s the case, How To Be Alone is like watching the most stimulating ASMR video on YouTube. When Moore writes, “It takes, in no uncertain terms, bravery to admit to yourself, but especially out loud to other people, that your family is not safe, did not do enough, and are not people you want in your life,” a powerful sensation trickled from the back of my hippocampus down my spine.
Moore possesses an uncanny ability to shift seamlessly from bits of self-effacing humor— “Even when I was ten, I was easily forty in trauma years”—to heart wrenching prose that exposes the painful depths of desire, the desire to belong, to be held, to be loved. “I’ve spent so many of my relationships being terrified the person I love will hurt me,” she writes of meeting someone new, “worrying if I love more, or feel more, and what that means if it’s true.” This worry of wanting “too much” is traced throughout her life, from the betrayal of a best friend in high school to a series of failed romances in adulthood.
Like Moore, if I’ve gleaned any lesson from my traumas, past and present, it’s that the people you love most in your life will inevitably disappoint you. That seems like a shitty takeaway, a fact of life we shouldn’t be forced to accept. And yet, Moore lands on something more unexpected and transcendental in the end of How To Be Alone: radical love for yourself and others. “So be the idiot who cares too much,” she urges. “Because someone will remember you forever. In the way that I remember everyone who has ever been kind to me.”
After the reading, with a newly purchased copy of her book in hand, I went up and said, “I wasn’t expecting to hear any of the things you just read out loud tonight, but I’m so glad I did. That’s me!” She was open and generous, chatting with me for a few minutes about how difficult it is for those who don’t come from a broken home to understand what it’s like. She signed my book in messy, elongated lettering, the kind you might find on a note passed to your friend in middle school. “I’m so glad you don’t talk to your dumb family,” she wrote.
“That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me!” I beamed, and we both laughed in that knowing, self-deprecating way that only true orphan souls would understand. And for the first time in a very long time I felt happy, if even for a brief moment, and a little less alone.
Zach Shultz is a law school administrator in New York City and freelance writer and blogger. He has previously contributed to the Huffington Post, INTO Magazine, and the Gay and Lesbian Review, and has essays forthcoming in The Rumpus and Entropy Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @zach_shultz.