2014: the Year I Learned How to Be Alone

It’s a rather empty night in Vancouver. The buses still run, the stores still sell, but the whole city feels empty, like they’d cut the whole population in half but left the icy mountains and the vast endless sea. On the one hand, it makes sense (people have families in other places, celebrating Christmas over there or somewhere warm), but then again, this is New Year’s—isn’t there supposed to be drunken revelry, fireworks, songs? Walking up my street, just me and the expansive blue of the sky, I could hear my heart beat in the vacuum, distant cars rushing away like the rustle of leaves. It felt like I was a character in a Sci-Fi, timewarped into the distant future or a parallel universe where all the humans have left but their houses remain, untouched and pristine. Just me in my city of model houses.

Pristine, gorgeous, empty
Pristine, gorgeous, empty

It probably is a little less busy than usual out here, everyone taking advantage of the holidays to take naps before the big blowout a few hours later. But twenty-four hours ago I was home. Between three floors and two Christmas trees, my house during the holidays is a cacophony of noise: in the basement, one brother playing his chapel organ stylings that sound like a soundtrack to a Wes Anderson movie; top floor other Brother shredding up his guitar to Strokes and Stripes; in between my parents carry on the same pattern of banter they’ve (probably) been swinging through for twenty-five years—Dad making one awful British joke after another, Mom making loud sighs and shaking her head. Music forms the roots of our home, and whenever I return to the Vancouver basement suite all I can hear is the very absence of sound, a physical silence that always sinks through my body, pulls me down with it.

So it feels, in these early evening hours, like I’m bringing in the New Year alone. In a lot of ways that makes sense, symbolically speaking: 2014 was the year I learned how to be alone.

Not to say I don’t have plans later tonight: in a couple hours its coffee with the Best Friend, catching up after a too-long break, then a series of plans that are probably too many already. Just what I expected, really. But as every other New Year’s Eve has been spent at home, sitting by the fire while my Mom plays her Lorena MckEnnit CDs and I get the chance to go through all the “Absolute Tops” and “Terrible Lows” of the year. It sure is different this time around: right now I’m on the 99, riding it just to feel like I’m getting somewhere as I write away (writing while riding: could be a good 2015 activity, using the last of that U-Pass, watching the world scale away outside these slotted windows). It’s just a very different sort-of new year’s.

A year ago I wouldn’t have been able to do this: jump onto a bus without any idea where to go, ready for anything if it meant getting out of that damn basement. But that was what 2014 specialized in, for better and for worse. It’s probably the key reason why 2014 had more highs, lows, greater risks and greater rewards than any other year. It’s the year I feel—now, as the year reaches its prickly end—that I finally am going somewhere, that I finally am earning, finally crafting an identity. It’s also the year I had a mental breakdown. 2014 was the first time I didn’t spend the summer in Winnipeg, first time I didn’t break the loneliness with a return trip back to the family. I’ll probably look to it and see it as the first year I really began to grow up.

Tonight does a pretty good job mirroring my first 2014 night back in the city, sprinting across a city I didn’t want to be in to meet friends at a bar I didn’t want to pay for. I was there–with them, in the bar—but I also wasn’t: dreaming of the narrow boulevards and smoky underground bars of Paris while we sat in one of your crappy lounge bars in Gastown. That would be the rest of my term, wandering through, spending my nights in the stone towers of Gage, watching other lives buzzing on other floors. I constantly wanted to be around my friends at every hour of the day, lashing out at them when they had—well, you know– lives to live and were unable to meet me. The irony was that when the weekend rolled around and I actually had them with me, I’d make sure to drink myself into oblivion just so I could be somewhere else.

MOUNTAINS

That four months was an unbroken pattern, where during the week I’d be happy enough, rushing to classes I was loving, reading the books commenting in class, not really worrying about the silence on the other side of the door. But then, every Friday afternoon that gray would creep in and take over. Every weekend I knew it would be the same: the isolation at the kernel of my life here. The only hiccup in it was Reading Break at my friend’s cabin, a wonderful four day extravaganza of drinking, bonfires, and general Canadian activities like skiing and ice skating. But when we drove back into Vancouver and I saw the cascade of rainbow lights greet me through the window, the city had never looked so menacing, and I knew I was entering something darker than before, and I’d be facing it by myself.

Being alone is almost impossible to really define in the 21st Century. We’re always electronically connected to the rest of the world, so that it’s never been easier for a traveller like me to stay connected with all the incredible people he’s met across the world. I message a friend and skype with them (time zones permitting) with the fastest ease; I can snapchat all of them about how much fun I’m having without them. Of course this comes with a price: by digitally connecting with that person, I’m leaving a piece with them. I never hated Vancouver so much, in those initial months back, than on the days when I’d skype my old roommates who were still in Paris, still living The Life with me now only drifting in from the digital periphery.

So then there’s me, living a split existence between the two planes, where the digital life is always tantalizing-but-dissatisfying and half-formed, while physical life in Vancouver is always hollow, like I’m floating through it. I remember a massive lantern lighting festival on the beach one of the first few weeks back (a strange, unintended festival which accidentally combined Ukrainian memoriam and the Chinese Lantern Fest), where thousands of lanterns were set free. Spirits flew across the night sky, and me—my I-Phone blaring to the screeching guitars of My Bloody Valentine—was one of them, always floating just slightly beyond the water, always looking up but never quite being able to escape.

