Conjunctions:75 Dispatches from Solitude

A/part: Notes on Solitude
Unlike most Japanese couples of their generation, my parents married for love in 1954 over the objections of their families, but three years later when I was born, my father, Hiroshi, was having an affair with a woman who worked as a bar hostess. She was the first (and the last) of many girlfriends he had, serially and consecutively. An engineer for the manufacturing conglomerate Kawasaki Steel, Hiroshi worked till late, went out drinking with his coworkers, visited his girlfriends, and returned home long past my bedtime. My mother, Takako, waited up for him, but I don’t recall my parents ever holding hands, hugging, or laughing together. My friends’ parents, who’d had arranged marriages, at least sat together for dinner on weekends and went on family vacations in the summers, but Hiroshi and Takako were seldom in the same room, in my memory. My father might as well have inhabited a separate galaxy. But they had one thing in common: their inability to be happy alone.

Until I was ten and my parents were thirty-nine, we lived in a newly built apartment complex in a seaside neighborhood in Kobe that the company rented to employees who were saving money to buy their own houses. Japanese people in the 1960s did not take out mortgages, so only the men being groomed to join the upper management could hope to save enough funds. The fathers in our building, which had twenty apartments on four floors, were reputed to be “shigoto no oni”—monsters of work—ambitious men who seldom had time for anything but work, but mine was the busiest. Although other fathers also went drinking at the end of the day and some of them, no doubt, had girlfriends as well, Hiroshi spent his weekends playing rugby with his former college teammates, and he didn’t accompany my mother, brother, and me on our summer trips to beach or mountain resorts or to my mother’s parents’ house in the country.

None of the mothers in our building worked outside the home. Every afternoon when I returned from school, a dozen of them were sitting at our kitchen table, laughing and chatting. Each woman had brought her knitting, sewing, or embroidery so the table was covered with yarn, thread, and sewing notions, along with the cups of tea and plates of cookies my mother had baked. I would drop off my books and go outside to join the gang of kids playing hide-and-seek, kick the can, or some war game we made up. Soon the mothers would be returning to their own kitchens to prepare dinner.

Men spent time with men, women with women, and children with children—until we children came home. My friends and I never wondered if our mothers were bored eating dinner night after night with only us for company, or if they felt burdened when we brought our friends over and they had to serve us snacks and entertain us. I cannot remember when I became aware that our fathers traveled all over the country on business and had several sets of friends as well as illicit girlfriends, we children had neighborhood friends and school friends and were allowed to play unsupervised away from our building or visit school friends who lived in different neighborhoods from ours, while our mothers did not leave home except to shop for groceries at a nearby supermarket and attend PTA meetings at our school, and they had only one another—their immediate neighbors— to befriend.

If I didn’t notice, it’s because my mother was happy back then. Our apartment was where the women gathered to drink tea and do their crafts, or to try the baking recipes my mother had found in magazines. Takako was the oldest of six children, and in the summers when her family congregated at my grandparents’ house in the country, my uncles and aunts clustered around her to listen to her stories and ask for her advice. Friends and family alike said Takako could light up a room by just walking in. Even my friends vied for her attention and told me over and over, “Your mother is so pretty,” “She is so kind and funny,” “I love coming to your house.” None of them would have recognized the woman who sat alone in her new home, unable to move from the dark and cold kitchen to a sunnier room upstairs.

Our family was the first to buy a house of our own, in a quiet neighborhood on a hill that was famous for its “million-dollar view” of the city below. From the rooms upstairs, we could see Osaka Bay in the distance and at night, the glittering neon lights of the business and entertainment districts. In the back of the house, separated by a brook, was a large park with an arboretum. In the summer with our windows open, we could hear bush warblers—Japanese nightingales—trilling their songs among the branches. But my mother hated that house. The pine trees in the backyard cast shadows on the kitchen, she said, making it cold, dark, and gloomy.

