The Bourgeois Romance of Pandemic Isolation
Reading May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude" in quarantine
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
The lizard that lived around my apartment and popped up every once in a while died today. Found dead, cause unknown—the way they report it on the news. I burst into tears without quite knowing why. Perhaps because it too was a lone traveler within these walls, or because I had been rooting for it, as much as I have for myself, to survive this indefinite lockdown. If I were in the millennial habit of celebrating monthly markers, today would be the four-month-versary of my isolation. Not a particularly cheery thought: a hundred and twenty days since I have seen a familiar face, my nagging memory reminds me (somehow, video calls don’t feel like they count). I try to quell the burgeoning self-pity by skimming through the daily news, a concoction of public despair that leaves a bitter but less personal aftertaste. People would switch places with you in a heartbeat, I chide myself. The thought doesn’t really help.
When an acquaintance recommended May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude to me, I’d already spent nearly two months at home. The beginning of the lockdown, as far as beginnings go, had been quite comfortable. I procured enough supplies to get by, avoided the toilet roll mania and cooked healthy meals five days a week. I sent out an email newsletter for 40 consecutive days, for friends and acquaintances who were struggling to adapt to the new circumstances. I thought I couldn’t be more pandemic-ready. After all, wasn’t solitude the fuel to creativity?
I’ve lived alone in this apartment for the better part of two years, studying and working from home. Everyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy being on my own. Until recently, my version of solitude was the epitome of a comfortable existence. Much like the life Sarton describes in her journal, my schedule was interspersed with weekend trips and walks around town, weekly teas and lunches with friends, visits to relatives and social obligations twice a month. My meetings with people were intimate enough to refresh the soul and challenge the intellect, yet not so much as to intrude into my space. I relished my independence and indeed, fiercely guarded it. But as Sarton wrote, sitting alone on a freezing February day, “At what price would total independence be bought?” In retrospect, what I was thoroughly unprepared for was the actual solitariness of prolonged solitude, when it becomes imposed instead of chosen.
In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf points out, with due apology for her bluntness, that a woman, in order to write or create, must have a certain financial standing. Wordsworth, in Daffodils, reflects a bourgeois sentiment in evoking the pleasures of leisure. Solitude, and the enjoyment of it, comes inherently imbued with a notion of class consciousness. I daresay if I found myself sharing a room with five other people, with interrupted supplies of water and power, struggling to put the next meal on the table, I would have time for neither solitude nor loneliness. There is nothing romantic about poverty, except when the affluent write about it.
Even as I record my own reflections in a journal, I wonder what right I have to write about the nature of solitude. Living in an upscale urban neighborhood that borders India’s capital, equipped with the gift of the internet and a slew of social media apps, I have the ability to pick up my smartphone and see any one of my friends who live thousands of kilometers away. I have been home-bound, but I own the roof above my head, a sophisticated high-rise apartment roof with electricity and water, a well-stocked refrigerator, a weekly walk to the nearest supermarket for groceries. I can open my wallet without worrying, and can afford to casually buy a poor woman (or two) a liter of cooking oil that she will make do with for an entire month. After the third person peers hopefully at me, I can (not so) casually convince myself it’s all I can afford to do. I can come home and write an angry article about the government’s inadequacies and sign a few petitions. I can afford to put my upper-caste, majority-religion last name on them without fearing an arrest (yet).
But I am also the person who drifts around in an empty house quiet enough that you can hear the air displaced by whirring fan blades. A house that I have deep-cleaned like a crime scene, where dust still accumulates daily on chairs that no one sits on. I exchange pleasantries with a potted areca palm, leave the TV on for no reason, and assign names to stray reptiles that die on me. There are days when I successfully adhere to the “inexorable routines” that Sarton calls a necessity for surviving tempestuous upheavals, and then there are days when I succumb and lie on my bed for hours at a time—I have nearly decoded my crying schedule. I am half-sick of oblique gazes on electronic screens; more and more, I find myself wanting to turn off my phone and write a letter. I am not struggling as much as many others—but it matters that I too am struggling.
