I am on a trip to Washington DC, which means I am spending more time alone than I typically do: dining out as a party of one, gazing mock-pensively at nineteenth-century daguerreotypes to impress no one, going on solo quests for late-night gelato while mosquitos nip at my ankles.
Solitude makes me hyperaware, and hyperawareness invites wonder.
As I wander the well-foliaged, Victorian-lined streets of DC awed and inspired by the great big world and my great big fortune to exist in it, I reflect on how far I have come in my ability to function as a fully-formed human. In addition to having the fortitude to make phone calls without rehearsing beforehand and being able to describe what a “nest egg” is, I am learning how to excel at navigating leisure as an individual, which is to say that I’m getting better at structuring my elective experience of the world in ways that are pleasant and satisfying rather than merely assigned or advised.
Many nice things have happened on this trip. First and foremost, I discovered labneh, a magical variety of Middle-Eastern strained yogurt that I cannot believe has evaded me for this long. I enjoyed luxuriant rests in brick-walled cafes after low-stakes visits to famous monuments that, while beautiful, did not bear any particular significance to me, which relieved me of the possibility of being disappointed. I finally came to understand what everyone is talking about when they laud on the romance of East Coast nights -- how the daytime humidity wicks into cool dusk, the inherent flirtiness of sipping chilled wine in a slinky dress or summertime linens. I swiftly and breezily evaded public transportation fares in what I view as a vigilante approach to living out my belief that all metropolitan public transportation should be free. I ate bagels thrice -- avo and sprouts on wheat everything, egg, sausage, and cheese on maple salt & pepper, and strawberry cream cheese slathered on blueberry -- all quality, all tantalizing crisp on the outside and chewy-soft on the inside. I partook in activities that appealed to me greatly but would be somewhat atypical for the average holiday-goer, like watching two musicals in a single day (three in eight days) and nibbling at a cinnamon roll over the course of four hours while editing newsletters at a communal table in a busy food hall. In short, I had fun.
On the other side of the spectrum, I was reminded that in addition to inspiring wonder, solitude also makes room for shame.
Try as I might, I still experience a light discomfort when hanging out alone in public. I’m fine to shop for groceries or grab a beverage by myself, but I feel self-conscious when doing activities that are usually enjoyed in duos or groups, such as going to the movies or having a notably sharable dessert, like a banana split. Though I am usually alone by choice, it is not infrequent that I am alone due to failure -- specifically, the failure to rally a companion into joining me on whatever adventure I am plotting -- and this tends to feel bad.
Even though I am far removed from them both chronologically and emotionally, memories from several years of fond partnership still surface in my thoughtspace from time to time. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss belonging to a unit and its many gratifications: the inherent pleasure of connection, the assurance of having a place, the removal of the self-judgment that sometimes seizes me when confronted with situational friendlessness. Relationships, whether romantic or platonic, provide a script, and it is much less demanding to memorize a script than to write one. Shared experience is just easy to glamorize; after all, you’ve got two or more people working on it! Conversely, it’s much harder to be optimistic about unintentional isolation. When I ruminate on my loss of particular varieties of togetherness that I can no longer rely upon, I incline toward shame.
How am I this young and already alone? How am I this old and still so bad at making friends? Am I unlikeable? Am I difficult to be around? Am I much weirder than I think? Or is it that I'm too normal and boring? Should I be worried about the fact that I read wikiHow articles in order to figure out how I should behave in various social situations? Why do I feel so uncomfortable when certain people express care for me? If I’m so “normal” and “well-adjusted”, then how do you explain my online blog, a clear tell of maladjustment and hubris?!
Shame, for me, feels like an all-over flush. My cheeks redden, my hands start to feel clammy, and I instinctually plaster on a “no worries at all” smile when in fact, there are many worries. Shame arises when my fears are too close to the truth to tuck away tidily or smooth over with a good-hearted laugh. Shame occurs when nobody is patient enough to teach me the acceptable patterns of being. Shame is a perpetual anxiety that I’m not in on the joke. Shame is the fear that they’re being told about me.
I am lucky to be mostly sane and mostly self-assured, and yet I am gripped by moments of shame with upsetting regularity, which makes me suspect that many of us are walking around with burdensome amounts of shame every day.
On my second morning in DC, I went to a semi-fancy brunch restaurant and ordered a delicious waffle: light, crisp, slightly eggy, generously vanilla-ed. When I came to the final bite, I speared it onto my fork and dunked it into my little tin of maple syrup. Moistened by the amber liquid, it slipped off the fork before making it into my mouth, landing tragically upon the black granite tabletop. Quickly, I jabbed at it with the tines of my utensil, once, twice, thrice, but to no avail. I made eye contact with a couple sitting nearby, two 30-somethings who had been discussing their law practice ambitions over the course of their meal. Mindful of their gaze and my unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the waffle civilly, I grabbed the piece with my pointer finger and thumb and quickly flung it onto my plate. Embarrassed, I looked down and contemplated the now-soggy piece mournfully, a small island of bread on an otherwise empty plate. A single cloud against a flat blue sky. A lone sheep grazing in an endless green field.
The waffle remained completely and totally edible, and I could have eaten it as I had originally planned to. But I chose not to. Instead, I paid the check, departed the restaurant, and left behind a perfectly delectable morsel of food, put off by the minute possibility of a momentary and inconsequential thought passing through the minds of strangers.
And for what reason? To save face? To avoid judgment? For the sake of etiquette? Over a piece of waffle???
Logically, I know that nobody actually cares what I am doing. Not for big things, like deciding to move countries, and certainly not for little things like whether or not I eat food that’s violated the five-second rule.
In a few minor areas of my life, I actually apply this understanding. For example, I am a steadfast adherent to “phone eats first,” even when this means stalling the meal for the whole party. I speedwalk through the hilly streets of SF with an urgent strut my friends have dubbed a "psycho pace". I practice my British accent out loud in public, muttering half-baked opinions, running through my to-do lists, and reading street signs as I rush past them. When the sunlight hits right and I feel moved by the strange divinity of the Universe, I’ll outstretch my arms and take a big deep, dramatic, thank-you breath no matter where I am, like an imitation of the famous photos of Nicole Kidman celebrating her divorce, except on Market Street surrounded by office workers in business casual.
I know that shamelessness invites others to be shameless too, so as an act of martyrdom or joyous abandon, I muster it on occasion. But only 10-15% of the time at most. And I want to know what it feels like to be shameless all the time.
I want to be unabashed in perpetuity. I want to kill the part of me that cringes. I want to exorcise the part of me that holds back. I want to blow my ego to pieces.
I want to get over myself. I want to sing off-key. I want to dance without thinking twice. I want to publish shitty writing without it bothering me for the next two weeks. I want to tweet garbage. I want to brick fits. I want to do things even when I suck at them. I want to ask for what I want. I want to do it without apologizing. I want to produce excellent work. I want to be cool and interesting. I want to be powerful. I want to have lots and lots of friends whom I adore. I want to be liberated.
I want to eat the table waffle.
I want the other restaurant patrons to notice and think nothing of it because I carry out the motion with such conviction that it must be correct. I want to pluck the waffle off the table with my fingers and place it resolutely in my mouth, syrupy and substantial, and show my face as I do it.
I want to smile my toothy, lopsided grin, chase the pīti around in my chest, and wipe away self-judgment like a squeegee takes to water. I want to embody the knowledge that there is nothing shameful about being me, nothing shameful about my desire to be satisfied, to loom large, to reach for more, to stop grasping because this is already enough, to exercise optimism boldly and bravely, to love and be loved with unbounded sincerity.