My friend Kelsey doesn’t recommend getting dumped on your birthday. Valentine’s Day, I’ve heard, is also unideal. And while I can’t endorse breaking up on vacation in Hawaii with your entire family either, that ex and I doremain close friends, so perhaps there are worse ways to go than crying about irreconcilable differences over piña coladas.
But the quarantine breakup — this varietal I urge you to avoid. Don’t order it from the breakup menu. And while you’re at it, don’t fall in love during a pandemic at all. Don’t share your 15 rolls of toilet paper. Don’t make his and hers face masks. Don’t, only four dates in, learn to cook his grandmother’s recipes and unburden your deepest fears.
Because if you get dumped, there will be no healing disco at Oil Can Harry’s in Studio City. No nourishing 3 p.m. veggie combo at Awash on Pico Boulevard, the Ethiopian elders playing their abstracted game of musical chairs, somebody’s grandfather eventually joining your table-for-one and handing you the slice of a stranger’s fluffy white birthday cake that you didn’t know you needed. In quarantine, there will be none of the usual comforts. And no amount of hearing your loved ones compressed into bits on FaceTime can quiet the echo of your body alone in the same room, day after day.
If you break up in quarantine, you will be profoundly, incurably alone.
That’s how I found myself this spring. First I turned to the old Midwestern tradition of being hard on myself, convinced that my loneliness was evidence of a failure to become that self-possessed, self-sufficient woman who needs nothing more than a room of her own. In a delicious act of self-flagellation, I meticulously documented my failure to thrive in solitude. As the journal entries and cellphone video logs accumulated, a self-portrait emerged, set in this newly shrunken world. I turned it into the film above.
I called it “How to Be Alone.”
The title is facetious. I grew up in a packed house in Illinois with my parents, sisters, cousins, grandmother, cats and a bloated beagle. We shared bedrooms. Slept in bunk beds. It was never quiet. Now, when it comes to navigating isolation as an adult — I’m lost.
My Sindhi father balks at the American fixation on self-reliance; this idea that needing support is a character deficit. America screams at us: You should be able to secure your own billion dollars, afford your own health care, pay for your own education! Sometimes the message is overt, other times it hums under the surface, but I always hear it: a harsh voice asserting that any tendency for interdependence is a sign of weakness, laziness, immorality.
The problem with this perspective, my dad calmly points out, is that it rails against our biology; we evolved as social animals who rely on groups to provide safety and nurture offspring. To structure a society or a culture in denial of our own nature is obtuse and futile.
We didn’t evolve to survive alone.
But the idea that I was deficient bloomed insidiously within me. So, as the daughter of two scientists, I looked for comfort in the data. I fell into a JSTOR rabbit hole, poring over articles about the psychology of isolation. Which is how, setting out to make this film about quarantining alone, I ended up in Antarctica.
Polar psychology is the study of Antarctic dwellers and how ICE (isolated, confined and extreme) conditions impact them psychologically. Drawing from a century of data, the field’s findings have informed coping strategies for individuals experiencing the total loss of normalcy and routine endemic to many extreme ways of life: on the white continent, in space and, as it turns out, quarantine.
I began obsessively collecting polar psychology facts. I covered my apartment floor with neon notecards that read “leave the lights on — darkness amplifies isolation” and “make a schedule and stick to it every day.” I had been seeking advice on coping in quarantine, but to my surprise, the greatest comfort came from the historic depictions of loneliness and disorientation. Perhaps it was expansive tundra or glittering galaxies staring back at our predecessors and not the crumbling red stucco of my back alley, but their fundamental aches were not unlike mine. We had the same lump in our throats.
For the first time since my pandemic breakup, I felt less alone.
I began thinking of the present as future history. Considering humans I will never know — a 27-year-old woman in the year 2120, braving whatever hardship her century holds in store and looking back on our current moment as distant past. I wondered how I might leave behind something to comfort her, just as the century-old logs of Antarctic expeditioners had given me solace.
My film is a dispatch to that 27-year-old of 2120. I hope it finds her somehow, and helps her know there are words for what she is feeling.
As for myself, I finally made human contact last weekend in L.A. I introduced myself to my neighbors, and we sat out front on a patch of parched grass. We discovered that we’re all Midwesterners — from Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois — and chatted using that new color in the small talk palette: How have you been coping during coronavirus? When I told them I got dumped in quarantine, Wisconsin gasped and one of the Indianas cooed maternally.
The discussion drifted to our delightfully eccentric landlady, our broken washing machine, how you can hear everything that’s happening in everyone’sapartments — every phone call, every sneeze.
“I thought it would annoy me when I first moved in,” I said. “But I actually kind of like it.”
“Me too,” said Wisconsin. “Reminds you that you’re not alone.”
By Sindha Agha
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