For a while now, I have dreaded reading the newspaper because I feel accountable to innumerable, nameless people for the luxury of my bad days, and even more for my good, peaceful ones. When people were walking hundreds of kilometers to reach their homes and collapsing on the way, I was dancing in my kitchen whilst cooking pasta. Even as a security guard reached home after a two-day shift, only to leave in a couple of hours again, I woke up fresh from eight hours of sleep, and went about watering my plants. A fire, literal and metaphorical, rippled across the world as I received a much-awaited acceptance letter for a poem I’d submitted. At what point in a dystopian existence do you stop celebrating your own little joys?
Growing up, my solitude was a comfortable given. The only child of working parents, I could amuse myself for much of the day with little trouble. As I went out into the world and learned how to share a room, I also discovered how rare my childhood usual was. Sarton describes the responsibility that an independent existence burdens a writer with: a noblesse oblige of sorts, to dive deep into oneself and cast a wider net, to raise a voice for the stories so often brushed under the carpet. Despite the difference between my time and hers, I find myself agreeing. My autonomy—financial, sexual and social—is a gift I did little to earn, one that is denied to a majority of my country’s people, and a majority of the world. I owe it to them to be as unpretentious as possible, to at least face, without any hypocrisy, my life’s reality.
I speak to a friend who has moved back with her family, who tells me about how they frequently interrupt her work. Another’s friend’s anxiety chronically gets triggered in close quarters, as she grapples with the uncertainty of her professional life. Many are suffering toxic domestic situations that they don’t want to stay in, but cannot completely abandon. Months ago, when I decided not to return to the house where my parents live, I agreed to pay a much smaller, albeit significant, price for my independence and solitude: periodic, debilitating loneliness. On my bad days, I try to remind myself of the good ones.
On my good days, even as I lift my pen to traverse narratives of discrimination, political censorship, sexual violence and feminism with relative ease, I falter, unlike Sarton, when it comes to a quietly confident exposition of my daily life. In her journal recorded over a year, with great self-assuredness, she touches upon several knotty subjects including racism, homosexuality, and patriarchy, but mostly, she writes at length about herself and her everyday struggles. What is of essence here is not so much what she narrates, but the fact that she chooses to say it at all—a confidence I and most women of my acquaintance sorely lack, a confidence hitherto the monopoly of white male writers. But truly, if alcohol can be the motif of Bukowski or Hemingway, why can’t Sarton’s gardening be hers?
The extraordinariness in her journal is its attention to the ordinary: the changing flowers, the antics of the parrot Punch, the turn of seasons, the visit of a feral cat or a boisterous raccoon—the kind of minutiae that might be termed mundane, privileged and irrelevant by critics, but that she seldom apologizes for. At one point, she questions herself: “What do you want of your life?” and realizes that all she wants is the same, but “to handle it all better.” From her isolation to mine, perhaps just as she intended, this has been the connection forged: an appreciation of one’s life as it is, without an inner voice intermittently wondering if this is how it ought to be.
In the interests of efficiency, solitude requires that one assume a certain weight of the world on one’s shoulders—in Sarton’s words, “think like a hero.” But here’s the catch: most heroes that populate history and literature are terribly self-absorbed. From time to time, it becomes essential to find something that pulls you out of yourself, and reminds you of your place in the grand scheme. Over these weeks, I am learning to transition from someone likely to blame herself for the death of a cactus, to someone who spends an hour each day pruning, re-potting, fumbling her way through the language of the soil, accepting alike the delight and disappointment. As I read about a garden in bloom in a patch of countryside half a century and half a world away, gazing out at my own backyard, it becomes increasingly lucid to me why nature is the unifying metaphor for human existence. There is nothing to be done, says Sarton, but to go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour. Today marks four months of my isolation. As I hum to myself while tending to a plant with curling leaves, I have finally stopped counting.