It’s no coincidence that the year I lived alone is also the year I properly developed a social media presence. It started from my attempt at getting a work learn in the spring, when a series of bosses (attempting to be ’forward thinking,’ ‘with the times,’ ‘Hip’) told me if I developed my twitter I’d be a better candidate. So in my feverous quest to reinvigorate my life that summer, I went overboard, creating blog posts, grooming a carefully managed twitter, and getting any app that seemed remotely relevant to at least half of my friends. Working at the Vancouver Observer with fellow ‘Social Media Experts,’ I pretended I had a clue about how any of it worked, pretended that the number of Twitter followers actually mattered—that these people followed me because they genuinely enjoyed my feed, and didn’t just want a follow from me as badly as I wanted one from them. Again it’s that double bind: it seems amazing that we have people across the world reading our shit, dictated on our terms. My own posts present an encompassed picture of a person that plays up or down certain moments for the world at large. The underside of all of this is that when everything becomes so important (every tweet, every insta on food, every snapchat about a music fest), nothing is. It’s never been so easy to weigh a human on a basic numerical scale: followers, re-tweets, and likes. The axes of influence, the dimensions of a person.

IMG_1262

And this was the year I bought into all of it, bought the I-Phone and the Mac, spending nights up with scrolling through my phone, head buzzing with the possibilities of the whole world in a tiny machine (“what’s the point of even sleeping?” to quote St Vincent). And it paid off, too: I got the unpaid internship, got the sweet Cultural Assistant job (now how’s that for a Millenial job name right there?), and finally got the paid internship. Beating out fourteen people for the position (trust me, going for UBC work learns is a vicious processimagine the jackal scene in the mall from Mean Girls), I think what finally put me above the rest was my comment about how Instagram can be used as a marketing tool. At that moment I’d fulfilled the yuppie dream: being ahead enough on the curve to use my pseudo-creative idea to the advantage of the market. And I’d won.

Getting that job in September commenced the most insane term I’ll ever have in university. On top of the ten-hour-a-week work learn, I was in five courses (one of which was run by a man who was absolutely fucking insane), writing a major French exam to get a degree requirement, and was the Social Coordinator for the English Students Association (yet another Millenial position, Liam). I say all this not at all to brag, but more just to reinforce how much I need to keep me going just so I don’t feel alone. I’d wake up on those Saturday mornings to run 8 AM classes for my work learn, sleep-deprived and hungover, and never feel better—there was a rawness to everything on those frosty November mornings, a feeling that I’m going somewhere, like I’m moving towards something real against the cloud software. In that strange airy euphoria which only running on three hours of sleep can bring, I’d imagined I’d never been so happy in my life. Coffee addled, running to stand still.

And maybe it’s true: maybe I’ve never been happier than I have been these days. I’m certainly excited about everything, ready to fight for things for once in my life (God, the world’s a fucked up place, but suddenly I might have a part—might be able to do something). But then again, it’s running. After all: by this point, it’s a mighty fine, mighty precarious tower of blocks I’m stacking for myself. How hard does the wind have to be to blow it all over? When it falls this time around—as it no doubt will—will I have the same strength I did in April to build it all back up again? It’s always me, in the end.

That being said, I thrive on cycles. Nothing is ever so beautiful as the moment it’s about to be taken away. I’ve never loved Vancouver as much as I do now– never loved its soulless glass towers, its hilariously snobby yuppies, or the way the mountains look in the different colors of the daylight—right this moment. And somewhere along the line in 2014, I began to love myself again (whatever “myself” might be). Now I can wander through these lonely streets and not be afraid of my own heartbeat, now I can ride that bus and write whatever crazy things my mind brings me. I’ve never spent so little time with my family, but now the time I do get the chance to spend with them is more cherished than it ever was before, meanwhile my friends in Vancouver have become a surrogate family, close the way only fellow travellers can be. At the start of this year, I came to Vancouver never being less sure of myself, and twelve months later I left for Winnipeg in the opposite frame of mind: 2014 was all just the pieces I’m using to build my Big 2015 Rocket—striking towards Japan or whatever pull Asia has in store for me.

THE CANADIAN EXPLORER
THE CANADIAN EXPLORER

I’m a 21st Century Kid, Globetrotting my way through life, with a zest for cultures and languages and knowing as many people as my brain can physically hold. It’s an adventure, one done alone (really, though, how many people travel together and don’t admit they’d rather have done most of it alone? You interact with those landscapes like you do with a novel: alone). I’ve been pushed towards this—these Asian dreams—as the result of my time, my place in this electronic capital-saturated world. Like the best of Millenials, I’m always putting myself first as I search ahead for Bigger-Better things.

Then again, there’s also something ancient about the pursuit. As an Irishman, there’s something mythological in the act of wandering. Since the 1800s, the Irish have left their home because they had to; because of famine, hatred for the English, hatred for their families. Often travelling alone in search of work in the New World, they left hating home but missing it will an all-encompassing sense of loss. There’s something ingrained within me that yearns for that kind of yearning. It’s seeing the world but it’s also that need to be separate in the first place. Leaving Vancouver: I’ve never been so excited and terrified at the same time, and as much as I feelt I’m gonna regret making this move (and spending half the time wherever I am next wishing I was back here), I know I have to. It’s a pull I can never properly justify or wish away.

But now that I’ve learned how to be alone, maybe it’s not so bad anymore. So thanks for that 2014; I may never want you back again, but you’ve been good to me. Now get out the door and make way for whatever 2015 has in store.

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One thought on “2014: the Year I Learned How to Be Alone

  1. Very interesting. Although, you’re never ever truly alone. Wish you all the best this 2015! Live the Fourth brother.

    – K43

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