I now returned from school to find her sitting alone, and there was nothing on the table unless it was an empty or cold cup of tea. Takako couldn’t get herself interested in knitting, sewing, embroidery, baking, or any other hobby that used to give her pleasure. She didn’t visit homes in the neighborhood to try and get to know the other women. The apartment building was just a few miles from where we now lived, but neither she nor her friends knew how to drive. Besides, women from “good families” didn’t go cruising around town to amuse themselves alone or in a group. Takako couldn’t even stroll through the park behind our house unless my brother and I were with her because a woman out in public by herself caused suspicion. She had only been able to spend long afternoons with her friends because none of them had to leave the building to sit in her kitchen. They were all staying home as expected.

Having purchased a residence in an exclusive neighborhood and installed us there, my father stopped coming home almost entirely. He claimed to be traveling for business every week, and even when he was supposed to be working in town, he called from some noisy bar past midnight to say he was leaving on a trip after all. As I sat in the kitchen to keep her company, my mother cried and said that she was a complete failure as a wife; she would have nothing to live for once my brother and I grew up and left. It was no use reminding her that my brother, who was sleeping upstairs, had just started first grade and I too was still in elementary school. Two years later, when Takako killed herself, leaving a note to say that she was nothing but a burden to everyone, I was not surprised. Being alone every afternoon—and imagining endless years of being even more alone—had killed her.

I didn’t have an occasion to observe my father with his friends, but my aunt—his sister—always said he was the life of the party wherever he went. He played rugby with his old friends until a year before his death at sixty-six from cancer. At his funeral, which I missed but heard about from my aunt, his work friends and rugby friends talked about how they had looked up to him—such a generous, smart, and kind man—and, throughout the service, young women who had worked as his secretaries and receptionists dabbed their eyes with their handkerchiefs. His longtime girlfriend, the bar hostess, who had not been allowed to attend the funeral, called my aunt the next day to reveal that Hiroshi had telephoned her whenever my stepmother— the girlfriend he married a few months after my mother’s death— stepped out of his hospital room. Unlike my mother, my father never had to be alone with no one to talk to.

My parents were both charismatic extroverts, and I was the opposite. I looked forward to the rainy days when I could play alone in my room. There was so much to occupy myself with: piles of books, some from the library, others my own; various notebooks in which I wrote adventure stories and fairy tales and illustrated them with colored pencils; several sets of paper dolls—families from around the world, kings and queens, famous artists and musicians—which I dressed and then mixed up deliberately so I could imagine what had brought the unlikely characters together. I was also obsessed with origami: I folded tiny paper cranes that I sorted by color and size and kept in a dozen decorative boxes. I was always surprised and disappointed when the day was over and it was time for dinner.

I wasn’t awkward or shy with my peers—I just preferred my own company. The best month I spent in elementary school was during my third grade when school was closed to prevent the spread of chicken pox. The only child in the entire neighborhood who didn’t get sick, I rode my bike wherever I wanted, walked on a deserted beach collecting seashells, and pretended I was creating a city in an abandoned construction site by digging holes and stacking rocks into towers. I still remember the thrill of having the whole neighborhood to myself. Since every other child in the building, including my brother, was sick, I was allowed to be out all day so long as I followed the simple rules for staying safe: don’t talk to strangers, don’t accept food from them or get into their cars, and don’t be late for dinner.

Two years later, crying every night in our new house, my mother made me promise that I would not be like her. “You are smart and strong,” she said over and over. “You can’t end up like me.” She didn’t elaborate, but I understood what she meant. She didn’t want me to throw my life away by marrying a man like my father. I had to take care of myself and not depend on anyone. Neither of us realized at the time how unnecessary this advice was. She was right when she imagined her future without me. If she had lived, I would still have moved away to pursue my own life, something a Japanese woman from “a good family” could accomplish only by leaving the country to spare her family from gossip. Long before my mother became miserable enough to die, I was happier alone than with anyone, even her.

 


I used to claim that I needed to be alone to write, but the truth is the opposite. I became a writer to justify all the hours I wanted to spend by myself behind a closed door.

