How lonely people make memories

I returned from holiday recently and people asked “Did you have a good time? What did you do?” I realised that I didn’t know the answer. It made me think an idea I have thought many times before: lonely people make memories in different ways.

I’m a lonely person. My family has always been complicated. As a child, I considered I could best contribute to their lives by being ‘easy’. They wouldn’t need to worry about me because I was fine. I was strong enough to be ok without people. I could take the load.

Friends, too, have rarely been close. I don’t actually trust friends. It’s instinctive. Because I am attracted to other men, I grew up believing that friends would disown me if they knew. (Looking back, realistically, I think this is what would have happened.) I learned not to get too close to people; and though all my adult life I have been open about my sexual preference, this mistrust is something I have never unlearned. I have a deep-seated conviction that people will turn on me.

Finally, partners have been few and messy. I know people who are good at being loved. It simply happens to them. They meet someone and get into conversation. Soon they are living with this other person, sharing mornings, cups of coffee, time. I don’t know how to do this. I prescribe it to my family and the trauma of suppressing all romantic activity as a young man. Part of me was switched ‘off’ when my brain was supposed to learn how to love. Psychoanalysis aside: the result is that little of my life has been spent in a relationship; and none of it has been in a relationship where I shared a home with my partner. Most of the time, I go on holiday alone.

Now, I wasn’t planning on getting into a pity party – but look, this is what happens when you step into my brain. It follows its own route through a problem.

And it is important context. I look around me and the friends, the couples I know are looking back through their photographs, to family, to school friends, to anniversaries, voyages – they laugh about “that time when”. Erin McKeown sings about this, in one of her songs. The lyric is something like “this is a moment to mark time by, we did that when, we did that by”. People mark time by the experiences they have with people. Companionship gives them pasts.

When I look back I often have no feel for what happened. What did I do when I was 25? I’m blank; it’s just blackness. And then I start to make out landmarks in the distance: but they’re mechanical things, “this was when I moved”, “this when I graduated”, “then when I broke my arm” – like periods in a timetable at school – not a human way of mapping life at all.

I’m wary of slipping into extremes. Obviously, I do have memories, many happy. I have shared good times, of course, warmly, with family, friends, loved ones. But in a sense that is true in language, if not quite to reality – true in the sense of what a memory means emotionally – I feel that, equally, large swathes of my past are substanceless. It is precisely the strength of my memories involving companionship that give me this conviction. Long periods of solitude simply do not give rise to the same mental footprint.

I’ve never been envious. But now, as I age, I resent them, these people who are built to be loveable and loved. I am jealous of their memories. And the sense that their futures can be built into memories, too.

I think the phenomenon is animal. It’s to do with knowing things are unobserved. If no-one sees them, the silly things, the funny things, delights – moments when I woke up and the world was white – or I was so tired that I wanted to cry – or I crawled into bed exhausted and rubbed my feet together under the sheets – they don’t matter. I can’t convey the weight of this idea adequately through language. It is: they are worthless. There’s a sense of helpless tragedy, thinking that no-one cared for these moments. They are like children, unloved, abandoned; they never found a hungry heart. Instead, they shrivelled and ate themselves into nothingness.

To me, this is one of the reasons that humans crave attention. Brains process life differently under observation. Lives are given a curious sort of tangibility, a worth.

I toyed with ending this post on a positive counterbalance – that “lonely people make thoughts in different ways”. A sort of trade for a gaunt memory: you think more independently. But it’s too neat. I don’t think it’s true. Some lonely people are dynamic, thinking individuals; others fill their lives with diversions from consciousness, escape from boredom, from lack. Similarly, some couples are extraordinarily bovine, crunching down on toast in unison, thought and conversation dominated by the next tranche of cheese; whereas others form an engine of mutually reinforcing mental activity, firing one another into exploratory ideas.

I’ll end with a reflection on where I do make memories. This isn’t just a source for lonely people. But we may be drawn here more than others. It is: stories. I remember all the stories.

I remember the night that I cried when the Naughtiest Girl in the School was so unfairly blamed for being bad when she was good; I remember the fox teaching the little Prince, what it means to tame and to allow oneself to be tamed; Jean Genet and his sperm-covered mountaintops; Lucy Snowe, seeing herself in the mirror, that “giftie”; and I remember the madwoman, who is also me, listening to the little girl at dinner, finally on her way, at last part of a story, and thinking fiercely, “you must never let them take away your cup of stars”.

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