An Inheritance of Loneliness

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From The Paris Review:

Quarantine has made me a lonelier woman, but I’ve always held the inheritance of another woman’s loneliness. When my mother was in her early twenties, she left her mother’s house in Bangalore to move to New York City, where her new husband—my father— had been living for the previous few years. It was her mother, my grandmother, who arranged the match. My grandmother was thrilled to send my mother to America, even though my mother didn’t want to marry and didn’t idealize coming to America the way her mother did.

You can be happy anywhere, unhappy anywhere, my grandmother told her. The two of them had a mother-daughter relationship like something out of a Jamaica Kincaid novel: loving but contentious, fraught with discipline and warnings about the difficulty of being a woman.

My mother remembers her early life in New York as a kind of self-quarantine. While my father worked, she spent her days isolated in their tiny studio apartment, going stir-crazy, cooking and cleaning and staring at the clinical white walls. A gossipy relative back home had spooked her into believing she’d be assassinated if she opened the front door in America. Occasionally, she spoke to the women holed up in the neighboring apartments. But most of her downtime, my mother spent sleeping. She slept purposefully and often, trying to reenter her old life in her dreams: the long walks with college girlfriends to the pani puri truck, the yipping of a neighbor’s Pomeranian, the pulse of life as an unmarried woman, alive with vagary and freedom. My mother resented her mother for marrying her off. They spoke once a month, on an international call, during which they’d argue about fate. And then my mother would hang up, miss her mother, and sleep away some more of her time.

Experiences like my mother’s are commonplace for many women. They’re often fictionalized and folded into novels about immigrant experiences, novels many readers from immigrant communities have grown tired of. Can’t we tell stories other than the one about coming to America and assimilating? And yet, those narratives have a pull for me—they contain the stories about women’s loneliness that have always absorbed me.

I’ve read Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy over and over. It’s the novel I turn to when I crave the order of a book I have loved before. First published in 1990, Lucy is about a young woman who leaves her home in the West Indies to work as an au pair for Mariah and Lewis, a well-to-do white couple in the United States. At first glance, Lucy seemed to me like the kind of novel I am built to love: I had always wanted to be a woman rising, and so I liked stories about women rising. Lucy’s premise suggests a narrative about social ascendance—a young, wage-earning woman, a modern governess type who pulls herself up by her bootstraps. It seems, on the surface, to promise to be another immigrant bildungsroman, charting the arc of a young woman’s maturation into a society where things like bootstraps are celebrated.

But Lucy doesn’t care about ascendance or assimilation. Kincaid doesn’t concern herself with a woman becoming, but rather with a woman being. How does a person get to be that way? Lucy wonders, over and over again. What she wants to be—all she wants to be—is alone. She wants to isolate herself before society seizes the chance to isolate her. Solitude is an act of self-preservation, whereas loneliness can be an act of violence, and so every choice Lucy makes is in pursuit of solitude. She chooses to leave her island behind. She chooses to leave her mother behind, a mother who, for all the ferocity of her love, raised her daughter with the same patriarchal hand that had raised her.

Once in the States, Lucy ignores the stack of letters her mother sends her, all the notes of love and punishment and longing. She comes to love her employer, Mariah, like a mother figure, and the two form a bond despite the chasm of their class difference. “The right thing always happens to her,” Lucy says of Mariah. “The thing she always wants to happen, happens.” 

. . . .

As I sit, alone, through quarantine, it’s my fourth time rereading Lucy, but I still remember my first. I was in college, and my professor introduced each novel we studied with a chalkboard quote culled from another novel. For Lucy, that quote came from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Eliot writes, and I have never forgotten:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow, and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we would die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence.

The quote arrives at a point in Middlemarch when the heroine has just married. She’s crying on her honeymoon. Her new husband, of whom she wanted to be an equal, has relegated her to the position of an assistant. The heroine’s pain is visceral—the claustrophobic friction of a marriage, the realization that a man is what he always was—but it’s also ordinary, and Eliot’s shrewd narrator knows that readers don’t sympathize with ordinary pains. To sympathize with the ordinary would be impractical; it would mean feeling too much.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG thinks the author’s grandmother was correct, “You can be happy anywhere, unhappy anywhere.”

A lot of people are certainly unhappy everywhere during these days of confinement, but, PG suggests, that doesn’t mean a lot of people everywhere are unhappy all the time.

PG further suggests that, when some people are unhappy, they see unhappiness wherever they look. When he makes this statement, PG is making an observation about human nature as manifested in some people. Human nature also makes it possible for some people to be happy when they see unhappiness all around them. They are able to locate and experience happiness despite what they see everywhere.

PG realizes he is stating the obvious. By these observations, he is not implying any criticism of those who, for one reason or another, physical, emotional or situational, have a hard time feeling happy. He understands that, “If you act happy, you will be happy,” doesn’t always work or even, for some people, ever work.

However, for PG, none of these observations and factors mean that Grandmother’s saying was incorrect.

You can be happy anywhere, unhappy anywhere.

2 thoughts on “An Inheritance of Loneliness”

  1. I am actually happy. I have time for writing, and, when the brain clicks on, I do so. Dinner is delivered, and, until the fires, all we had to do was not catch covid-19. We were even getting to use the outdoor pool, three at a time in a half-hour slot, with a staff person watching, and decontaminating the stair rails when we got out.

    I hope to emerge from this virus’ quarantine with much more written.

    The human brain can hold only one thought at a time. I choose to be happy.

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