In the 1980s in a small town in Wisconsin, I wrote my first novel in the makeshift office that the former owner of the house had built in the basement: a room with a cement floor and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. I started every writing session by going over what I had finished the day before. I reread each sentence, then crossed out, rephrased, added, and moved the words around. Tinkering with the pages put me into a dream state in which I could imagine stepping off the ledge of a tall building and being able to continue walking straight ahead, which is what writing, rather than revising, felt like. Only in this dream state could I go on to the next, unwritten part, and proceed to form new words.

Every morning after my run, I descended the steps to the study that resembled an interrogation room to work on a possibly doomed project, because I was drawn to the intensely private concentration that writing required. Just like on those rainy childhood afternoons with my paper dolls and origami cranes, I was making, arranging, and sorting through what I could keep, mesmerized by the order and pattern of what I managed to accumulate. I was more attached to my novel in progress than I had been to my toys, and yet the pleasure of being alone for hours to daydream and have something to show for it: that was exactly the same.

I was married during those years. Because I had heeded my mother’s advice, my husband was nothing like my father, who cheated on my mother and still expected her to serve him tea and a late-night dinner if he chose to come home. My spouse accepted that I didn’t talk to him or anyone in the morning before I sat down to write (I believed there were only so many words my brain could produce every day and I couldn’t afford to squander them on idle talk, at least not until I’d done my quota of writing for the day). He tiptoed around the house and only played instrumental music on the stereo so the words floating around the living room would not interfere with those in my head, one story below. We were both teachers, though, and my time off from the college where I taught coincided with his from his elementary school. So, eight years into our marriage, I rented a small apartment to write in, a few miles away from our house. Five years later, I moved there to live.

That was more than twenty years ago, and I haven’t lived with another human being since. As I told him, I didn’t leave because he’d failed to be considerate. He was the only person I could have been married to for thirteen years. But sooner or later I had to accept: I can’t be my true self unless I’m alone; I can’t think with another person breathing and thinking his own thoughts in the space where I am trying to do the same.


My solitude, however, is not pure or simple. All my adult life, I’ve lived with cats who—contrary to the common stereotype—followed me around and plastered themselves to me. Dorian, my first cat, watched over my writing in the basement office, commuted with me to the apartment I rented to write in, and of course moved there with me when I got divorced. My eighteen years with Dorian is the longest time I’ve gotten to spend alone together with anyone: alone, together—that’s how I think of the relationship between my cats and me. It is neither solitude nor companionship. It’s more of a merging, an expansion of the self into another being. If Dorian, or his current successors, Miles and Jackson, could speak, I’m sure they would agree that the flow of energy or spirit between us is constant and mutual: I am them and they are me. They are the part of me who watches from a nearby perch while I go deep into my mind to retrieve the words I need to put on the page. I am the part of them who goes out into the world to earn our living. We are one another’s lifeline.

My cats are not substitutes for a partner, children, family, or friends. Our relationship is fundamentally different. Every human relationship requires a negotiation of the constantly shifting boundary between individuals, or between the individual and the group: we go back and forth, getting closer, merging, separating, establishing some distance, then starting all over again. This ebb and flow is the challenge and the reward of marriage, family, friendship, mentorship, perhaps even patriotism or loyalty to an institution. Whether we’re married or single, with or without families, we define ourselves through our interactions—positive, negative, intimate, distant, at times even hostile—with others around us: we know who we are because we are like them but we are not them.

My cats don’t offer or demand the same exploration of solidarity and autonomy, and it’s not because they (supposedly) don’t impose many restrictions on my life. Dorian, a Siamese cat who was extremely possessive, terrorized all my friends by biting them. Miles, another Siamese, paces in circles around me as if he’s trying to corral me; he too is a one-person cat though he is quietly disdainful rather than violent or aggressive toward other humans. Jackson, an easygoing Burmese, clambers onto my lap and presses his head against my hand until I start petting him. Their demand for my attention breaks the endless loops of thoughts, impressions, reverie—or idle chatter—circulating through my mind. With them around, I’m not trapped inside my head, but because I don’t perceive them as other, whatever they want (and sometimes, it’s a long play session that interrupts the paragraph I’ve been trying to write) doesn’t put me in the defensive mode that the intrusion of other humans almost always does. I pay attention to the cats and resume whatever I was doing. My cats draw me out and then return me, whole, to myself. Being with them is the same and not the same as being alone: they complicate and expand my solitude.


