Loneliness And The Strange Alone-Togetherness Of The Internet Age

By July Westhale

I n Swann’s Way, Proust (and Lydia Davis, who translated it) talks about sleep as a lived, real experience that affects waking, that affects the day, that affects the shape of a life. If you sleep hard enough, the map of your brain will slip away, disorient itself, and you will wake not knowing where you are, or what has happened.

What is real and what is not.

It has been three years, but still, the map of my brain will lose its compass from time to time. This morning I woke late, heaving from a dream in which I’d been yelling. In the dark, landless dreamscape, Charlie was asking me to officiate her wedding, which would take place that evening on the Long Island Sound.

I had only come to reclaim my vacuum, hoping to slip in and out of their garage without being noticed. But Glory was there to sweetly greet me; she was adorned in a hand-sewn apron with yellow apples on the hem. So sweet. Always. Would I like to stay for dinner? Would I like to see their recent vacation pictures? Would I like to see Glory’s hand-drawn ovulation chart, hanging by the nightstand? Would I like to see the new vacuum, which is not refurbished like mine, and is a deep, bruise-colored purple?

Glory does not seem upset by my yelling. I am hollering in the garage, which is making incomprehensible echoes of my words — I really just want my vacuum, thanks — so that I seem a toddler, so that I seem I am throwing a tantrum. Outside the garage, it is a perfectly sunny day. Charlie hears me — who wouldn’t? — and comes into the garage with a wide, warm embrace, which I sidle out from under.

Won’t I stay for dinner? Did Glory offer to show me their trip to Maui? Do I remember when we went, how something in the sand had given me a terrible rash, and I’d swollen up like a fat starfish? Wasn’t it so funny now, my red leg, painful to the touch, hot as a flush of shame?

Am I sure I wouldn’t like to see the plans for the baby’s room? And, taking me aside, hooking her long blonde fingers through my untameable hair, whispering, “Please officiate the ceremony. Please be a part of our family. You’re the only one who. . .”

Insert here: [understands my history, forgives me, understands how sick I’ve been]. Selfishly, I want her to say, has saved my life, has given of yourself, but know that will lead to just give a little more, just a little.

Look at the new, hand-stenciled designs Glory has painted on the kitchen, little yellow apples. Look at the cherry galette — am I sure I won’t stay? — look at the station wagon, it is a perfect fit, we traded in the old Honda, it was rusted through the bottom, from the Utah years —

I know, I am yelling, and everyone is maddeningly, cheerily, unbearably calm. It used to be mine.

I wake up feeling childish.

I Google: help for people who have been left by other people for other people

I Google: why, dreams

I Google: Swann’s Way

I Google: does anyone else feel like Proust is an asshole

The problem isn’t really the dream, here. It’s the lack of information, or the lack of — not closure, per se, but more like the lack of a definitive ending. And not even the lack of a definitive ending, but the lack of an ending that seems fair or just.

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This past Spring, I wrote a book about generational research and theory for the publishing company I work for. The major crux of the book was about the current generational landscape within a socio-economic lens — what had happened in previous generations, and how does it help determine the context for young folks these days? We went around and around, on conference calls from different parts of the world, time zones, and generations.

It is enough information to generate a book (and, obviously, did), but I’ll reduce it here to say that we determined that fragmentation (which is what is currently happening in the generation that is turning 18 this year) necessitates a response of pluralism.

If we determine that my year of research is a) true and b) applicable here, then that would mean that it can be used as a template for talking about alternative endings or means. Meaning, two endings can be considered equally weighted, and if not entirely true, at least marginally satisfying.

Which is how I began Googling my problems. I wasn’t interested in an answer, exactly. I was more interested in seeing the multiplicity of potential answers, erroneous or otherwise. I didn’t take them particularly seriously (think of it as using WebMD to diagnose a mysterious illness, and having the ensuing panic lead you to think and rethink all possibilities).

I found myself, following my break up with Charlie, spending a lot of time analyzing my dream using internet search engines. It was a bit like BabbleFish-ing my brain. Insert a narrative that is elusive enough to be almost another language, and end up translating it so literally it is nonsensical. Again, the answers weren’t necessarily the destination — rather, I found the existence of information, however tangential, wholly reassuring. Think here, too, about the bizarre juxtaposition of interpreting dream analysis and Proust utilizing Google and Yahoo group forums.

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Which leads me to think about human connection in the digital age — about which much has been written, and about which I’m not going to extrapolate, save to say that the prevalence of resources and alone-togetherness of the internet has changed the landscape of trauma and breakups, as well as what can be a source of strange comfort. If you grew up when I did, at the onslaught of AOL chat rooms, you could enter any one of them and immediately ask the positionality of your virtual peers — age, sex, location? Chat rooms themselves are based on the idea of alone-togetherness.

“What replaces a person immediately after the loss of that person?” I remember asking my friend Francesca in the month A.C. (after Charlie).

“I’d say poetry, but I’m not sure you’re ready yet. Try Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” she’d said, in all seriousness.

My therapist, who has made a cameo in nearly ever article I’ve written on this side and should probably be given her own byline, responded to this question by dropping a load of audio recordings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes reading fables. She reads to a large audience, I gather, who are sharing space in their grief — I can hear them breathing in the recording, and clapping hesitantly —

I Google, “How do you clap at loneliness?”

I Google, “breathing together through the internet”

I Google “Google translate dream interpretation”

There hasn’t really come a time yet, despite healing and distance from the various tribulations I’ve undergone, where I’ve stopped talking to internet search engines as if they’re real people whose advice I take seriously. But I still talk. It reminds me of how, for a year following my friend Sean’s overdose, I called his cell phone to hear his voicemail recording.

We call and call, and they never answer, or when they do, they don’t have answers for us. Which is, ultimately, ok — the existence of information proves the existence of a thing: a dream, a wound, a love, a memory.

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