Alone at home all day, my mother felt trapped and diminished. After several hours away from home, surrounded even by my closest friends, I feel my entire being contracting into a pebble, soon to become a speck of dust. “I need to get out of here,” I think (or sometimes even say). That’s what my mother must have thought too, in her cold and dark kitchen. She was longing for the sense of freedom and wholeness she once enjoyed among her friends, just as I long for the sense of freedom and wholeness I can only experience at home, alone together with my cats. I never wanted children because I was certain that being with young children all day long—not having a moment to myself—would make me feel depleted and worn down. Takako worried that she would become further diminished when my brother and I left home. In our opposite ways, we wanted and want the same thing: to be our true complete selves.

My mother was suffering from isolation: she was cut off and disconnected from the outside world she needed to draw sustenance from. Although Webster’s defines solitude as “the quality or state of being alone or remote from society” and lists “isolation” as its synonym, the two are not the same. Isolation results from an action— its verb form, isolate—that forcibly separated the person from the whole he or she belonged to. Alone, my mother felt broken, like a tree cut down and removed from the forest’s canopy. For me, by contrast, being alone is the natural state. Surrounded by too many people for too long, I feel fragmented, disconnected. Without solitude, I become isolated from the private world that sustains me.

Home is the most important place for my solitude, but unlike my mother, I am free to come and go. In Washington, DC, where I live now, I begin each morning with a run through Rock Creek Park and through various neighborhoods where I observe the weather, the seasons, the ceaseless human activity, trees and flowers, birds and other wildlife, and the national buildings and monuments with their complex, often troubling history. Far from being “remote,” I’m immersed in both human society and the natural world, whether I’m running or, later in the day, looking out the window at the mourning doves, chickadees, finches, sparrows, and cardinals pecking at the sunflower seeds in the feeder I installed on the window ledge to amuse the cats. Immersed and yet choosing, mostly, to be separate.


In my late twenties, still married, I found myself needing two kinds of solitude. Spending hours alone with my writing continued to satisfy my craving for quiet concentration, but the work required an active, complicated kind of solitude. I had to pay attention to every word I pulled out of my mind and put on the page, yet I also had to be in a dream state that allowed me to believe I could make something—a story or an essay—that didn’t exist until I wrote it. Being alone at my desk was at once exhilarating and exhausting. To complement the hours I spent there, I needed a less fraught kind of solitude, an interlude during which I was simply an observer or amateur practitioner. Running—once I stopped competing, as I did in high school—was a source of this simpler solitude, but that only gave me an hour or two every day. So I took up a host of other solo activities such as cycling, bird-watching, museum visits.

For a while I was able to balance time for my writing, time for other solitary activities, and time with my husband. But I couldn’t manage solitude, marriage, and community while also trying to write and teach. I had a handful of close friends from graduate school and a few I had met since, but I struggled to make time for them. I volunteered at the nature center and the homeless shelter in town, only to stop after a couple of years when I felt overwhelmed.

“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do,” claimed a popular song in my youth. For me, two was the worst number. I was more isolated, perhaps even lonely, during my marriage than in the years I lived alone before and after. Like my mother, I was cut off from community. Even though my spouse was not a demanding person, being married meant my default mode was company, so every chance I got, I tried to be alone. When Dorian and I moved to my studio, the balance was reversed and righted. I no longer had to spend hours walking in the woods with binoculars or driving to faraway cities to see art exhibits: I could be alone with Dorian every second I was home. With solitude as my default mode, I had a chance to spend time with friends and volunteer in the community when I wanted to.

I have never believed in the notion of the better half—the myth that humans were originally created with four arms, four legs, and two heads and that Zeus split us in two and condemned us to spend our lives in search of the missing half. I actually feel incomplete without my cats, but our union is a free-form, shape-shifting mystery, not a precise fitting together of half with half. When we were married, I thought of my husband as one of the people I could turn to for help if needed, but not as the person who was responsible for my happiness and welfare. The idea of having “a special someone” to take care of me always and forever struck me as oppressive and absurd. Even my mother could not do that for me, or I for her, and if we had managed to, then our relationship would have been as stultifying, or deadly, as her isolation in the house she hated. We would have stunted and suffocated each other in the shadow of those pine trees.

What could have turned her isolation into solitude and kept her alive was not a daughter or a husband but a community. My mother didn’t have the opportunities to work outside the home or to participate in volunteer activities or political action. Her parents lived a day’s journey away and her siblings had their own families. Without the friends who gathered in her kitchen every afternoon, she had just my brother and me: we were her only emissaries to and from the outside world. No wonder she imagined her future as endless years of isolation. I don’t believe each of us needs one devoted companion, a soul mate, whether it’s a husband, wife, mother, father, or child. But we absolutely need friends, colleagues, neighbors, a group of like-minded people. Solitude only makes sense when we’re connected to the world around us: we can’t be apart unless we can be a part of.


I chose a single life and a community over marriage. My ex-husband is now one of the old friends I stay in touch with. He’s visited me in Boston and in Washington, DC, the two cities I’ve lived in since leaving Wisconsin. And, like my mother when she was happy, I make my home in an apartment building and have a couple (though not a dozen) neighbors who are my close friends. I too would have found the house on the hill gloomy and depressing in spite of its million- dollar view. I prefer to be in the midst of society, where I can carve out a small space to be alone and quiet.

I have no desire to live like a hermit on vast acres of land or spend a night in a tent pitched in a wilderness, but in the last five years I lived in Wisconsin, I drove out to the countryside by myself every August to watch the Perseids meteor showers. Just a few miles out of town, farmhouses were spaced far apart and no one drove there after midnight. I would pull over on the side of the road next to a hayfield, climb on top of the car’s roof, and lie down. Meteors streaked across the sky every few minutes, some directly overhead, others in the periphery of my vision. There was no traffic on the roads, no planes in the sky. All I could hear was crickets, katydids, cicadas, and, once in a while, dogs barking in the distance. I didn’t believe in God or the afterlife, and the traditional concept of heaven—an eternity spent with multitudes of people who managed to hold on to the same creed through life’s vicissitudes—was more horrifying than any vision of hell or the possibility of complete annihilation. But alone in the dark under the shooting stars that were actually particles of dust, I could imagine what death was like and not be afraid: just the essence of me going on in the universe, released from who I was. Death, I hoped, would be the ultimate solitude of being apart and yet a part of.

But I could only have these consoling thoughts about the universe and my mortality for about an hour before the sky began to look like a bottomless well I could drown in. Too much nature, for too long, was just as overwhelming as too much company for too long. The universe was so large and I was so small. This thought, though hardly new to me or to anyone, threatened to suffocate me and grind me down to nothing. So I would climb down from the top of the car, get behind the wheel, and head back to town. Even though I regretted leaving behind the stars that continued to fall, I knew I had to go.

Dorian was always at the door when I got home. He would flop down on the floor and wait for me to pick him up. With him in my arms, and my face buried in his fur, my mind expanded like a shriveled balloon receiving air. As we sat together on the couch, I could remember the dark country road as a place where I felt connected to the universe, to its endless space and time. Dorian was the part of me that stayed home and stayed safe: the keeper of my finite being. He secured me to myself so I could be alone.

That’s what Miles and Jackson are doing for me now, mid-August of this year of the coronavirus, as we shelter together from the global pandemic. The point of solitude is not to disappear from the world but to claim a small territory around the self, to say: I’m here, separate from everything that surrounds me, but a part of it. I no longer drive out to the countryside to watch the Perseids, but I know we are hurtling, once again, through a cosmic dust storm.

Kyoko Mori is the author of three nonfiction books—The Dream of Water and Polite Lies (both Henry Holt), and Yarn (Gemma Media Books)—as well as four novels. Her essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Harvard Review, and Colorado Review. Mori teaches in the Creative Writing Program at George Mason University.